FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A judge accepted a plea deal Monday for a man who randomly killed a Florida couple in their garage six years ago and then chewed off a victim’s face that will send her to a hospital mental for treatment.
Austin Harrouff, 25, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to two counts of first-degree murder and other charges in the 2016 slayings of John Stevens, 59, and his wife, Michelle Mishcon Stevens, 53 years old. He also seriously injured a neighbor who tried to help them.
Harrouff, who attended Florida State University before the attack, will be committed to a secure mental health facility until doctors and a judge agree he is no longer dangerous. If the trial had gone forward, Harrouff could have faced life in prison.
A number of family members of the slain couple expressed their anger at the decision and made victim impact statements to Harrouff, his family, the defense team and prosecutors.
Cindy Mishcon, Michelle Mishcon’s sister and an attorney, presented a methodical case for why she does not believe Harrouff was insane when the murders occurred.
“You can’t even look at me?” she asked Harrouff, who was sitting at the defense table wearing a red and white striped prison uniform and glasses. She said she started writing her victim impact statement when she was “naive enough” to think there would be justice.
Cindy Mishcon said reality set in for her as she listened to Harrouff’s phone records with family members in prison and read pages of text messages from the year before the murders, which were part of the court file. Text messages with his friends outlined a student’s life of smoking marijuana, using other drugs and abusing alcohol in the year before he killed the couple.
She said she realized that “you don’t care about anyone but yourself” and that “the only victim you and your family see is you and the name Harrouff.”
“Is it really that hard for you to understand that you are a cold-blooded murderer and not a victim,” she asked.
Other family members echoed his sentiments.
The plea deal between the defense and the prosecution avoided a trial that was scheduled to begin Monday before Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer and was expected to last three weeks.
The judge said Harrouff will remain in the Martin County Jail until he is taken to a secure mental health facility monitored by the Florida Department of Children and Families. Bauer said he would not be allowed to leave the facility without a court order.
Two mental health experts, one hired by the defense and one by prosecutors, examined Harrouff and found that he suffered an acute psychotic episode during the attack and was unable to distinguish between right and wrong.
The trial was delayed by the pandemic, legal wrangling and Harrouff’s recovery from critical injuries sustained while drinking a chemical during the attack.
Defendants are presumed sane under Florida law, meaning Harrouff must prove he had a serious mental breakdown that prevented him from understanding the actions, or that they were wrong by “clear and convincing” evidence.
He claimed he was running from a demon when the attack happened.
Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami, said finding Harrouff not guilty by reason of insanity would effectively be a life sentence because “it’s highly unlikely” they would risk freeing a criminal as notorious as Harrouff .
Harrouff’s parents and others said he had been acting strangely for weeks. His parents had set up an appointment for him to be evaluated, but the attack happened first.
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