Julie Schenecker Trial: Why Would a Mom Kill Her Kids?

Julie Schenecker Trial: Why Would a Mom Kill Her Kids?
Julie Schenecker
Jay Conner/The Tampa Tribune/AP

updated 05/05/2014 at 02:00 PM EDT

originally published 05/06/2014 09:50AM

Julie Schenecker sat motionless in court on Monday as she was confronted with her own words, written in a journal the day after she killed her two teenage children.

"I was planning a Saturday massacre," she wrote, "but had to wait on the waiting period…I offed Beau on the way to practice. There was a shot to his mouth, because he became so mouthy, just like Calyx. Calyx drove me to drink."

The onetime soccer mom, 53, now looks a decade older than in 2011, when she shot 16-year-old daughter Calyx and 13-year-old son Beau in their upscale Tampa neighborhood. Gone are the skinny jeans and blonde highlights, replaced with a fuchsia and black pantsuit, thick eyeglasses, and brown hair tied up in a loose bun.

Opening statements began Monday in the Tampa, Florida, courtroom in Schenecker's murder trial with the prosecution's dramatic reading from her diary. Since both sides agree that she pulled the trigger, the jury must decide the critical question of why she did it.

Was it, as prosecutors allege, a calculated murder by a narcissist whose marriage was crumbling? Or was she, as the defense contends, a bipolar woman whose mental illness finally got the better of her?

Either way, the trial promises to be a gut-wrenching ordeal. "It has been a long, long road to get to today," her ex-husband, Parker Schenecker, said before opening statements began. "Today and for the next couple of weeks, the focus is really on hearing Calyx and Beau's voices."

A Planned Pair of Killings?

On a sunny Saturday in January 2011, Schenecker took her son to soccer practice. After leaving the field, Schenecker – who had spent 10 years in the military – drove 40 miles to a gun store where she selected a .38 revolver and hollow point bullets. Appearing pleasant and relaxed, Schenecker chatted amiably with the clerk.

For the next few days, Schenecker's life seemed normal. She drove her children to school and made their favorite dinners. She sent breezy emails to her family, including Parker, an Army colonel who was deployed to Qatar. But then, after the mandatory five-day waiting period was over, she used the gun to kill her two children. When the children were dead, she put a Post-it note on the door, telling the people from her carpool group that the family had gone on a trip to New York.

Julie Schenecker Trial: Why Would a Mom Kill Her Kids?| Crime & Courts, Murder, True Crime, Julie Schenecker

Beau and Calyx Schenecker

AP

Both the prosecution and defense agree that Schenecker shot Beau twice in the head while driving him to soccer practice. Returning home, she found Calyx doing homework on the family computer. She shot her daughter once in the back of the head, and again in the mouth. When police found Schenecker the next day, she was lying on her patio wearing a bloodstained white robe; her breath smelled of alcohol.

In laying out the case against Schenecker, prosecutors allege the killings were planned. "She had a bad relationship with her husband and a bad relationship with her children," prosecutor Stephen Udagawa told the jury. "She was angry. She perceived her husband wanted a divorce. She was calculated."

In the journal, she addresses her ex-husband: "I could have done this anytime, even when you were here," she wrote. "I might have taken you out, too. That would be a crying shame."

As Udagawa read from Schenecker's journal, the 12 jurors and four alternates listened with rapt attention. They stared at Schenecker, but she would not meet their gaze.

Judge Emmett Battles had informed the jury that Schenecker was on "psychotropic drugs" and that they were not to allow her demeanor to shape their verdicts.

Insanity Defense

And when defense attorney Jennifer Spradley addressed the jury, she focused on Schenecker's mental state, but had a decidedly different take than the prosecution. "This is a tale of two mothers," she told jurors. "She was sick. She battled depression. The disease transformed Ms. Schenecker's life."

Spradley presented some surprises, causing a few of the jurors to take notes. "She was molested at 6 years old, and she testified in the trial," she said. "She was again sexually assaulted at age 17. She left the military after 10 years because depression was kicking in and because she wanted to start a family. She wanted to have six children, but Parker wanted to have two. After Beau was born, Parker had a vasectomy; she always wanted to have more children."

"It tore her to her soul," continued Spradley. "A mother and former soldier lost her battle with chronic mental illness. It took everything from her, including her children."

Schenecker faces two counts of first-degree murder. If she is convicted, she faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Her trial is expected to last two weeks.

Parker Schenecker told PEOPLE in 2011 that the family had been dealing with her illness for more than 20 years. "My wife suffered from clinical depression," he said at the time.

But to use the insanity defense, her lawyers have to prove more than depression. They have to convince the jury that Schenecker didn't know right from wrong at the time of the killings, usually a difficult task in trials and particularly in this one. Immediately after the shooting, Schenecker told police, "This is the worst thing I've ever done. I feel just horrible."

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