Gehrke: There’s so much wrong with Wanda Barzee’s release, but at the end of the day, she did her time

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Elizabeth Smart endured a horror most of us cannot even begin to comprehend.

Her abduction as a teenager, the nine months held in captivity and the abuse and rape she suffered would have broken many, yet she has emerged from the ordeal strong and outspoken. Particularly laudable is her advocacy for removing the stigma on survivors of sexual assaults.

And she spoke out again last week, imploring officials to find a way to keep Wanda Barzee, one of her two abductors and captors, behind bars after the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole announced unexpectedly that Barzee would be released this Wednesday.

Barzee, along with Brian David Mitchell, has been locked up in some form since 2003 for the kidnapping and rape of Smart. Barzee had a seemingly delusional devotion to the maniacal Mitchell, a self-styled street prophet who called himself Emmanuel.

“She is a woman who had six children and yet could co-conspire to kidnap a 14-year-old girl and not only sit next to her while being raped, but encourage her husband to continue raping me,” Smart said. “So do I believe she is dangerous? Yes, but not just to me.”

Smart’s concerns are legitimate, and if it were my child who had been kidnapped, I probably would have been raising a ruckus just like Smart’s father, Ed.

Barzee, according to testimony at her parole hearing, has refused the mental health treatment she obviously needs.

But the reality, whether we like it or not, is that Barzee has served her time. She pleaded guilty to the kidnapping, aided prosecutors in getting Mitchell put behind bars for life, and served a 15-year sentence of her own.

In our justice system, no matter how high-profile the crime, we don’t lock people up beyond the bounds of their sentence, even when they have failed to rehabilitate.

In this instance, the state Board of Pardons had no choice — Barzee had served every day of her sentence.

Barzee will leave prison a 72-year-old woman. Her family members have turned their backs on her (who can blame them?). For the next five years, she will be under the supervision of federal probation officers, and U.S. Attorney John Huber assured that those officers would keep a close eye on her.

Brett Tolman was the U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted the federal end of the Smart case and he is now representing the family in exploring ways they might be able to prevent her release, although he acknowledges the options are limited.

When Barzee was sentenced, Tolman said that he expected she would spend 15 years in prison, but he didn’t anticipate she would get as much credit as she did for time she spent in a mental institution before her conviction. After that time was deducted, he said, she spent about eight years in prison.

Going forward, he said, it may be worth reconsidering how much credit criminals get for time spent in an institution — although it seems that a year spent locked up is a year spent locked up and, in cases like Barzee, mental health treatment is in order.

The parole board also needs to do a better job of keeping victims and their families apprised of an inmate’s impending release — the Smart family said it was shocked to only learn of Barzee’s imminent release last week after the board decided in July that Barzee would be in prison until 2024.

“What we have here," Tolman said, “is a release before anybody anticipated it and no real rehabilitation and refusal to accept mental health treatment, and that’s the worst-case scenario when you’re talking about someone convicted of kidnapping and rape.”

Indeed, it is not the outcome any of us would have hoped for. But we are also obliged to adhere to the law and Barzee has served the sentence she was given. Whether we like it or not, all we can do at this point is trust that her probation officers, recognizing the risk she poses, monitor her closely and put her back behind bars if she steps out of line.

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