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Mitchell verdict hinges on mental-health testimony

Published November 14, 2010 10:52 am

Defense must prove insanity in order to win an acquittal.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Elizabeth Smart's testimony of her knifepoint abduction and nine months of sexual abuse in the clutches of a self-proclaimed prophet captured national attention this week.

Ed Smart said he, like many others, was impressed by his daughter's poise and courage on the witness stand and described her as "empowered."

"I don't believe she would ever have come out publicly with the story [if not for the trial]," Ed Smart said. "I think it boils down to what most victims in her position find — they certainly don't want to get up there and testify and say the horrible things that have happened to them. But until they do, there will be a next victim."

University of Utahlaw school professor Daniel Medwed called Smart a "very strong, credible witness" that supported the prosecution's contention that Brian David Mitchell was not insane when he committed kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor.

Now that Smart has told her story, the focus of Brian David Mitchell's trial promises to be less about what happened to the then-14-year-old girl than why it happened. And because the defense has the burden of proving insanity, prosecutors will likely present the bulk of their witnesses — as many as 25 — after the defense has laid out its case.

To win an acquittal, Mitchell's lawyers must prove that their client suffered from such a severe mental illness or mental defect that he could not tell right from wrong or he was delusional.The defense team hasn't argued with what attorney Parker Douglas called the "horrifyingly disturbing facts of this case." Instead, attorneys have focused on Mitchell's alleged history of mental problems and bizarre behavior.

A defense expert has diagnosed Mitchell — who equates himself with Jesus Christ or God and believes he will have a major role in the outcome of an end-time battle between good and evil — as paranoid schizophrenic and said there are grandiose and persecutory aspects to his illness.

Douglas used the term "crazy" a half-dozen times during his opening statement. He said mental illness runs in Mitchell's family and that he showed signs of psychosis as a teenager.

The defense could call Mitchell's parents, a brother and a sister to testify. But prosecutors could call yet another of the defendant's siblings, a sister who called police with his name after seeing media coverage of the case.

Also on the defense witness list are people who knew Mitchell some 20 years ago, when he was a high councilor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and held a job as a jeweler at O.C. Tanner, and before he left mainstream life, became homeless and began wandering the nation.

Mitchell's wife and co-defendant, Wanda Eileen Barzee, 65, is also a prospective defense witness. Barzee agreed to testify against her husband as part of a plea deal that landed her in prison for 15 years.

Prosecutors have psychiatrists and psychologists on their potential witness list, but they may also call lay witnesses to prove Mitchell is faking mental illness. Mitchell's repeated singing in court, attorneys say, is part of his smoke screen.

Both the prosecution and defense have listed as potential witnesses Mitchell's relatives; former co-workers; Utah State Hospital employees who observed Mitchell for months while he was under treatment there; ecclesiastical leaders; and people Mitchell befriended when he needed food, money or shelter.

Elizabeth Smart, now 23, could also take the stand again, if prosecutors need her to rebut testimony put on by the defense. Her father said she plans to watch the trial play out as a spectator.

If convicted of the kidnapping charge, Mitchell, 57, would face up to life in a federal prison. An acquittal wouldn't necessarily mean freedom for Mitchell.

If Mitchell were found not guilty by reason of insanity — a strategy used in fewer than 1 percent of cases that rarely succeeds — federal law says he must be committed to a "suitable facility," Medwed said. Mitchell would remain in a secure mental hospital until he could prove he was no longer a risk to society.

"It's really just a question of where he serves his time," Medwed said.

Ed Smart said that when the trial is finished, his daughter plans to return to Paris to complete her mission for the LDS Church. He said that in France, the Mormon missionaries do not knock on doors, as they do in the United States and many other parts of the world.

"It's a proselytizing mission, but they don't go door-to-door," Ed Smart said. "They meet people on the street and contact them there."

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Insanity defense

To be found not guilty by reason of insanity in a federal case, it must be proved that "at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts." The defense has the burden of proving insanity. —

The case against Brian David Mitchell

Mitchell is accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart, then 14, at knifepoint from her Federal Heights home in the early hours of June 5, 2002.

Smart has testified he forced her to march to his camp in the nearby foothills, where Mitchell's wife, Wanda Barzee, was waiting. Mitchell then performed a "marriage" ceremony, which he said made her his plural wife, before he began raping her over the next nine months, Smart testified.

The trio traveled to Southern California in the fall of 2002, then returned to Utah in early March 2003. On March 12, several people called police saying they had spotted the missing girl on State Street in Sandy. When police arrived, they arrested Mitchell and Barzee and returned Smart to her parents.

Mitchell's prosecution has been delayed mostly due to issues surrounding his mental competency.

He was initially charged in state court, but that case came to a halt in 2008 when a 3rd District Court judge declared Mitchell was incompetent to stand trial and said he couldn't be forcibly medicated to try to restore his mental health.

Federal prosecutors succeeded in getting Mitchell declared competent earlier this year, in part by presenting testimony from people who had interacted with Mitchell at the Utah State Hospital when his guard was down to show that his silence in the presence of doctors and his disruptive hymn singing in the courtroom were an act.