December 17, 2007

Utah court: OK to forcibly medicate accused kidnapper

One of two defendants in the highly publicized Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case in Utah can be forcibly medicated in an attempt to make her competent to stand trial, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled.

Wanda Eileen Barzee has been at the Utah State Hospital for more than three years without making any progress toward competency. Claiming she is the "mother of Zion" and receives messages from God through her television, she shuns treatment and refuses medication.

Friday's ruling upheld an opinion by a district court judge last year that administering antipsychotic medication would be in Barzee's best medical interest.

A key bone of contention is the expected efficacy of antipsychotic medications. State doctors claim that antipsychotic drugs have a 70% chance of making Barzee competent. Defense medical experts counter that the odds were closer to 20%.

Under Sell v. United States, for a defendant to be forcibly medicated to restore competency, a court must find that important government interests are at stake, involuntary medication will significantly further those interests by being "substantially likely" to restore the defendant's competency, the medication is substantially unlikely to have negative side effects, and the medication is medically appropriate.

Barzee and Brian David Mitchell are awaiting trial in the kidnapping and sexual assault of then-14-year-old Elizabeth in 2002. Police say Mitchell, a self-proclaimed prophet, planned to make Elizabeth one of his wives.

The Salt Lake City Tribune and the Deseret Morning News have coverage; the high court opinion is available online here.

Postscript: Judge Judith Atherton's 2005 competency decision in
codefendant Brian David Mitchell's case, a thoughtful analysis of competency as it pertains to religiosity, is online HERE.