Judge hears arguments on Smart case witness list

AP News
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Posted: Nov 09, 2009 6:07 PM

Defense attorneys for the man charged in the abduction of Elizabeth Smart argued Monday that testimony by experts in Mormon fundamentalism and religious extremism is irrelevant and should not be allowed at a hearing to decide his mental competency.

Attorneys for Brian David Mitchell told U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball that an expert's comparison of religious beliefs would not prove or disprove Mitchell's competency.

A self-proclaimed religious prophet, Mitchell was indicted in Smart's kidnapping in March 2008, six years after she was taken from her Salt Lake City home at knifepoint. His competency for trial is in question and a 10-day hearing is set to begin Nov. 30.

Debate over proposed witnesses Richard Forbes and Dr. Daniel Peterson dominated the arguments during Monday's two-hour hearing over evidence and a list of proposed witnesses for the competency proceedings.

Defense attorneys also want to exclude any other witnesses who are not mental health professionals trained to evaluate competency, along with Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist hired by the U.S. attorney's office to evaluate Mitchell. A report by Welner, portions of which have been made public, concludes that Mitchell is competent and is feigning symptoms of mental disorders to avoid prosecution.

Defense attorneys maintain Mitchell suffers from a delusional disorder. They contend Welner has mischaracterized the evidence and used faulty methodology in reaching his conclusions. Mitchell was twice found incompetent for trial in Utah's state court system and his case there is stalled.

A ruling from Kimball is expected within a week.

An excommunicated member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mitchell was an itinerant street preacher before the June 2002 kidnapping. He dressed in robes and opined about his beliefs in a 27-page manifesto called the Book of Immanuel David Isaiah.

Among other beliefs, Mitchell's writings espouse the practice of polygamy. Smart has testified that Mitchell took her as a plural wife in a quickie religious ceremony at a mountainside camp within hours of her abduction in June 2002, when she was 14.

On Monday, U. S. Assistant Attorney Richard Lambert said previous evaluators who have deemed Mitchell incompetent have "misjudged and misunderstood the content and context" of his religious thoughts and writings. Lambert wants the writings of violent Utah polygamist Ervil LeBaron entered as evidence for a comparison.

Lambert said Forbes, a former cop and expert on Mormon fundamentalist sects, and Peterson, a Brigham Young University professor of Islamic studies, can explain how Mitchell's writings and personal revelations closely mirror those of LeBaron, whose followers carried out numerous murders upon his command.

LeBaron, who died in prison, was never considered incompetent and is said to have used religious revelation to justify behavior. Lambert said the same is true for Mitchell whose carefully reasoned and organized work belies any alleged incompetence.

"Whatever else Mr. Mitchell is ... whether he is grandiose, whether he is narcissistic, whether he is manipulative, whether he is malingering ... the one thing he is not is delusional," Lambert said.

Defense attorney Audrey James rejected the comparison to LeBaron as unfair and said mental illness can't be diagnosed based on the content of a person's religious beliefs.

"The government is trying to draw an artificial nexus between Mr. Mitchell and Mr. LeBaron that doesn't exist. They never met," James said.