Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mitchell Found Guilty In Elizabeth Smart Case

Elizabeth Smart addresses reporters after the verdict
Elizabeth Smart addresses reporters after the verdict

By Jenny Brundin

Salt Lake City, UT –

Eight years after Elizabeth Smart endured a harrowing nine months in captivity, this morning, a five-woman seven-man jury found her kidnapper guilty. 57-year-old Brian David Mitchell now faces a possible lifetime sentence in prison. KUER's Jenny Brundin reports on the verdict and the case that riveted thousands of Utahns.

Elizabeth Smart has been waiting a long time. Since the spring day in 2003, when the 15-year was found with her captors walking down a street, Smart, now 23, has been waiting for her day in court. After five hours of deliberation, the jury read its verdict that Brian David Mitchell was guilty. Smart smiled. She later thanked and hugged each juror. A few hours later, before a crowd of reporters, Smart was triumphant.

SMART: Today is a wonderful day. And I'm so thrilled to be here and I'm so thrilled with the verdict.

After the verdict was read, Brian David Mitchell, eyes closed, was escorted from the courtroom singing about Christ's crucifixion for one last time. Jurors concluded that there was clear and convincing evidence that Mitchell was not insane when he kidnapped and forced Smart out of state to sexually assault her. To be declared legally insane, defense attorneys had to prove that Mitchell had a serious mental disease when he kidnapped Smart, and that he knew what he was doing was wrong. Carlie Christensen, U.S. Attorney for Utah, says Smart's testimony was pivotal to the case.

CHRISTENSEN: That young woman had the ability and the willingness to recall the graphic details of her nine month captivity and she did it with candor and clarity and a truthfulness that I think moved all of us and gave a very powerful and credible story.

Defense attorney Bob Steele believes he did make some headway with the jury, but an uncooperative defendant who would only sing before the judge, didn't help. And he says, Smart's graphic testimony was wrenching.

STEELE: I joked with the prosecution that they could just put her on and sit down.

The verdict caps a 5-week trial that was at times dramatic, at times bogged down in the intricacies of brain science. In the first days of the trial, in a soft voice, Elizabeth Smart recounted her terror when she awoke one June night in 2002 to a sharp knife against her neck. At a campsite in the nearby mountains, she testified, Mitchell proclaimed her to be his wife and then raped her. For six weeks, Smart said she was tethered to a cable between two trees "like an animal." Over the next 9 months, she was raped daily, forced to drink alcohol and wear a veil covering her eyes in public. Throughout her three days of harrowing testimony, Smart was poised, steady and calm. Speaking to reporters, Lois Smart praised her daughter for her courage. She described the day the same way her daughter did 8 years ago, the day Elizabeth was found.

LOIS SMART: I think this is an exceptionally victorious day for us all, as mothers, as women, as daughters.

Ed Smart said he heard things in the trial his daughter never told him, and it was hard.

ED SMART: I think the hardest part was worrying about Elizabeth trying to testify and as a father I was so grateful for her to be able to say and put that behind her and move forward with her life.

The latter half of the trial was far less dramatic, focused on parsing through evidence on whether Mitchell suffered from a serious delusional disorder or schizophrenia, or simply religious extremism. Defense attorneys maintained that Mitchell had a psychotic delusion that God delivered him a young girl to become his wife. Mitchell's estranged wife testified that he had revelations that he would battle the anti-Christ to restore the Mormon Church to its polygamous beginnings. But a parade of witnesses testified that Mitchell's religious persona waxed and waned, and that he was faking his mental illness. Those witnesses had a big impact on juror number 7.

JUROR #7: He changed up a lot; one of the witnesses called it a switch, flipped it on, and flipped it off. That I think was very convincing for us.

Prosecutors says Mitchell is not a prophet, but a predatory chameleon with the cunning to adapt his behavior to serve his needs and desires. They said when a psychopath, a narcissist and pedophile is exposed to religion, he will use it to control and victimize others. Jurors said a key witness was Dr. Michael Welner, a New York psychiatrist. He says Mitchell's religious ideas have cultural explanations. That is, the notion of a living prophets, and the belief in the "one mighty and strong" who will fight an anti-Christ-- those are common beliefs among the Mormon fringe. Some psychiatrists viewed those beliefs as central to Mitchell's delusion. Welner set them aside. That, he said, helped him figure out Mitchell's root motivations.

WELNER: Nobody asked him about his pedophilia. Think about it. Nobody was talking to him about his pedophilia and you listen to the testimony and it didn't come in. It was the hippopotamus sitting in the room that nobody wanted to talk about."

Welner did and it had a big impact on the jury. Several jurors said they believe Mitchell has a mental illness, but it isn't severe and he knew what he was doing was wrong -- both key for proving legal insanity. Some of Mitchell's family members though, maintain he is insane. Rebecca Woodridge, a stepdaughter of Mitchell's, says she was sexually abused by him for 5 years beginning at age 7. She's supported him and visited him throughout the trial.

WOODRIDGE: I believe in his mind he honestly believes God tells him to do these things,'' Woodridge said. ``And he's upset and frustrated at the Lord for not letting him fulfill the Lord's wishes and putting him through this horrible ordeal.

Mitchell's 87-year-old father Shirl Mitchell said he worries about his son's future.

SHIRL MITCHELL: If he gets slammed into one of these maximum security places, with a lot of sodomite felons, they'll kill em, kill em, and that's what I fear, I agonize over that.

As for Elizabeth Smart, she said today's verdict serves as a message for other crime victims.

SMART: I hope that not only is this an example that justice can be served in America, but that it is possible to move on after something terrible has happened. And that we can speak out and we will be heard.

A sentencing hearing for Brian David Mitchell is May 25. Elizabeth Smart plans to attend.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.