The job of defending the Jupiter man accused of killing a Martin County couple and biting one of their faces has been made much harder by the release of a taped interview with TV celebrity “Dr. Phil” McGraw, lawyers observing the case say.
Austin Harrouff, 20, has been accused of murder in macabre, grisly slayings last year that have drawn national attention.
Harrouff’s interview with McGraw was released Tuesday by the Martin County state’s attorney’s office on the orders of a judge after a request from The Palm Beach Post’s news partner, WPTV NewsChannel 5. Lawyers said the interview poses enormous challenges for Harrouff’s defense and could scuttle the only chance he has to avoid life in prison or the death penalty.
Harrouff cries and appears remorseful during the interview, but that sorrow could indicate to a jury that he knew his actions were wrong, attorneys said, undermining an insanity defense.
“That’s why we lawyers tell clients early on, ‘Do not talk to anyone,’” West Palm Beach attorney James Eisenberg said. “You do not want any defenses to be ruined.”
One of Harrouff’s attorneys, Nellie King, said the interview was obtained without the consent or knowledge of his lawyer at the time, Bob Watson. King was retained after the interview was conducted and is working with Watson on behalf of Harrouff.
In a statement to The Post, King said the interview was conducted in a hospital days after Harrouff emerged from a coma.
“He was heavily medicated and suffering from shock and physical trauma after nearly dying from toxic fluids he ingested on scene and because of his mental illness,” King wrote. “Austin was also treated for brain hematomas and other severe medical issues which necessitated a near two-month hospital stay.”
King wrote that while the interview “should not have occurred given Austin’s medical and psychological condition,” it “does tend to show his mental illness.”
When Harrouff was admitted to the hospital, King said he was “actively psychotic” and admitted under the Baker Act, which allows for involuntary examination and treatment in cases where someone could have a mental illness and could be a danger to themselves or to others.
“Austin had a psychological break, as evidenced by the auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia, and persecutory ideations he experienced and, more importantly, as recounted by numerous people, both relatives and non-relatives, who were around Austin in the days and weeks before the murders,” King wrote. “There is a mountain of information about this young man that will substantiate his mental illness at the time of the offense. The fact that some of this was discussed in an interview with a TV personality does nothing to change the fact that Austin was mentally ill at the time of the incident.”
A link on Dr. Phil’s Facebook page to television media coverage of the Harrouff case is headlined: “Dr. Phil Exclusive with Austin Harrouff: The Man Accused in Brutal 2016 Slaying of Florida Couple.”
Efforts to reach McGraw were unsuccessful Thursday.
Lawyers following the case said Harrouff’s legal interests weren’t served by the interview.
“Dr. Phil is interested in ratings, not the rights of a defendant,” Palm Beach Lakes attorney Richard Tendler said, adding he would have strongly advised against consenting to the interview if he was Harrouff’s attorney. “I’d rather not have to deal with it. Noting good comes of it.”
Lawyers following the case said King is highly regarded in the legal community but added that she will now have to navigate around a taped interview that could impact everything from jury selection and trial location to what type of expert testimony to rely upon.
“With any issue of pre-trial publicity, you’re hoping it dies down,” West Palm Beach attorney Gregg Lerman said. “As a defense attorney, you want to minimize whatever damage something like this could do. It’s going to make jury selection more difficult.”
West Palm Beach attorney Tama Kudman said she’d try to keep the tape from being admitted into evidence.
“Any time that you have evidence seeping into the public without context, it circumvents certain protections,” Kudman said. “It’s obvious to me this young man is being exploited. He’s clearly not in his right mind.”
During the 22-minute interview, conducted while Harrouff was a patient at St. Mary’s Hospital, Harrouff offered some details of the August 15 killings of John Stevens, 59, and Michelle Mischon, 53.
Harrouff said the killings were “like a nightmare” and “I never wanted this to happen.”
Court documents indicate Harrouff told detectives he “ate something bad.”
Asked what that was, he replied: “Humans.”
It took a Taser, several kicks to his head and a police dog to get the then-19-year-old Harrouff off of Stevens, the Martin County Sheriff’s office said. Harrouff was found biting Stevens’ face.
Investigators originally believed that Harrouff was under the influence of a synthetic drug like bath salts or flakka. A toxicology report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation was negative for any such drug.
Harrouff said in the Dr. Phil interview that he did not take flakka and does not know what bath salts are and has never taken them.
He also said he does not remember much from the attack, though he could recall a “dark figure” named “Daniel,” who called his name.
“I don’t remember thinking at all,” Harrouff said in the interview. “It’s like a blur. I don’t think I was thinking straight.”
Harrouff also apologized to the family of the victims.
In an interview with The Post on Wednesday, Stevens’ son, John Stevens IV, said Harrouff’s “crocodile tears” and apology “means nothing to me.”
The younger Stevens noted that his infant daughter will never know her grandfather.
“If they want to apologize to us, stop this,” Stevens said. “Tell the truth.”