TAMPA — Julie Schenecker was deeply disturbed when she killed her children, defense experts testified Monday, was legally insane and didn’t understand what she was doing was wrong.
A psychologist and a psychiatrist testified Monday in Schenecker’s trial on charges she murdered her daughter, Calyx, 16, and son, Beau, 13, on Jan. 27, 2011.
Schenecker had a long history of serious mental illness that deteriorated in the months leading up to the killings, leaving her unable to get out of bed much of the time in the weeks before, the experts said.
“I think without a doubt that she was insane at the time of the shooting and during the week prior to the shooting,” said defense psychologist Eldra Solomon. “Sane people don’t kill their children.”
“She would not have killed her children but for the mental illness she suffered,” said psychiatrist Michael Maher, who acknowledged under cross examination that part of Schenecker’s motive was longstanding anger at her husband, Parker Schenecker, knowing killing the children would hurt him.
Solomon said Schenecker “loved being a mother.” And Maher said the defendant’s role as a wife and mother “was very important to her.”
The Saturday before the killings, Schenecker reported, she woke up with “a clear thought that she could kill herself that day and the reason was because she thought she could shoot her children and then shoot herself and the three of them could go to heaven together and be with God,” said psychologist Eldra Solomon. Schenecker “would save her children from all the things she thought would happen to them.”
Solomon said Schenecker thought she was saving her children from the legacy of a mother who committed suicide, from being sexually abused like she had been as a child and from suffering from mental illness like her. She also thought she was sparing Beau the disappointment of not achieving his dream of becoming a professional soccer player because he wasn’t good enough, Solomon said.
“She didn’t want to kill herself and leave the kids without a mother and that legacy,” Solomon testified.
Maher said Schenecker knew that when she pulled the trigger she was causing the deaths of her children, but she didn’t understand that was wrong.
The defendant was not thinking clearly about right and wrong, Solomon said.
“She told me that she never even thought about whether it was legal or illegal or whether it was right or wrong,” Solomon said. “She was totally focused on her plan, which was taking her children to God and they would have a better life. ... She was in a psychotic, drug-induced haze.”
Solomon said her opinion was not changed by the fact that Schenecker appeared normal when she went to the gun store five days before the killings and then returned the day of the shootings. She said it’s not unusual for someone who is psychotic to hide their symptoms from other people. “They can be on automatic pilot and know how to behave,” she said.
Solomon said Schenecker planned to take her own life. After shooting the children, she reloaded the gun to shoot herself, she said. But Schenecker planned to overdose on prescription medicine, too, so she wouldn’t fail to kill herself with the gun. But she fell asleep after taking the medications and was found by police before she could carry out her suicide plan, Solomon said.
Solomon cited several examples of what she described as psychotic thinking on the part of Schenecker:
• • About a year before the killings, Schenecker wanted to take her psychiatrist’s comb and get his DNA from it so she could use it to get pregnant at the age of 49 and give the child up for adoption.
• After the killings, she wasn’t convinced the children were dead.
• After the killings, she put blankets on the children’s bodies and spoke to them.
• She thought a SWAT team was coming to the jail in a helicopter to get her.
• She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t leave jail and go to the children’s funeral, offering to dye her hair and sit in the back of the service so no one would notice her.
Maher testified that Schenecker’s mental illness was so strong, it was not responding over the years to a varied “cocktail” of anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications. It was so resistant, he said, that doctors considered restarting drugs that had caused serious, potentially life-threatening side effects.
After a car crash in November 2010, Schenecker was admitted for substance abuse treatment to Windmoor Healthcare in Clearwater. Maher said when she was discharged, her illness was severe, and she was in need of in-patient treatment but didn’t receive it.
“There was a lapse in her treatment after she was discharged from Windmoor,” Maher said. Schenecker’s “underlying psychosis was getting worse,” her “social supports were deteriorating… All of the important things that helped her cope with her illness were deteriorating.”
Maher conceded under cross examination, however, that Schenecker “didn’t tell a soul about her plan before because she knew they would thwart it.”