September 1, 2009

Mitchell slated for epic competency hearing

In what is shaping up as one of the longest and most intricate competency hearings in history, Brian David Mitchell has finally been slated for a hearing in late November that is expected to last 10 days.

Mitchell, you will recall, is accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart of Utah back in 2002. A self-proclaimed prophet, he allegedly planned to make her one of his wives. (Unlike Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was held hostage for 18 years and bore two children with her abductor, Ms. Smart was held captive for only nine months and reportedly readjusted well.) Wanda Eileen Barzee, Mitchell's estranged wife and codefendant, was found incompetent about five years ago and has been at the Utah State Hospital ever since; no date has been set for her competency hearing.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are sparring over who will testify at the upcoming hearing.

The prosecution submitted a list of 39 witnesses. It included expert witnesses, police officers, and staff members at the Utah State Hospital, as well as "former friends, acquaintances, co-workers, ecclesiastical leaders and family members," according to a story in the Deseret (Utah) News.

Defense attorneys contend that many of these witnesses should be excluded because they do not have any information about Mitchell’s current state of mind. The relevant time frames in a competency determination are the present and short-term future, not the distant past.

Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist from New York City, is expected to be the star witness for the prosecution.

Welner is a renowned expert who has testified in a number of high-profile criminal cases. An associate professor at NYU School of Medicine and an adjunct professor at Duquesne University Law School in Pennsylvania, in 1996 he founded a monthly periodical, the Forensic Echo. Two years later, he founded what is billed as the first forensic peer-review consultation practice, The Forensic Panel. In a procedure designed to minimize examiner bias, panel members must expose their work to the scrutiny of peers to minimize examiner bias. One of his more controversial creations is the "Depravity Scale," which attempts to quantify evil. Welner is also a frequent media commentator.

In his "voluminous" report, Welner reportedly opines that Mitchell may meet criteria for narcissistic personality disorder or other personality disorders. Typically, as opposed to severe psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, the personality disorders are not deemed severe enough to make a person incompetent to stand trial.

For further reading, I highly recommend Judge Judith Atherton's 2005 competency opinion in the case, a thoughtful analysis of competency as it pertains to religiosity. Evaluations by esteemed forensic psychologists Jennifer Skeem and Stephen Golding and psychiatrist Noel Gardner are discussed. I have made it available HERE.

Related resources:Deseret News: Mitchell attorneys want fewer witnesses

The Recurrence of an Illusion: The Concept of "Evil" in Forensic Psychiatry, by James L. Knoll, IV (critical commentary on Dr. Welner's Depravity Scale)

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