After six days of hearings that began in February, the question of Brian David Mitchell‘s mental competency is far from black-and-white.
“Things are pretty gray,” said 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton, who delayed any decision concerning Elizabeth Smart‘s accused kidnapper by taking the matter under advisement.
Atherton said she needs time to digest the “radically different” expert testimony before rendering a written decision about Mitchell’s ability to stand trial.
Two defense experts have testified Mitchell suffers from a delusional disorder that has destroyed his ability to make reasoned legal choices.
Mitchell – who, his attorneys say, believes he is the key player in a battle between good and evil – last year considered accepting a plea deal to get a reduced prison sentence.
But he now believes God wants him to be convicted at trial and sent to prison as a form of “passive crucifixion,” the attorneys say.
“I don’t know that being crucified is a legal strategy,” said defense attorney Vernice Trease. But she argued his martyrdom belief is part of a mental illness that prevents him from “realistically determining where his best interests lie.”
The judge, however, wondered why it was inherently unreasonable for Mitchell to choose prison.
“Our idea of his best interests may not be his,” the judge said. “His may be to be the sufferer. Who are we to make that judgment?”
“It’s not what his belief is,” Trease countered. “It’s how he gets there. If [the decision] is based on delusions, he’s incompetent.”
The prosecution’s expert claims Mitchell’s bizarre religious ideas are no different from those held by thousands of Mormon fundamentalists who practice polygamy.
Deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney Kent Morgan noted that Utah polygamists have killed in cold blood, and also have raped and married off 14-year-old girls.
Morgan said Mitchell, too, sought to do “unspeakable evil” based on deeply held religious beliefs.
And the prosecutor claimed Mitchell’s increasingly obstreperous courtroom antics are merely an act meant to disrupt and delay the case.
On Thursday, Mitchell was removed from the courtroom twice for shouting religious recriminations.
“Thus sayeth the Lord God Almighty: Except ye repent, ye shall be smitten even unto destruction by war, famine, pestilence, upheaval, tempest, fire, sword,” Mitchell yelled before bailiffs hustled him out to a holding cell.
During a brief afternoon appearance, Mitchell shouted: “Repent ye! Repent ye! Oh why will he die? Return to the Lord. . . . Repent for the kingdom of heaven’s at hand.”
On June 5, 2002, Mitchell allegedly kidnapped Elizabeth, then 14, from her Federal Heights home to make her the first of seven plural wives, according to prosecutors.
Nine months later, the girl was found walking down a Sandy street with Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, who has been found mentally incompetent and is in the state hospital.
Defense attorney Trease said her experts were better qualified and that their diagnoses were backed by scientific studies that compared groups with deeply held religious beliefs to people with religious delusions.
The studies showed the group members had pleasant, positive outlooks, where the delusional people were, like Mitchell, negative, fearful and anxious.
Trease also noted that psychologist Jennifer Skeem was the only expert to have spoken with Mitchell, who last year took a vow of silence and now refuses to speak to his defense team.
Trease called her second expert, Stephen Golding, “Mr. Forensic Psychologist” because he has evaluated hundreds of criminal defendants over the years.
The prosecution’s expert, psychiatrist Noel Gardner, claims to be an authority on differentiating extreme religious beliefs from delusions because he was raised in a family of religious fundamentalists.