By Matt Wiley
Following a nearly three-week-long trial, the verdict is in: Julie Schenecker is guilty in the first-degree murder of her children Calyx and Beau in their Tampa Palms home on January 27, 2011.
Around 8 p.m. on May 15, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett L. Battles read the guilty verdict to the courtroom. The jury found Schenecker, 53, guilty of both counts of first-degree murder after barely two hours of deliberation. A few minutes after reading the verdict, Battles commenced sentencing, but allowed Schenecker, who pleaded not guilty under an insanity defense, a chance to make a statement.
“I apologize for what happened, what I did,” Schenecker said through tears. “I take responsibility. I was there. I know. I know I shot my son and daughter. I don’t know why, but have time to try to understand it.” She added that she hopes everyone whose lives she knows she either destroyed or affected can take comfort in knowing that the children are in heaven and not in pain.
“It’s almost too much for most to comprehend, what brings us here,” Judge Battles said, before reading Schenecker’s sentence of life in prison for both murders.
“Today’s decision, for many reasons, gives my family a great sense of relief,” said U.S. Army Col. Parker Schenecker outside the courtroom, following the verdict and sentencing. “As I’ve consistently mentioned during the past three years, the most important thing in all of this is Calyx and Beau, my lovely children. My smart, beautiful, loved and missed daughter and son.”
Parker also thanked the students, faculty and staff of both King High and Liberty Middle School (in Tampa Palms), where Calyx and Beau were students.
“While this decision doesn’t bring my children back, it does give our family an opportunity to move forward and honor their memory through the work that we’ve been doing with the Calyx & Beau (Schenecker) Memorial Fund and remembering how they lived,” Parker said.
Parker was twice called as a witness in the trial, first on the second day of testimony, during which he was questioned about his travel while serving in the U.S. Army and the time leading up to his deployment in January 2011. He told of the “strained relationship” between 16-year-old Calyx and Julie (who long has struggled with bipolar-1 disorder with psychotic features and depression) and how the two rarely got along that last year due to Julie’s severe depression and mental state. Parker said that when he asked Julie if she’d be able to handle caring for the kids in his absence, she looked him in the eye and said, “I got this.”
It was during his deployment that she drove to the Lock N’ Load gun store in Oldsmar to purchase the gun she used to shoot her 13-year-old son in the head and mouth on the way to soccer practice in the family’s van, before shooting Calyx the same way as she sat in front of a computer in the family’s Ashington Reserve home doing homework. She left Beau in the van, but moved Calyx to her bed, covering both in blankets.
Julie wrote about her actions explicitly in her journal, which was referenced throughout the case, especially by expert witness psychiatrists and psychologists who had worked with her in the past and knew about her struggle with severe mental illness.
It was up to the defense to prove that she did not know what she was doing or that she did not know the difference between right and wrong at the time the crimes occurred to successfully prove insanity. Schenecker’s actions, records of her actions and taped interviews with detectives following her arrest made that job extremely difficult.
“When someone is depressed, they see the world through those depressed eyes,” said Schenecker’s public defender Jennifer Spradley during her closing argument on May 15. “Her mind is clouded. She didn’t choose this disease.”
Throughout the trial, the defense leaned heavily on Schenecker’s history of mental health, multiple anti-psychotic medications and stints in mental health facilities and rehabilitation programs, including participation in a nine-month study at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, MD. At one point, psychiatrist Dr. Michael Maher told the court that she was prescribed up to ten medications at a time, including anti-depressants, anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety and mood-stabilizing pills.
Although Maher declared that he thought Schenecker was insane at the time of the murders, he said that she told him during an interview in February 2011 that she bought the gun to kill herself and the kids. Schenecker overdosed on a toxic dose of lithium, which she mixed with alcohol after shooting the children. She reportedly passed out before she could kill herself and was found by police on the back patio of the home unconscious in a bloodstained bathrobe on January 28. Just more than three years later, she officially will spend the rest of her life behind bars. She has 30 days to appeal.