The Scheneker Trial: A Lesson in Mental Illness and Legal Insanity

By Reid Hart, Special for USDR

It took a jury just over 30 minutes to decide a verdict for a trial that lasted two weeks.  While America considered it a close case, it appears the jury never had any doubt.  The trial of Julie Schenecker came to a close on Thursday, May 15, 2014, after a jury convicted her of murdering her two young children.  The defense attempted to argue Ms. Scheneker’s diagnoses as being bipolar and manic depressive caused her to not know what she was doing on the day of the murders and was therefore not guilty by reason of insanity.  The State Attorney’s Office successfully argued Ms. Schenecker not only knew what she was doing, but knew that it was wrong and did it anyway.

It is a common misconception that if one has a mental illness and commits a crime, they have a case for arguing legal insanity.  In this case, six experts testified Ms. Scheneker was mentally ill, however the State’s experts testified she knew what she was doing when she shot and killed her children and therefore did not meet the definition of legal insanity.  Our criminal justice system does not simply allow mentally ill individuals to commit crimes under the auspice that the mental illness caused them to act irrationally.  Rather, our system focuses on the individual’s state of mind and whether the person knew what they were doing at the time they committed the act.  One who is bipolar may become irate quicker than others, but they are still aware that killing someone is wrong.  One who is depressed may not interpret the world around them the same as everyone else, but they still understand that shooting someone is wrong.  The State Attorney’s Office consistently approaches these cases by focusing on the individual’s own pattern of conduct in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the crime to show they acted in a calculated manner with a purpose and intent to accomplish the result they achieved.

In Ms. Scheneker’s case, the State Attorney’s Office placed focus on her journal, which appears to have sealed her fate in the eyes of the jury.  Since the verdict was announced, several jurors have made statements regarding the case and the jury’s verdict.  Nearly all of them have confirmed the significance of Ms. Schenecker’s journal detailing her actions in the weeks leading up to the killings.  In her journal, Ms. Scheneker discussed how the crimes were planned as well as her thoughts at the time of the incident.  It was a rare opportunity for the jury to enter the mind of the defendant and see the world from her eyes, a task often left to experts on each side.  In one interview, the jury foreman stated, “it’s true this lady has mental problems.  But that didn’t make her insane.  She gotta be insane at the time.  Not knowing what she was doing.”  Ms. Scheneker, although mentally ill, did not rise to the level of legal insanity.  She may have acted irrationally due to her illness, but she knew what she was doing was wrong and her journal entries expressed the anger and resentment she felt toward her two kids.  These emotions were made more evident when she said she shot her children in the mouth because they were “mouthy” or had a “sassy little mouth.” There may only be a small distinction between being mentally ill and legally insane, but it is certainly an important one.  For any juror to want to find someone not guilty of committing murder by reason of their mental illness they have to feel for that person.  They have to honestly believe that person was a victim of their illness and had no idea what they were doing or that it was wrong.  Ms. Schenecker made it clear through her own words that she was not a victim of her illness, but instead was acting on her anger and resentment toward her children.

Many people often question whether the State Attorney’s Office takes mental illness into consideration when making a decision to charge the mentally ill with a crime.  The short answer is yes, they do.  In Ms. Scheneker’s case, prosecutors likely considered her mental state when the decision was made not to pursue the death penalty.  By itself, the cold-blooded and calculated nature of the crime certainly provided the aggravating factors necessary to pursue the death penalty in her case.  This type of prosecutorial discretion in charging and sentencing decisions is where you typically see the most acknowledgment of mental illness by the State Attorney’s Office.  At times, prosecutors will concede that a defendant should not be held to the same standard of responsibility as a person who does not suffer from mental illness, but they are rarely if ever willing to say that person should not be held responsible at all.  Regardless of mental illness or defect, prosecutors and jurors alike are concerned with those individuals being in society, especially when standing accused of murder.  At trial, the jury acts as the guardian of society and in most cases finds the defense’s argument regarding legal insanity unavailing.  Though the defendant may be mentally ill, juries are hard pressed to find they are not guilty by reason of insanity, as made clear by this jury’s guilty verdict.

Defendants like Julie Scheneker have likely never received the help they truly needed.  This will remain true for future defendants as long as treatment in this nation focuses on pharmaceutical medication as opposed to treating the illness at its core.  This case was likely the first time Ms. Scheneker ever received any insight as to her medical conditions; a moment too late for her and her two deceased children.  Proper treatment may very well prevent the mentally ill from committing such crimes as they may be better equipped to handle the emotions and impulses they feel.  Short of that, we as a society will continue to be left picking up the pieces in the aftermath of yet another mental illness gone horribly wrong.

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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