Will a defense of insanity work?

Julie Schenecker, a woman from New Tampa, faces the trial that will determine the rest of her life today. Schenecker had been found lying on the patio of her New Tampa home in 2011, with blood on her hands and bathrobe. Her two children were also found that day: her 16-year-old daughter Calyx was upstairs with two gun shot wounds to the head, and her 13-year-old son Beau was found fatally shot in her family van, still belted into the passenger seat. Will the jury find her defense of insanity viable? Or will she end up in prison for the rest of her life?

Schenecker, 53, had no criminal record but she had a lengthy history of severe depression and bipolar disorder. It was reported that she had been on antipsychotic drugs long enough to develop a condition that would make her whole body shake and twitch. Proof of this disorder surfaced merely hours after her children had been killed when she referred to them as if they were alive, asking detectives "are my kids coming in later?" After her attorneys decided on the insanity defense, there was only one question left: would the jury accept the defense?

Stories of juries rejecting insanity defenses for violent schizophrenics and defendants who have been in and out of mental hospitals are mass. The last time a Hillsborough jury acquitted someone by reason of insanity was more than two decades ago. One of the defense attorneys in the successful 1990 insanity defense case, Barry Cohen, stated that "most people think it's a lot of hocus pocus." Cohen's client, Dorothy Dianne Rose, was accused of strangling her two toddlers with a bathrobe sash. However, Rose was never declared insane by a jury; a judge declared her insane instead. The jury did find another defendant insane that same year in a later case. Claire Moritt was on trial for drowning her newborn son in a dormitory toilet. The jury found her criminally insane because Moritt was unaware she was ever pregnant and went into shock during the delivery.

In order for the jury to find Schenecker insane, she will have to pass the M'Naghten standard, a commonly used test that asks whether she knew what she was doing, and if she knew, whether she understood it was wrong. Schenecker's chances could be better because the prosecution has decided to seek a life sentence, rather then the death penalty because of her history of mental illness. By waiving that right, the prosecution has forfeited what's typically seen as a significant advantage: a jury open to the possibility of sentencing someone to death. Such juries are seen as more likely to convict.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, Trial starts today for New Tampa mom who shot her kids dead - and an insanity defense is a long shot, Anna M. Phillips, 4/28/14

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