On 27 January 2011, Julie Schenecker, a 50-year-old mother of two and Army Colonel’s wife, shot her two teenage children in the head at point-blank range in their home in Tampa, Florida. Found semi-conscious and covered in blood on her front porch by police, she mumbled the kids were “mouthy” and she had shot them.
Julie Schenecker’s mother had contacted police when she was unable to contact her daughter on that night. When police entered the family home they found 16-year-old Calyx Schenecker dead in her bedroom covered with a blanket and her brother 13-year-old Beau Schenecker dead inside the family’s car in the garage, both from gunshot wounds to the head. It is believed Julie Schenecker shot Beau twice as she was driving him to soccer practice before returning home, entering her daughter’s bedroom and killing her.
Arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder, Julie Schenecker stood trial in April 2014 which was streamed live across America. Her defence mounted an insanity plea while the prosecution argued she knew exactly what she was doing and knew without a doubt that those actions were wrong.
Julie Schenecker is a woman with a long history of mental health problems, suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts throughout her 20-year marriage to Parker Schenecker. During her trial, her husband testified both for the prosecution and the defence regarding his wife’s mental health. He spoke of visits to numerous doctors and participation in a 9 month clinical trial for depression held at the National Institute of Mental Health. In the months before the shooting, issues with alcohol abuse had become apparent with a period spent in residential rehabilitation in 2010.
Due to this history, the State Attorney’s Office did not feel the Supreme Court in Florida would support a death sentence. Furthermore, a jury is unlikely to sentence an individual to death when there is such an extensive background of mental illness.
As reported in the Tampa Bay Times before the start of her trial:
“After being provided overwhelming evidence of mitigation due to the mental health issues of the defendant, it was determined that the imposition of the death penalty in this case would not withstand the scrutiny of the Florida Supreme Court.”
Therefore, her trial proceeded with the prosecution seeking a guilty verdict for double murder and a life without parole sentence and the defence seeking a verdict of insanity and a sentence of detention within a psychiatric unit.
The case of Julie Schenecker rested on whether she was mentally ill at the time of shooting her children to the point where she did not understand what she was doing and that her actions were wrong. Key to the case was a journal found at the house on the night of the murders. In this journal were entries written in the weeks before the murders and some on the night after she had shot her children, both of which were heavily focused on during her trial.
Entries before the murders suggested she had planned to kill her children before herself so they would not have to live with the stigma of a mother who committed suicide. She also expressed concern that her children had inherited genes from her which would mean they too would struggle with mental illness and she wanted to save them from this experience.
These were journal entries which gave the prosecution clear evidence to argue these murders were pre-meditated. The prosecution highlighted her entries where she had written that she planned a “weekend massacre”, suggesting Julie Schenecker had planned these murders and they were entirely deliberate. The foreman of the jury, Charles Madison, commented after the trial, “Whenever you start writing a journal out about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, you can’t say you’re crazy.”
After two hours deliberation, on 15 May 2014, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on both counts of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
“I take responsibility. I was there. I know. I know I shot my son and daughter. I don’t know why but I have time to try to understand that.”
In 2015, one year after her conviction, Julie Schenecker spoke to ABC Action News reporter Sarina Fazan about her actions on that night four years before, her time in prison and the issue of mental health.
“I wanted the death penalty” she said. “I wanted to be punished.” What do you think happened? Sarina Fazan asked her. “I think the fact that I loved them so much that I had to protect them.” She responded. “I saved them. I protected them.”
While her full interview provides an insight into the woman behind this crime, her understanding of her actions and particularly her thoughts now she has been found guilty and sentenced to a lifetime in prison, there is an underlying message about mental health and the stigma which can prevent people from asking for help. Regardless of whether you believe her words on film, think she is deeply troubled and in need of help or you think she is evil and deserves the harshest punishment available, the issue of mental health is one which played a vital role in these murders.
As with the case of Andrea Yates who drowned all five of her children at home in the bathtub, it cannot be denied this woman has serious mental health problems and has done for a very long time previous to this horrendous act. It begs the question of whether with the right support and help with her mental illness, this terrible tragedy could have been avoided. She will now spend the rest of her life behind bars for taking the lives to two innocent teenagers and destroying her family and those closest to her in the process. “I have their photos. I look at them. I know they are alive in heaven and I talk to them and I write them and I just tell them that I’ll be there soon” she says. “I try to be as good as I can be so I can go to heaven.”