Defendant in 2016 Double Murder Case Not Guilty by Insanity
December 5, 2022 Don Pumphrey, Jr. Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Violent Crimes Social Share
Austin Harrouff was accused of brutally killing two people and seriously injuring one other in a seemingly random murder case in 2016. After years of gathering evidence and seeking the analysis of mental health experts, a Florida judge has just accepted a plea deal and ruled the defendant as not guilty by reason of insanity.
This article will cover the details of the case, along with information on insanity plea deals in Florida.
What was the Case?
On August 15th, 2016, Austin Harrouff was arrested for killing two people and injuring one other. A video posted on Twitter shows the 19-year-old walking out of a family dinner at a local restaurant. According to the report, Harrouff’s mother found him in her home acting strange and allegedly drinking cooking oil.
Harrouff’s mother drove her son back to the restaurant, but he got into another argument with his father and left again. Harrouff walked across the town until he came across John Stevens and Michelle Mishcon’s home.
The defendant allegedly stabbed and bludgeoned the couple to death inside their garage, using a pocket knife his father bought him the previous day at a gun show. During the attack, a neighbor, Jeff Fisher, intervened after hearing the loud noises. Fisher was stabbed as well but survived his injuries.
When the Martin County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived at the scene, they found Harrouff in his underpants, gnawing on Stevens’ face and grunting like an animal. According to the affidavit, it took a taser, a K-9 officer, and several other deputies to get Harrouff off of Stevens’ body and into handcuffs.
As they dragged him off the victim, Harrouff was shouting at the police, “(expletive) kill me, (expletive) kill me, shoot me now, I deserve to die.”
An autopsy conducted by a medical examiner ruled that Stevens and Mishcon’s deaths were a homicide. The cause of death for Stevens was multiple injuries, and Mishcon’s death was from blunt force trauma. Fisher suffered multiple stab wounds, a large cut to his head, a punctured wound to his lower back, and stomach bleeding that required exploratory surgery.
Harrouff was facing two charges of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder with a weapon, one count of resisting an officer without violence, and burglary of a dwelling while armed. If convicted, Harrouff could have been sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty.
Due to Harrouff’s seemingly random murder and the details of the brutal attack, police originally believed that illicit drugs could have triggered the attack. The police originally speculated that bath salts or flakka were involved, however, the toxicology reports later disproved this theory.
Harrouff’s attorneys have argued on his behalf that he was in the middle of an “acute psychotic episode” during the attack. According to the report, Harrouff’s mother contacted the police prior to the attack due to her son’s concerning behavior. Mina Harrouff specifically told police that Austin was claiming to have superpowers and that he was invincible.
Defense to Claim Insanity
Early in the case, Harouff’s defense team announced that they would seek an acquittal by reason of insanity. To determine the defendant was “insane” at the time of the crime, Harrouff had to convince the judge that he was not aware of what he was doing, nor could he realize his actions were wrong and could hold serious consequences.
Two psychologists were hired to examine Harrouff—one hired by the State and the other from the defense. Both expert witnesses determined that Harrouff was insane during the incident and that he had suffered from an “acute psychotic episode.” Dr. Phillip Resnick, a forensic psychologist who analyzed Harrouff, wrote a 38-page report claiming the defendant was suffering from “severe mental disease.”
Florida Statute section 775.027 explains that the insanity plea is an affirmative defense. Under the law, it is an affirmative defense to a criminal prosecution that at the time of the commission of the offense, the defendant was insane.
Insanity is established by the following:
- The defendant had a mental illness, disease, infirmity, or defect; and
- Due to this condition, the defendant:
- Did not know what he or she was doing or its consequence; or
- Although the defendant knew what he or she was doing and its consequence, the defendant didn’t know that it was wrong.
To find out more information about the insanity defense for a criminal trial, read our blog here. To find out how a mental health expert witness can help the defense in a criminal trial, read our blog here.
Testimonies from Victims’ Family
There were nearly two hours of impact statements from the victims’ families prior to Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer’s ruling. Cindy Mishcon—Michelle Mishcon’s sister—was the first to speak, in which she read off numerous text messages between Harrouff and friends. The texts took place over several months prior to the murders, and Harrouff often spoke about excessive drinking and nearly daily drug use.
In addition, Cindy Mishcon spoke of the recorded phone calls the defendant made from jail. Cindy claimed that Harrouff seemed to play down his role in the murders. “I quickly realized from listening to those calls that you don’t care…about how your actions have affected my family,” she said. “You don’t care about anyone but yourself. In fact, the only victim that you and your family see in all of this is you and the Harrouff name.”
When the topic of Harrouff’s mental state during the incident came up, Cindy insisted that the defendant was not insane and that the expert witness findings were “outright lies.”
Jodi Bruce, Michelle Mishcon’s other sister, also took the stand to address her disappointment with how long the case lingered. “I’m frustrated with the State Attorney’s Office and I’m upset that I don’t feel like anybody has paid attention or cared about this case in a way that they should have since day one,” Bruce said.
Bruce also stated that she felt the prosecution team had given up on the case as soon as they agreed with the defense to have a judge find Harrouff not guilty by insanity. “[The prosecution] completely gave up on my sister, and my brother-in-law and my family and in essence, the entire community,” Bruce said to Judge Bauer.
One of the last to speak was Ivy Stevens, John Stevens’ daughter. Ivy described how Stevens and Mishcon were great parents during her childhood and growing into adulthood. “I cannot begin to image how terrified [Mishcon] must have been when you attacked her,” Ivy directed to Harrouff. “Beat her, stabbed her, broke her nose, knocked out her teeth. Hit her so hard into the concrete you partially scalped her.”
After reviewing the information from the expert witnesses, Judge Bauer ruled that Harrouff was not guilty of the murders by reason of insanity. Bauer stated that the defendant would be involuntarily committed to the Department of Children and Families for placement in a secured mental health facility.
Both the State and the defense agreed that there was sufficient evidence for Judge Bauer to determine that Harrouff met the criteria for being considered legally insane. Judge Bauer also noted that the two mental health experts also agreed on Harrouff’s mental state during the murders. The decision cancelled the nonjury trial that would have begun on Monday.
In response to the not-guilty verdict, Cindy Mishcon said, “Here we are opening the prison doors for a double murderer…Four words come to mind: white rich boy justice.”
The following is a statement made by Ivy Stevens to Harrouff:
“I am so angry that this is the only way that I can remember them now. I’m angry that they won’t be remembered for the life they lived before you…You’re a murderer, a monster, and a coward for not taking responsibility for what you did. You have ruined lives and taken others. You have caused inexplicable grief, a sadness that cannot be cured.”
Judge Bauer gave the following comment after ruling Harrouff as not guilty due to being insane:
“In this case, the defense and the state have agreed to this particular outcome, I’m sure based upon all the facts and circumstances that they had. It’s a sad case. It’s an awful case. Nobody is losing sight—I tell you I know I’m not—of the deaths and injuries that were sustained in this case. But when it all gets said and done, the state and the defense have made the determination that mental intent was not formulated. It wasn’t there and therefore the defendant is technically not guilty by reason of insanity.”
Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida
In some criminal cases, an insanity plea can be used to acquit a defendant. However, acquittal does not necessarily mean freedom. Defendants who are determined to be insane at the time of a crime are often sentenced to extensive care at a mental health facility. If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime, we advise speaking with a criminal defense lawyer to figure out what types of defenses work best for your case.
Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have years of experience representing clients in the state of Florida. Our attorneys will make it their top priority to stand in your corner and fight for your freedom. Contact us today for more information at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.
Written by Karissa Key