Mitchell ruled competent to stand trial in Elizabeth Smart abduction
Defense attorneys couldn't persuade a federal judge that Brian David Mitchell is now so delusional he can't be tried for kidnapping and raping Elizabeth Smart.
Next they'll try to convince a jury Mitchell was insane seven years ago when he took the then-teen from her Federal Heights home and held her captive for nine months.
"I believe the issue is the serious mental illness," said Assistant Federal Defender Robert Steele after a judge found Mitchell competent Monday. "I'd be surprised if we didn't use the insanity defense."
While Monday's ruling means U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball believes Mitchell understands the charges against him and assist his lawyers in his defense, an insanity claim would argue Mitchell couldn't differentiate between right and wrong when he committed the crimes.
Steele said he wants to go to trial this year and expects to speak with Mitchell, who is being held in the mental unit of the Salt Lake County Jail, in the next day or two.
Smart's father, Ed Smart, would prefer a plea bargain but believes his daughter will be ready to testify again if necessary. As of Monday afternoon, he had not spoken about the ruling to Elizabeth, who is in Paris serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We've been through six years of this incompetency issue," Smart said. "We were all hoping this (ruling) would happen. It's just one more corner turned and I'm hoping that we're on the home run now."
In a 149-page ruling, Kimball said Mitchell has the ability to behave appropriately in a courtroom and that his symptoms are consistent with personality disorders, not psychotic illness. He listed in support of his conclusion Mitchell's ability to turn on and off a religious persona when it suited his needs; his skill at projecting a different image in different settings; his use of singing to disrupt court proceedings; and Smart's testimony about Mitchell's preoccupation with sex.
Kimball also said Mitchell's "extreme" beliefs -- which include calling himself the "One Mighty and Strong" and claiming succession to the keys held by LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson -- are not delusions but ideas that stem from his culture and place him "squarely in the mainstream of Mormon schismatics."
The U.S. Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting Mitchell, applauded the decision.
"This is an extraordinary step in what has been a long time coming," said acting U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen.
Christensen said prosecutors are prepared to go to trial. Mitchell, 56, is charged with kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor in a plot to make the 14-year-old his plural wife.
If an insanity defense is used, prosecutors won't be able to cite the competency ruling as evidence of his sanity.
A state prosecution accusing Mitchell of aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated burglary is on hold because a 3rd District judge found him incompetent to stand trial. Mitchell's wife and co-defendant, Wanda Eileen Barzee, has pleaded guilty to charges in both state and federal court and agreed to testify against her husband.
Throughout his prosecution in both cases, Mitchell frequently disrupted the proceedings by singing hymns in the courtroom. He derailed his first appearance in U.S. District Court by refusing to stop singing, even after he was gagged, and since then has observed all hearings by closed-circuit TV from a nearby room.
His defense attorneys have said Mitchell sings to soothes himself in stressful situations, but prosecutors countered that the singing was part of a ploy to appear mentally incompetent.
Kimball's decision was based on evidence presented in court briefs and at a two-week competency hearing late last year. Prosecutors asserted that Mitchell is a manipulative pedophile who uses religion to satisfy his obsession with sex, while defense attorneys said he is a delusional man who has displayed signs of a psychotic disorder since early in his life.
Both sides presented mental-health experts to bolster their claims. The U.S. Attorney's Office also used lay witnesses -- court transportation officers, state hospital staffers, former neighbors, relatives and Smart herself -- who recounted their observations of Mitchell during his most unguarded moments.
Former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman, who helped formulate the strategy of putting on lay witnesses, said he is thrilled with the outcome.
"I always felt from the beginning there was a story to be told and it started with Elizabeth," said Tolman, who stepped down Dec. 31 as U.S. attorney and is now in private practice. "I think it sends a big message in this case that you do have to turn over every rock and every stone and find out as much information as you can."
Arrest » Brian David Mitchell, 56, and his wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee, 64, are accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart from her home June 5, 2002, in the Federal Heights neighborhood. They were arrested in March 2003 while walking in Sandy with the girl.
Rulings » After hearings in the state's 3rd District Court, Judge Judith Atherton ruled that the two were mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Medication » Atherton also ruled Mitchell could not be forcibly medicated to try to restore his mental competency. She ruled Barzee could be forcibly medicated, a process that began at the Utah State Hospital in May 2008.
Indictment » The state case against Mitchell and Barzee stalled over the competency issue, leading the U.S. Attorney's Office to begin a case against the couple. A federal grand jury issued an indictment in 2008 charging Mitchell and Barzee with kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor.
State Hospital » Doctors at the State Hospital said last fall they believe Barzee is now mentally competent.
Guilty pleas » Barzee pleaded guilty on Nov. 17 to the federal charges and agreed to testify against Mitchell in exchange for a 15-year prison term. On Feb. 8, Barzee pleaded guilty and mentally ill to a state charge of conspiracy to kidnap Smart's cousin, a plea that could affect whether she spends her sentence in a hospital or a prison. A sentencing hearing in 3rd District Court on that charge is set for May 21.
Competency ruling » U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ruled Monday that Mitchell is competent to stand trial on the federal charges.
"The most compelling evidence that Mitchell's religious persona is not the product of mental illness is his demonstrated ability to turn it on and off in self-serving ways."
"Throughout his life, Mitchell has been able to read peoples' vulnerabilities and exploit their weaknesses for his own purposes."
"The evidence demonstrates a pattern of activity suggesting that Mitchell has done everything possible to delay and avoid trial."
"Mitchell's behavior is best explained as a manifestation of one or more personality disorders, not of psychotic illness."
"Mitchell used religious explanations to justify his carnal desires."
"... there is significant evidence in the record that Mitchell not only lacks empathy, he has a pattern of sadism."
A scheduling conference is March 26 before U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball to set a trial date and pretrial motion deadlines.
Ruling » What the judge wrote. › A9
Background » The case against Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. > A9
It's about time. After waiting seven years, Tribune columnist Peg McEntee says she's eager for accused Elizabeth Smart kidnapper Brian David Mitchell to stand trial and that his justice-stalling tactics worked for far too long. › B1
A scheduling conference will be held March 26 before U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball to set a trial date and pretrial motion deadlines.