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A Florida judge accepted a former college student’s plea deal Monday for the random 2016 killing of a well-loved couple, allowing the now 25-year-old to plead guilty by reason of insanity and avoid jail time.
Austin Harrouff — who was found by police chewing off one of the victim’s faces — will now be sent to a secure mental health facility until doctors and a judge determine that he is no longer a danger to society, according to Florida news station WPLG.
Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer made the decision after two psychologists determined that at the time of the brutal killings Harrouff, then 19 years old, had suffered an “acute psychotic episode” and was unable to distinguish right from wrong.
But the decision did not sit well with the families of John Stevens, 59, and Michelle Mishcon Stevens, 53.
“Here we are opening the prison doors for a double murderer,” Michelle’s sister Cindy Mishcon told the court, according to the TC Palm. “Four words come to mind: White rich boy justice.”
The couple was killed when Harrouff randomly attacked them with a machete in the garage of their Tequesta home on Aug. 15, 2016.
Palm Beach County deputies arrived at the scene to find Harrouff “chewing” on the side of John’s face and growling like a dog, according to court documents previously obtained by Oxygen.com.
After he was arrested and taken to the hospital, it appeared that Harrouff spit out human flesh.
“Help me, I ate something bad,” he told officers at the time, later explaining that he had eaten “humans.”
At the time of the brutal murders, Harrouff had no drugs in his system, authorities said.
The case was slated to go on trial before a judge on Monday but the trial was called off after state prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed there was enough evidence in the case to suggest that Harrouff was legally insane at the time of the killings.
“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,” Bauer said in court, according to the local paper.
Bauer made the ruling after hearing emotional testimony from the victims’ family, who took aim at the prosecutor’s decision to agree to the plea.
“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,” Michelle’s sister Jodi Bruce said, adding that she believed prosecutors “completely gave up” on the case.
She described Michelle as the family’s “everything.”
“My family is broken. We will never be repaired,” Bruce said. “My sister was the nicest person, she would do anything for anyone.”
Michelle’s sister Cindy used her time to address the court by reading through dozens of text messages Harrouff had sent his college friends and girlfriend before the brutal murders in which he often discussed his heavy drug use, drinking and blacking out.
“Why the f--k just not do what you want,” he wrote in one message to a friend, according to The New York Post. “Just do the craziest s--t you can. i just want to be great before I die.”
In another, he referred to his own mental state.
“I thought i was crazy, but really not,” he wrote. “I just know that for me personally the drugs are taking a toll on me and I can’t handle.”
Cindy also described a series of phone calls Harrouff had made from jail to his family, where she said he had belittled the victims.
“I quickly realized from listening to those call that you don’t care…about how your actions have affected my family. You don’t care that you murdered my parents’ firstborn child,” 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.”
Bruce was also critical of Harrouff’s father, Wade Harrouff, who purchased the knife the then-teen used in the murders just one day earlier at a gun show, despite being concerned about his erratic behavior.
“What kind of person are you?” she asked.
She also referenced jailhouse calls where she said Wade Harrouff, a successful dentist, referred to Michelle and John as “those f--king people,” according to WPLG.
“You are disgusting,” she said.
John Stevens’ daughter Ivy also questioned why Harrouff’s parents had not sought help for their son sooner.
"Why didn't you intervene if you were so worried about your son?” she said in court according to the paper. "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.”
She called Harrouff a “murderer,” “monster” and “coward” for “not taking responsibility” for his actions.
“You have ruined lives and taken others,” she said. “You have caused inexplicable grief, a sadness that cannot be cured.”
After the court hearing, State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl described the hearing as “the most difficult day of my professional career” and said that although he made the decision to agree to the plea because of the conclusions made by the psychologists connected to the case, he “100 percent empathized” with the family of the victims.
“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.”
In a statement to Oxygen.com, Harrouff’s attorney Nellie L. King insisted the case had always been about “mental illness.”
“Although the not guilty by reason of insanity result in the Austin Harrouff case fails to bring comfort to the families of the victims, this finding brings this matter to its right and lawful end,” she said. “Two experts, one for the defense and one for the State, determined Austin was experiencing a psychotic break at the time of the homicides and lacked the intent necessary to be criminally responsible for his conduct.”
She added that before the killings, Harrouff had been a college student at Florida State University with no criminal record and “good grades” and a “gentle demeanor.”
“He could be anyone’s son, brother, neighbor, friend. But, the mind is a powerful thing,” she said. “Austin started to mentally decompensate in the weeks, days and moments leading up to the incident. He became grandiose and paranoid, his behavior extreme and out of character.”
She concluded by saying that Harrouff will now have to live with the pain he caused to the victims’ families.
“Upon learning of the events of that night, Austin has sought answers for the grief and anguish caused by his actions,” she said. “Austin is extremely remorseful for all that has occurred; for being at the center of this episode which has caused such unthinkable pain and a devastating loss.”
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