STUART — A judge Monday ruled that accused killer Austin Harrouff is not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2016 murders of a Tequesta couple at their home on Southeast Kokomo Lane in southern Martin County.
Harrouff, 25, fatally stabbed John Stevens III, 59, and Michelle Mishcon, 53, in a vicious and random attack that included injuring their neighbor Jeffrey Fisher, who tried to help the couple.
The Florida State University student, then 19, was found biting and chewing on Stevens' face in the man's driveway, and detectives recovered what appeared to be flesh from Harrouff's teeth. Deputies reported Harrouff was walking to his father's home in the neighborhood when he targeted Stevens III and Mishcon.
A medical examiner who performed the autopsies on Stevens III and Mishcon stated they died quickly because of the extent of their multiple injuries, records show.
Investigators have noted an extreme amount of force, including Taser use, a police dog and multiple law enforcement officials, was necessary to subdue Harrouff.
His defense team signaled early in the case they would seek an acquittal by reason of insanity. For that to happen, Harrouff had to convince a judge 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.
Two psychologists — one hired by the state and one for the defense — have concluded that during the murders Harrouff was suffering an “acute psychotic episode.”
Harrouff, the experts found, was “unable to distinguish right from wrong,” meaning he meets Florida’s criteria to be acquitted by reason of insanity.
Hours of testimony from families
Before Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer ruled, he listened to nearly two hours of sometimes angry and distraught comments from the families of Stevens and Mishcon, who often spoke directly to Harrouff as he sat motionless with three defense attorneys.
Speaking first, Cindy Mishcon, Michelle Mishcon’s sister, spent several minutes reading aloud dozens and dozens of drug- and alcohol-related text messages Harrouff sent to college friends and a girlfriend in the months leading up to the murders. He repeatedly commented on being drunk to the point of blacking out and about his nearly daily drug use.
The more she read the texts, the angrier she seemed to become, at times raising her voice as she addressed Harrouff.
She also relayed the content of numerous recorded jail phone calls Harrouff had with family members that she said seemed to disparage Stevens III and Mishcon and minimized 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. You don't care that you murdered my parents’ firstborn child,” Cindy Mishcon 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.”
She insisted Harrouff was not insane when he committed the homicides. She called the findings of the mental health experts “outright lies.”
“Here we are opening the prison doors for a double murderer,” she said. “Four words come to mind: White rich boy justice.”
She also criticized Harrouff’s father, Wade Harrouff, for buying his son a switchblade knife the day before the murders while attending a gun show together.
Harrouff’s family, including his parents, sister and grandmother sat silent in court, often with their heads down as Mishcon’s relatives spoke.
Jodi Bruce, who is Michelle Mishcon’s sister, lamented the nightmares, sleepless nights and “so, so many tears,” shed since the murders.
“Michelle had two sisters, a brother a father, two stepkids, a niece, and a nephew who loved her. We suffer; I suffer every day … Michelle was our everything,” Bruce said. “My family is broken. We will never be repaired … My sister was the nicest person, she would do anything for anyone.
“She was so happy, she had such a great life. She smiled; she laughed all the time. You beat her up; you stopped her.”
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Bruce made it clear she was disappointed the case lingered for so long and now Harrouff will not face trial.
“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.
She said she felt state prosecutors gave up on the case after learning last week they would agree with defense attorneys to have a judge find Harrouff not guilty by reason of insanity.
“Completely gave up on my sister, and my brother-in-law and my family and in essence, the entire community,” Bruce told Bauer.
Speaking from a podium in court, Ivy Stevens, John Stevens’ daughter, described her excitement as a child waiting for her father and Michelle to pick her up for weekends that included playing games like hide and seek, climbing trees and cruising around with the windows down.
“I have wonderful memories of them not only as a little girl, but also as an adult,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “They took me in when I needed help as all good parents do.”
Some members of the Stevens and Mishcon families quietly sobbed as she spoke.
She recalled spending nights and weekends with the couple who loved to entertain at their home and in their garage – the neighborhood gathering place.
"My dad and Michelle were like magnets. They attracted people to them because of who they were,” Stevens said. “They were fun, genuine, caring people who just wanted to be happy and make everyone around them happy. They built an incredible life together … that I don't believe many people will ever be able to attain.”
She had nothing but scorn for Harrouff while addressing him.
“When I think of Michelle, I try to imagine how she felt when she found you staring back at her; how her breaths left her body out of fear,” Stevens said. “I cannot even begin to imagine how terrified she must have been when you attacked her. Beat her, stabbed her, broke her nose, knocked out her teeth. Hit her head so hard into the concrete that you partially scalped her.”
Of her father, Stevens said she immediately thinks of his last words: “Help me, get him off me, please help.”
“The last words that my father spoke were used to beg for his life,” she said.
She called Harrouff a “disgusting animal.”
“I am so angry that this is the only way that I can remember them now," she said. "I'm angry that they won't be remembered for the life they lived before you.”
Stevens also addressed Harrouff’s parents seated behind the defense table, imploring to know why they didn’t do more to help their son before the fatal attacks.
"Why didn't you intervene if you were so worried about your son?” she asked. "You shouldn't have let him leave your house the night of Aug. 15 if he was acting so strange … you should have stopped him and reasoned with him, asked him what was wrong and how you could have helped him.”
Stevens concluded by telling Harrouff, “you are not the victim.”
“You're a murderer, a monster and a coward for not taking responsibility for what you did,” she said. “You have ruined lives and taken others. You have caused inexplicable grief, a sadness that cannot be cured.”
Not guilty by reason of insanity
Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer ruled that Harrouff would be involuntarily committed into the custody of the Department of Children and Families for placement in a secured mental health facility.
Bauer’s ruling cancelled a nonjury trial that had been scheduled to begin Monday. It came after state prosecutors and defense lawyers stated they had agreed that Bauer could make a determination whether there was sufficient evidence that Harrouff met the criteria for being legally insane at the time of the crimes.
Bauer, in his ruling, noted that two mental health experts had concluded Harrouff was not sane when he killed Stevens and Mischon.
“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,” Bauer said. “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.”
From March 2020: State psychologist: Harrouff was legally insane when he murdered
After court, State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl, who attended the hearing, called Monday’s ruling “the most difficult day of my professional career as a prosecutor.”
He said he alone made the call to stipulate to Harrouff’s insanity defense.
“This was my decision and formed by the hard work and tireless effort put in by my prosecutors. I have been intimately involved in this case for a significant period of time,” Bakkedahl said. “And I will say without hesitation that this office did everything, and I mean, absolutely everything within its power and ability, to thoroughly and completely examine this case.”
His decision came after the 4th District Court of Appeal denied their appeal to hire a new mental health expert to evaluate Harrouff after their expert, Tampa neuropsychologist Michael Gamache, became too sick to continue on the case. Bauer denied the state’s request to replace him with another expert.
From September 2021: State expert tells judge Austin Harrouff was not insane
Bakkedahl said he “100% empathized” with the Stevens and Mishcon family members.
“Devastating doesn't adequately describe what this is. It's just life-altering,” Bakkedahl said. “It's something that they will live with forever, regardless of what we had done in this case.”
Outside the courthouse, Harrouff’s defense attorney Nellie King said the case had always been about mental illness.
She said before the murders, Harrouff had good grades, a gentle demeanor, and no criminal record.
“He could be anybody’s son, brother, neighbor, friend, and he experienced a severe psychotic episode. It was always about mental illness,” King said. “There was never in the three drug tests that were submitted, including to the FBI lab, an indication that this was narcotics or substance abuse related.”
She said two mental health experts found Harrouff “had such severe auditory and visual hallucinations and delusions, that he didn't have the capacity to understand what he was doing at the time.”
Records show Harrouff had been exhibiting signs of a mental health disorder weeks before the incident, according to family members. Hours before the attacks, his mother called Jupiter police to report concerns that her son had been acting strangely, saying he had “superpowers” and was immortal.
"I guess there was something seriously wrong with me," Harrouff told the “Dr. Phil” show. "I never wanted to hurt anybody."
In a 2019 report, Dr. Phillip Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist at the University Hospitals of Cleveland in Ohio, wrote Harrouff had bipolar disorder and was manic with psychotic features. He noted Harrouff went through a period of ranging moods a week prior to the stabbing deaths.
According to Resnick's report, Harrouff also had an acute manic episode and experienced clinical lycanthropy. He believed he had turned into a "non-human being" and was being persecuted.
Palm Beach Post 2017 archives: On anniversary of Austin Harrouff slayings, father’s death haunts son
King meanwhile, insisted that Harrouff, who said nothing in court, “empathizes” with the Stevens and Mishcon families.
“When he learned of the conduct of his actions, he's been extremely remorseful,” she said. “His faith has helped to support him, as well as his family. But he has to live with this tragedy every single day.”
Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. Reach her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Austin Harrouff was insane when he killed a couple, judge rules