SALT LAKE CITY — A mental health expert on Wednesday described the homeless street preacher accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart as a one-time functioning member of society who “fell off a cliff” and determined he was a living prophet destined to take young girls as plural wives.
Defense expert Jennifer Skeem, a University of California-Irvine assistant professor, has twice examined Brian David Mitchell but said in the hearing Mitchell had become “recently delusional and more distressed” and was no longer fit for trial.
She also said Mitchell, whom she has diagnosed with delusional disorder, believes the last days are near, and he will lead the righteous people to the holy land, where they will engage in an epic battle with the Antichrist.
Skeem said Mitchell no longer intended to put up a defense, because he believes he’s a martyr and must endure punishment from those who don’t believe he is the true prophet.
Mitchell, 51, and his wife, Wanda Barzee, 58, are accused of taking Elizabeth in 2002 into the foothills near her home, sexually assaulting her and keeping her as his second wife. An excommunicated Mormon, Mitchell has written a rambling religious manifesto — and continues to update it in jail, according to testimony Wednesday, under his preferred name, “Immanuel David Isaiah.”
Skeem said Mitchell was initially “situationally competent,” and working with defense attorneys on his own behalf. Recently, she said, Mitchell has become convinced the prosecution is “in secret combination with Satan,” and decided he will no longer speak with them about plea negotiations to punish himself for previously dealing with them.
Skeem said his distress has been compounded by Barzee’s recent filing for divorce and by negotiations with prosecutors for an Alford plea. Under such a deal, Mitchell would not admit guilt but agree the state has enough evidence to convict him.
But Deputy District Attorney Alicia Cook discounted the Barzee effect for Mitchell’s mental health decline, saying Skeem’s interview with Mitchell was in October — a month before Barzee filed for divorce.
Skeem said Mitchell believes that he’ll be held in jail for nine years, then rescued by God.
She said Mitchell was able to hold a secure job — working as a die cutter for eight years — before becoming increasingly delusional about his religious convictions. She said he and Barzee sold all of their possessions, stopped using their Social Security numbers and refused to pay taxes — relying instead on “the charity of others” and regular prayers about what to do with their lives, including what to wear and eat.
Skeem said Mitchell “wouldn’t even meet minimum standards” for competency now, but does not believe he’s mentally ill.
“He does not want to be viewed as mentally disordered,” she said.
Cook suggested just because someone quits his job and gives up worldly possessions, it doesn’t mean he is delusional. She also suggested Skeem didn’t prove Mitchell had a mental illness, just strong religious convictions — parts of which are held by others.
Stephen Golding, a mental health expert for the defense, also testified Wednesday that he believed Mitchell was incompetent to stand trial.
Noel Gardner, the prosecution’s mental health expert, has disagreed and was scheduled to testify as to Mitchell’s mental competency Thursday.
At the beginning of the hearing, Mitchell was removed for singing a religious tune — the third consecutive time he’s had such outbursts during court proceedings.
Mitchell broke into song twice Wednesday. “Who’s on the Lord’s side? Who? Now is the time to show,” he sang first.
Judge Judith Atherton ejected Mitchell, but allowed the hearing to continue without him in the courtroom. Defense lawyers objected, and Atherton ordered Mitchell back in. “Mr. Mitchell,” she said, “you have a right to be in this courtroom … you have a constitutional right to be here.”
But he drowned out Atherton by singing, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven’s at hand.” Deputies then led Mitchell away for a second time.
Atherton again allowed the hearing to continue, but took frequent recesses so Mitchell’s lawyers could update him on the proceedings.
Feb. 17, 2005
Travis Reed, Associated Press