December 10, 2010

News flash: Epic trial ends with sanity verdict

It took a jury only five hours to decide that Brian David Mitchell does not meet Utah's legal definition of insanity, and to find him guilty of all charges in the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart.

The high-profile case teems with issues of import to forensic psychology and psychiatry, including malingering and the boundary between delusions and extreme religious beliefs.

The trial, as in the many past hearings, featured dueling experts. On one side was prominent New York City psychiatrist Michael Welner, who said Mitchell was sane and malingering a mental disorder to escape criminal liability. Defense attorneys criticized both Welner's fees, a whopping $750,000 (no, that's not a typo), and his methods. For example, he had FBI agents conduct about 30 interviews on his behalf, according to an Associated Press report by Jennifer Dobner.

On the other side was psychologist Richart DeMier, who evaluated Mitchell for 45 days at a federal prison in Missouri in 2008 and diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. During his full day of testimony, DeMier was vigorously questioned about the sometimes-muddy distinctions between delusions and extreme religious views, a central issue throughout this case. He testified that the distinction is not an exact science, and that mental illness is not always black and white, according to a report in the Deseret News.

Experts also dueled ferociously at Mitchell's competency hearing last year. At one point during testimony by Jennifer Skeem, a forensic psychologist from California who grew up in Utah, the proceedings "seemed less about issues relating to Mitchell's competency and more about what she believed was 'character assassination' " by Welner, according to a Deseret News report. "I'm not a hired gun who intentionally collaborated with an unethical defense team," Skeem told the court.

Crazy or not, the self-styled prophet maintained his typically bizarre behavior during the reading of the verdict, loudly singing the hymn, "He Died, the Great Redeemer Died."

Judge Kimball’s 149-page competency ruling, which I highly recommended to any of you who do competency work, is HERE.

My previous coverage of this fascinating case, with links to other reports, includes:
Graphics credit: Scott Snow, KSL

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