STUART — A judge on Friday denied a request from prosecutors for a third state mental health expert to assess murder suspect Austin Harrouff who claimed he was insane when he killed a Tequesta couple in 2016.
After a two-hour hearing, Martin County Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer denied a request from prosecutors to have Harrouff evaluated by a new mental health expert to determine if he was legally insane on August 15, 2016, when he murdered Michelle Mishcon, 53. , and John Stevens III, 59, at their home on Southeast Kokomo Lane in southern Martin County.
Friday’s ruling means that unless the state appeals Bauer’s order to the West Palm Beach Fourth District Court of Appeals, Harrouff’s non-jury trial will begin Nov. 28 as scheduled.
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Harrouff, 25, pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder with a weapon and one count of burglary of a dwelling with assault or battery while armed. He is accused of biting Stevens in the face and abdomen before police force him away in a seemingly random and unprovoked attack.
He is also charged with attempted first degree murder with a weapon for injuring their neighbor, Jeffrey Fisher. Deputies reported that Harrouff was heading for his father’s house in the neighborhood when he targeted Stevens III and Mishcon.
If convicted, Harrouff faces two mandatory life sentences.
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Last month, prosecutors filed papers asking Bauer to approve the state’s substitution of another mental health expert for Tampa neuropsychologist Michael Gamache after he said he was resigning about 25 cases. criminal charges due to personal health problems.
Gamache, whom prosecutors hired in March 2020, had concluded that Harrouff was not insane when he committed the murders. His findings contradicted the findings of two other mental health experts who published reports in 2020.
Gamache came to his conclusions after evaluating the former Florida State University student on Sept. 8, 2021 via Zoom, according to court records.
At a hearing in June, however, Gamache said he never diagnosed Harrouff and did not prepare a report on his findings.
In order for Harrouff to be acquitted, he must convince a judge or jury that he had an infirmity or mental defect that made it impossible for him to know what he was doing or its consequences. Or if he understood what he was doing and the consequences, he “didn’t know what he was doing was wrong.”
Two psychologists – one hired by the defense and the other for the state – concluded that during the fatal attacks Harrouff, then 19, was suffering from an “acute psychotic episode” and that he was “ unable to distinguish right from wrong.
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In court on Friday, Gamache appeared via Zoom and was questioned by Assistant District Attorney Anastasia Norman about his ability to continue working the case.
“Dr. Gamache, at this point, are you physically incapable of participating in the state’s lawsuit against Austin Harrouff?” she asked.
“Yes, I am,” he replied.
“Even if it’s done remotely or via Zoom?” Norman in a hurry.
“That’s right. Even if I were to testify remotely and listen to the defense expert remotely … that would probably involve 40 to 80 hours of my time in preparation and during the trial,” Gamache said, “and I am just physically unable to do it at the time.
Prosecutors said they plan to call Gamache as a rebuttal witness in Harrouff’s trial to counter the reports and opinions of mental health experts hired by his defense team. When Bauer initially granted a state motion to hire Gamache as a second mental health expert, he decided he would not approve the hiring of a third expert.
Norman told Bauer that the state had “tried to work hard to try to resolve it” and believed until recently that Gamache would be able to stay on the case.
“And we thought he would be able to testify in a trial,” she said. “Obviously that is no longer the case.”
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Bauer, however, seemed exasperated to hear Gamache testify that he had told prosecutors since 2020 that he had medical issues that negatively impacted his health.
Gamache has repeatedly said he alerted prosecutors that his medical issues were hampering his abilities.
When Bauer asked him directly about the nature of his ailments, Gamache refused to divulge it.
“Can I ask generically, is it a physical illness?” Bauer asked. “Or do we call it a mental illness? If you don’t want to answer, that’s okay. »
“Your Honor, I will respectfully invoke my right under the Florida Constitution not to disclose confidential health information,” Gamache said. “I think that puts me in a very tricky position.”
Defense attorney Robert Watson objected to the state being able to hire a third expert to assess Harrouff. He said Gamache appeared capable of participating in Friday’s hearing and noted that the defense had worked for months to prepare for his expected testimony at trial.
“The last resort at this point would be … to allow another doctor to come and do an assessment,” Watson said. “They can’t just hire mercenary after mercenary.”
Bauer seemed to agree.
He said he saw “nothing that indicates to me that makes me determine that he is not available to testify”.
“The state is accepting the doctor’s representation without me knowing what the basis for it is … He has a right not to say it and I have a right not to allow another expert,” Bauer said. “State, call it, don’t call it. If you feel like not calling him because you think he can’t participate in the proceedings or you don’t want to inconvenience or cause him distress? It’s fine with me, anyway it’s fine.
After the court, State’s Attorney Tom Bakkedahl said he would consult with the possibility of appealing Bauer’s decision with the Florida attorney general’s office.
“We will need to educate them on the facts and circumstances and ask their opinion on whether or not they believe there is a reasonable likelihood of success,” Bakkedahl said.
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He said his office had wanted Gamache to stay on the case because losing him now would be “sort of reinventing the wheel.”
“And that’s why we encouraged him to stay. We never thought we would get to this point, where his health would be so diminished that he wouldn’t be able to help us,” Bakkedahl said. “But, unfortunately, life happens. But the court took a position that life happens, and we will have to deal with it.
Melissa E. Holsman is a legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is the editor and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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