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Judge accepts insanity plea deal for man in face-biting case

STUART, 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 on one victim’s face that will send him to a mental hospital for treatment.
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FILE - This Oct. 3, 2016, photo, provided by the Martin County Sheriff's Office, shows Austin Harrouff. Harrouff, a former college student who killed a Florida couple in their garage six years earlier and then chewed on one victim’s face, is finally set to go on trial, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. (Martin County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

STUART, 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 on one victim’s face that will send him to a mental hospital for treatment.

Austin Harrouff, 25, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to two counts of first-degree murder and other charges for the 2016 slayings of John Stevens, 59, and his wife, Michelle Mishcon Stevens, 53.

The agreement worked out between the defense and prosecution avoids a trial that had been scheduled to start Monday before Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer and had been expected to last three weeks.

Harrouff will be committed to a secure mental health facility until doctors and a judge agree that 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 anger at the decision and made victim impact statements directed at Harrouff, his family, the defense team and prosecutors.

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 will not be allowed to leave the facility without a court order.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A trial for a former college student who randomly killed a Florida couple in their garage six years ago and then chewed on one victim’s face was set to begin Monday.

Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer will decide whether Austin Harrouff, 25, goes to prison for the rest of his life, or to a mental hospital. Harrouff waived a jury trial after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity to two counts of first-degree murder and other charges for the 2016 slayings of John Stevens, 59, and his wife, Michelle Mishcon Stevens, 53. He also seriously injured a neighbor who tried to help them.

The trial for the former Florida State University student has been delayed by the pandemic, legal wrangling and Harrouff's recovery from critical injuries suffered while drinking a chemical during the attack. It is being held in Stuart, north of West Palm Beach, and is expected to last about three weeks.

Defendants are presumed sane under Florida law, meaning that Harrouff must show he had a severe mental breakdown that prevented him from understanding actions or that they were even wrong by “clear and convincing" evidence.

He has claimed he was fleeing a demon when the attack happened.

If the judge agrees he was insane, Harrouff will be committed to a secure mental hospital until doctors and a judge agree that he is no longer dangerous. Craig Trocino, a University of Miami law professor, said it would effectively be a life sentence because “it’s highly unlikely” that they would risk releasing a killer as notorious as Harrouff.

If convicted, Harrouff will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole; prosecutors waived the death penalty.

Harrouff’s parents, who are divorced, and others said he had acted strangely for weeks. His parents had set up an appointment for him to be evaluated, but the attack occurred first.

The Associated Press

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