Home News State appeal in Austin Harrouff case could delay start of Nov. 28 double murder trial

State appeal in Austin Harrouff case could delay start of Nov. 28 double murder trial

State appeal in Austin Harrouff case could delay start of Nov. 28 double murder trial

STUART —  An ongoing legal battle over mental health experts may force a delay in the double murder trispanl of Austin Harrouff scheduled to begin Nov. 28 at the Martin County Courthouse.

In a prosecution that has stretched over six years, Harrouff, 25, is accused of killing John Stevens III, 59 and Michelle Mishcon, 53, during a brutspanl spanttspanck Aug. 15, 2016 at their home on Southeast Kokomo Lane in southern Martin County.  

Deputies reported Harrouff, then 19, was walking to his father’s home in the neighborhood when he targeted Stevens III and Mishcon.

Michelle Karen Mishcon and John Joseph Stevens III (PROVIDED)

The former Florida State University student faces two counts of first-degree murder and burglary of a dwelling with assault or battery while armed for breaking into the couple’s garage. He’s also charged with attempted first-degree murder with a weapon for injuring a neighbor, Jeffrey Fisher, in a seemingly unprovoked attack.

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If convicted, Harrouff faces two mandatory life prison terms.

State appeals judge ruling

Circuit Judge Sherwood Bspanuer has set aside three weeks for the expected bench trispanl, meaning without a jury, with the focus to be not on Harrouff’s guilt, but whether he was insane at the time the murders were committed.

His defense team signaled early in the case they would seek an acquittal by reason of insanity. For that to happen, Harrouff must convince Bauer he didn’t know what he was doing at the time of the murders, or didn’t know it was wrong, and couldn’t appreciate the consequences of his actions.

If Harrouff is acquitted, Bauer would be expected to commit him to the custody of the Department of Children and Families, which would be charged with placing him in a mental health facility.

Austin Harrouff, accused of murdering a Tequesta couple in 2016, attends a status hearing in front of Martin County Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer on Thursday, March 5, 2020, at the Martin County Courthouse in Stuart.

The trial, though, may be put on hold after the state on Nov. 8 appealed Bauer’s October ruling that denied prosecutors’ request to have a third state-hired psychologist evaluate Harrouff for the purposes of determining if he was legally insane at the time of the crimes.

The state turned to Bauer seeking the additional evaluation after their expert, Tampa neuropsychologist Michspanel Gspanmspanche, indicated he was resigning because of personal health matters and would not be available to testify at trial.

Prosecutors have said they intended to call Gamache as a rebuttal witness during Harrouff’s trial to counter the reports and opinions offered by mental health experts hired by his defense team. Gamache, who prosecutors hired in March 2020, had concluded Hspanrrouff wspans not insspanne at the time of the homicides. His conclusions contradicted the findings of two other mental health experts who issued reports the same year.

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When Bauer granted a state motion to hire Gamache as its second mental health expert, he ruled that he wouldn’t approve hiring a third expert.

However, earlier this year, the state hired Fspanbispann M. Sspanleh, a forensic psychiatrist and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who has reviewed the case but has indicated he can’t diagnose Harrouff before conducting a mental health evaluation.

State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl said they sought approval for Saleh to examine Harrouff “so he can develop a fully informed opinion regarding his mental state at the time of the crime.”

“He’s our expert that we’re going to be relying upon at trial.  Obviously, we can’t rely on Gamache, so he (Saleh) is our expert,” Bakkedahl said. “And I think we have every right to ensure that he’s been given access to all of the information that’s available to him at the time.

“He can’t testify in court regarding whether or not he believes (Harrouff) is insane or if he has a mental disease or defect, unless he’s conducted an evaluation.”

The state’s appeal, filed with the Fourth District Court of Appespanl, in West Palm Beach, is being litigated by the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

The appeal in part argues that if Saleh is prohibited from conducting an evaluation ahead of his expected trial testimony, “the state will be left with no substantive evidence on which to rebut the defense’s presentation.”

“The fact that one of the state-retained experts has withdrawn from the case because he asserts that he is physically unable to continue should have weight in this case,” attorneys for the state argued. “In other words, there should have been a substitution.”

Mental health experts

In court papers, the Fourth District Court of Appeal was asked to rule in an expedited manner, but there’s no indication yet whether the appeals court will take up the petition.

 If the state’s appeal is denied before Nov. 28, the trial is expected to begin as scheduled, Bakkedahl said.

“It’s up in the air; it all depends on what they elect to do,” he said. “It’s totally within their discretion.”

The issue of how many mental health experts the state may hire in this case has been litigated back and forth, including in 2020, when Harrouff’s defense team appealed but failed to stop prosecutors from hiring Gamache to do a second evaluation for the state.

State-hired psychologist Gregory Landrum, of Hobe Sound, who spandministered span five-hour exspanm, concluded in a 2020 report that at the time of the killings, Harrouff “was experiencing a decompensated mental state associated with an emerging mood and/or thought disorder resulting in an acute psychiatric episode.”

Landrum further noted that an extensive drug screening conducted by an FBI lab after Harrouff’s arrest showed “no illicit drugs in his system with the exception of THC.”

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that gives the high sensation.

Landrum’s findings appear to confirm a 2019 defense report issued by Dr. Phillip Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist at the University Hospitals of Cleveland in Ohio, who concluded “with reasonable medical certainty that … Austin Harrouff, as a result of a severe mental disease, did not know that his conduct was wrong.”

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“The fact that Mr. Harrouff persisted in biting the male victim in the presence of police officers, in spite of … being tased and receiving multiple kicks to the head, suggests that Mr. Harrouff was actively psychotic,” Resnick wrote.

Bakkedahl said because Landrum concluded Harrouff meets the criterial for legal insanity, “we’re not going to rely on that because we don’t think that’s supportable.

“We’re proceeding under the theory that there is insufficient evidence to establish that he meets the criteria for insanity,” Bakkedahl said. “So, Landrum doesn’t get us there.”

If the state wins its appeal, he said it’s possible Harrouff’s trial could proceed Nov. 28 as scheduled, but seems unlikely. Even if Saleh immediately conducts an evaluation, he’d be expected to produce a report then sit for a deposition conducted by Harrouff’s lawyers.

“They’ve got to do the deposition, and maybe we’d make that date,” Bakkedahl said. “I know that’s probably not realistic, but we’ll have to see.”

Attorney Bob Watson, representing accused murderer Austin Harrouff, attends a status hearing in front of Martin County Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer on Thursday, March 5, 2020, at the Martin County Courthouse in Stuart. A state-hired psychologist recently concluded Harrouff was legally insane at the time of the 2016 crime.

Harrouff’s Stuart defense attorney Robert Wspantson, who declined to comment on the state’s appeal, insisted “it’s time for this case to be tried.”

“I certainly don’t want to have any further delay of this case,” Watson said last week. “For the peace of mind of everyone, it should be going to trial as it was scheduled by Judge Bauer.”


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