Salt Lake City, UT – Eight years after Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping, the trial opened yesterday for the man accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting the Salt Lake City when she was a teenager. KUER's Jenny Brundin reports.
In 2002, one-time street preacher Bryan David Mitchell allegedly abducted 14-year old Elizabeth Smart at knife-point from the bedroom of her Salt Lake City home. Elizabeth Smart testified last year that Mitchell raped her repeatedly during her nine months in captivity until one day, Mitchell, his wife Wanda Barzee and Elizabeth Smart were spotted walking down a street in Sandy. Smart's father Ed Smart told NBC's Katie Couric about that astonishing moment after he rushed to the police department to see his daughter.
SMART: I ran over and I grabbed her, and I just grabbed her and just hugged her.
It's taken another seven years for the case to come to trial because of questions over whether Mitchell is mentally competent to stand trial. He was twice found incompetent in state court. The case jumped to federal court, where Mitchell's appointed defense team say they will put forth an insanity defense. Yesterday morning, Mitchell entered the courtroom in a tan jail jumpsuit singing hymns, hands clasped in prayer. After 20 minutes of singing, he was kicked out of the courtroom to a nearby room to watch the proceedings on video. During his state competency hearing a year ago, federal defender Bob Steele told reporters he tried to engage Mitchell in his own defense.
STEELE: I don't believe he can rationally assist me in presenting his case.
Yesterday - once order in the court was restored, prosecutors and defenders got to work questioning prospective jurors from a pool of 220. There were several key questions. One, how much did jurors know about the case? Nearly all knew about it. And many provided details about what they'd read or heard in the media. But some emphasized that they don't always trust the news media to tell the truth. Defense attorneys asked jurors what they thought was "true" about Smart's disappearance. Most said they believed the man accused - Mitchell - was probably the man who took Smart from her house. That prompted defense attorneys to ask Judge Dale Kimball to dismiss 16 of the 17 questioned. They argued that the jurors had predetermined Mitchell's guilt. A second question was what jurors thought of the "insanity defense." Many acknowledged they didn't know what "not-guilty by reason of insanity" involved. One woman said she felt "in her gut, it's an excuse." Those who said they would never consider such a verdict were dismissed. Others said they could support a verdict with sufficient evidence. Dr. Hank Fradella is chair of department of criminal justice at California State University at Long Beach. He says research has found public sentiment towards the insanity defense is overwhelmingly negative. Research also shows that people think it is much more widely used than it is.
FRADELLA: People don't understand that it's used in fewer than 1 percent of all felony cases and certainly they don't understand that overwhelming in of the time that it's used, it's unsuccessful.
Jurors were also asked about their experience with sexual abuse. Virtually every juror recounted an example of sexual abuse or assault in their immediate or extended family. Defense attorneys argued in most of the cases that the juror's emotional turmoil or anxiety over the experience resulted in "implied bias." In some cases the judge disagreed, arguing that the juror appeared to be able to put emotions aside. By day's end, Judge Kimball retained 9 jurors - and dismissed 8. More will be questioned today. Eventually, attorneys will whittle the number to 12, plus alternates. Federal defenders and prosecutors weren't giving comments yesterday but Mitchell's former step-daughter 37-year old Rebecca Woodridge spoke to reporters outside the courthouse. She said he can't get a fair trial in Utah.
WOODRIDGE: They've already formed their opinion on him .
Woodridge visits Mitchell regularly in jail. She says he doesn't say much, and mostly preaches. She doesn't think he belongs in prison.
WOODRIDGE: He needs a lot of help.
Jury selection, meanwhile, could go on for several more days. Meantime - Elizabeth Smart is expected to testify later in the trial.