TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Florida jurors on Thursday rejected the insanity plea of a former military linguist and longtime Army officer’s wife, convicting the 53-year-old of first-degree murder for shooting and killing her 13-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter more than three years ago while her husband was deployed.
Julie Schenecker, dressed in a gray suit with a button-down pink shirt, wiped her nose and eyes, then the bailiffs handcuffed her as the verdict was read after just more than an hour of deliberations. She started to cry. She was sentenced soon after to two life terms, fingerprinted and led away to prison.
Schenecker killed her daughter, Calyx, and son, Beau, in January 2011, while her now ex-Army officer husband, Col. Parker Schenecker, was on a 10-day deployment to the Middle East.
Schenecker told the judge she takes responsibility for what she’s done.
Through tears she said, “I know I shot my son and daughter. I don’t know why. But I have time to try to understand that.”
Prosecutors said that few days after buying a handgun, on the way to soccer practice in the family minivan, she shot Beau twice — once in the side of the head and once in his mouth. She turned around, drove home and parked in the garage. Schenecker approached Calyx from behind and shot her once in the head and once in the mouth.
Schenecker wrote about the shootings in her journals, saying that she shot both teens in “their mouthy mouths.”
If she had been acquitted by reason of insanity, she would be committed to a mental hospital until doctors and a judge agree that she is no longer a danger to herself or others.
She also said before sentencing that she believed in the U.S. judicial system and would accept her sentence. Judge Emmett Battles ordered that her life sentences be served at the same time, not consecutively, and there is no possibility of parole. The defense made no immediate mention of an appeal.
Earlier, prosecutors said Schenecker wrote in her journal that she wanted to kill herself and wanted to be cremated with her children, their ashes mixed together. She mentioned that she was going to try to move her son’s body into her bed and wanted to die next to him.
“Beau and I are going to heaven,” she wrote. “Wish heaven for Calyx too.”
Before she was sentenced, she also talked about her children.
“I know our children are in heaven. I want people to try to find comfort in believing as I do that they are in no pain and they are alive and enjoying everything and anything that heaven has to offer…Jesus is protecting them and keeping them safe until we get there.”
Parker Schenecker and his mother, who sat side-by-side for much of the trial, looked sad and exhausted as the verdict was read. Julie Schenecker’s sister cried softly. Parker Schenecker, who testified that his wife’s mental illness was a constant “drum beat” in their 20-year marriage, read a brief statement after court.
“It’s been a trying time for all of us,” the 51-year-old career officer said. “Today’s decision for many reasons gives my family a great relief.”
He said his focus has always been on his children.
“Giving voice to them has been my top priority to this process,” he said.
All six mental health experts who testified said Schenecker was mentally ill, but three experts called by prosecutors said she was legally sane when she shot her children. When her psychiatrist was on the stand earlier in the trial, she shouted: “Liar!” in response to him saying that he had told her not to drink while taking drugs to control her bipolar disorder.
Defense attorneys said Julie Schenecker is so affected by bipolar disorder and depression that she doesn’t know right from wrong. Under Florida law, the inability to tell the difference is one of the criteria for a not guilty by reason of insanity plea.
Her attorney, Jennifer Spradley, told jurors during closing arguments that they needed to consider Schenecker’s state of mind when she pulled the trigger.
“Her mind is clouded. She didn’t choose this illness — it chose her,” Spradley said. “When she wasn’t sick, she was a good mother.”
Experts testifying for the prosecution, however, said Schenecker was calculating and deliberate when she bought the .38-caliber handgun days before the killings, along with more-lethal hollow bullets. In her journal, she lamented the three-day wait for a background check, writing she had planned a weekend massacre.
Prosecutor Jay Pruner told jurors in his closings that Schenecker was “desperate, depressed, angry, but very determined.” He said she was despondent over what she thought was the inevitability of divorce from her husband. The couple met in 1990 when he was a young officer and she was a military interrogator in the Army and married a few years later. They divorced after the killings.
“These were deliberate, well-planned, well-implemented and well-concealed homicides,” Pruner said.