FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A former college student who randomly murdered a Florida couple in their garage six years ago and then chewed on a victim’s face finally faces trial Monday, with a judge deciding whether to face life or prison. to a psychiatric hospital.
Austin Harrouff, 25, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to two counts of first-degree murder and other charges for his August 2016 murder of John Stevens, a 59-year-old landscaper, and his 53-year-old wife. Michelle Mishcon Stevens, who retired after working in finance.
The former Florida State University student has waived a jury trial, meaning Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer will decide whether Harrouff was insane when he killed the couple and seriously injured the neighbor who came to their aid.
The trial has been delayed by the pandemic, legal wrangling and Harrouff’s recovery from critical injuries sustained while drinking a chemical during the attack. It will be in Stuart, an hour’s drive north of West Palm Beach, and will last about three weeks.
Prosecutor Brandon White did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment. Harrouff’s lead attorney, Robert Watson, declined to comment.
Under Florida law, defendants are presumed to be sane. For Harrouff’s defense to succeed, Watson must show that he had a serious mental breakdown that caused him to misunderstand his actions or that they were wrong by “clear and convincing evidence”. Harrouff has said he was on the run from a demon when he attacked the pair.
If convicted, Harrouff will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole; prosecutors waived the death penalty.
If Harrouff is declared insane, Bauer will commit him to a secure mental institution until doctors and a judge agree he is no longer dangerous. That would effectively also be a life sentence, said Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami, because “it is highly unlikely” that doctors and a judge would risk trying to catch as infamous a killer as Harrouff. to release.
Two mental health experts, one hired by prosecutors and one by the defense, examined Harrouff and found that he had suffered an acute psychotic episode during the attack. They also discovered that he could not distinguish between right and wrong.
Prosecutors then hired a second expert who said Harrouff was healthy, but recently withdrew him saying he has serious health problems. They now have a third expert who believes Harrouff was on a drug that didn’t show up in post-arrest tests, but didn’t examine him.
Lea Johnston, a law professor at the University of Florida, said only about 1% of felony defendants attempt an insanity defense because the bar for success is so high. About a quarter of those pass, usually in a preliminary investigation where the prosecutors agree that the defendant’s mental illness is up to standard.
She said that for insanity defenses that go on trial, defendants who waive a jury have the most success. Judges understand the system, she said, while jurors often worry that defendants acquitted of insanity are more likely to be released. They may also wonder if treatment in a mental hospital works.
“There’s decades of research showing that (the public) is biased against the insanity defense and it’s widely misunderstood,” she said.
Harrouff’s attack made national headlines for its brutality and arbitrariness; he did not know the victims. He was a 19-year-old with no criminal record – a former high school football player and wrestler who was studying exercise science. He stripped naked and attacked the couple in their open garage using tools he found there. When the police arrived, Harrouff bit chunks off John Stevens’ face.
It took several officers, an electric stun gun and a police dog to subdue Harrouff. Officers didn’t shoot him for fear of hitting Stevens.
Harrouff almost died from chemicals he drank in the garage, which burned his digestive system.
Investigators found that he had bought some hallucinogenic mushrooms a few days before the attack, but friends said he destroyed them and no trace was found in his blood. He also did Google searches for “how do you know if you’re going crazy.”
Harrouff’s parents, who are divorced, and others said he had been behaving strangely for weeks. His parents had made an appointment to have him evaluated, but the seizure happened first.
His father, Wade Harrouff, told TV psychologist Phil McGraw that on the night of the murders, his son left a restaurant where they had eaten without explanation. He walked three kilometers to his mother’s house and tried to drink cooking oil. Mina Harrouff stopped him, but he poured the oil into a bowl of Parmesan cheese and ate it.
She brought him back to the restaurant. Wade Harrouff, a dentist, told McGraw that he grabbed his son and said, “What’s the matter with you?” He said his son raised his fist, but Wade Harrouff’s girlfriend told him to stop and he left.
The restaurant’s security video shows Austin Harrouff calmly leaving about 45 minutes before the attack. Before his mother knew of the attack, she called 911 and told the dispatcher that her son appeared to be delusional, claimed to have superpowers, and that demons were in her house.
But it was too late – Harrouff walked or ran the four miles (six kilometers) to the Stevens’ house.
Austin Harrouff told McGraw that he escaped from a demon he named Daniel and has only vague memories of the murders.
He said he ran into Michelle Stevens in the couple’s garage. She screamed, and “then it’s a blur.”
“I don’t remember what she said — I just remember being yelled at,” Harrouff said. He said he took a machete but can’t remember why he killed her and her husband.
“It’s like it happened, but I wasn’t aware of it,” Harrouff said.