Brian David Mitchell suffers from bizarre delusions, doctor testifies
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The defense for Brian David Mitchell rested Thursday, ending with a psychologist who believes the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart was mentally ill at the time of the abduction.
Richart DeMier met with Mitchell at the federal prison in Springfield, Mo., when Mitchell was first transferred into federal custody in late 2008 and an initial competency evaluation was ordered. On Thursday, as he did during Mitchell's federal competency hearing in 2009, DeMier said he believed Mitchell had paranoid schizophrenia.
He explained in court that his diagnosis was based partially on his belief that Mitchell suffers from bizarre delusions, which are generally characterized as having ideas that are not plausible.
"Nobody believes that it is possible for Brian Mitchell to be the Davidic king," DeMier said.
If Mitchell had non-bizarre delusions, or ideas that were plausible but highly unlikely, such as being elected president, DeMier said he would have diagnosed him with delusional disorder. But he said the difference between delusional disorder and paranoid schizophrenia was very small.
DeMier was on the witness stand for the majority of the day Thursday, answering oftentimes technical questions such as the differences between delusional disorder and personality disorder, extreme religious views versus delusions, the definition of malingering and why Mitchell didn't seem to be consumed with his religious views 24-7.
He said there wasn't an exact science for determining a delusion versus an extreme religious view, and part of what he did was subjective. But he also said that dealing with people with possible mental illnesses isn't a black and white issue.
"There's a great risk in applying logical rules to an assessment of mental disorder behavior," he said. "Mental illnesses aren't logical."
DeMier also said that he had never had as many records to review for a patient as he had available to him for Mitchell.
DeMier said Mitchell's delusions are both "grandiose" and "paranoid" because he believed he had been ordained by God to undertake a special role and suffer as Christ had suffered, but that he would also be mistreated, harmed and possibly brought close to death before his triumphant return.
Mitchell's delusions differed from extreme religious beliefs, DeMier said. As an example, he said it was interesting to note that even those with extreme religious beliefs have some sort of following. Beyond Mitchell's wife, Wanda Barzee, no one seemed to adhere to Mitchell's religious ideologies.
Even Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven's Gate religious group had at least three dozen followers, who committed suicide with him in 1997.
DeMier said he found Mitchell to be intelligent and he admitted that people with delusions were capable of being good planners.
During Thursday's testimony, clips of several videotaped interviews were shown to the jury. A few of the clips were from DeMier's interviews with Mitchell at the Springfield prison. DeMier conducted six interviews, about half of them videotaped. He stopped taping after the fourth interview because Mitchell declined to do any more interviews in front of a camera.
He believes Mitchell talked to him early on because he just let Mitchell talk about whatever he wanted to talk about.
"He said he'd speak to me as long as he thought my heart and my spirit were open to his message," DeMier said.
But when Mitchell stopped talking to DeMier, he told him, "It's not what's changed, it's what hasn't changed — your heart."
DeMier described Mitchell as appearing disappointed, like he thought he had a chance of breaking through to DeMier with his message.
The other was an interview investigators conducted with Smart just days after she was found. It was the first time the video had been shown in public. In the video clip, a young-looking Smart with long blond hair talked about how Mitchell thought his mission was to lead the children out of Israel, have hand-to-hand combat with the Antichrist and establish a new Zion.
Because of Smart's memory and ability to describe events in detail, DeMier said he gave her interview a lot of credence when making a diagnosis on Mitchell.
Prosecutors pointed out that Smart also said several times during the same interview that she did not believe Mitchell's religious beliefs were sincere.
If Mitchell was able to talk about other subjects, did that mean he wasn't delusional because he was constantly preoccupied by his religious delusion? DeMier said he believed Mitchell learned sometimes it was best to keep his mouth shut.
"He learned there was no use talking about his beliefs all the time," DeMier said.
But that didn't mean he wasn't preoccupied internally about his beliefs. Because of that, DeMier said it wouldn't be possible to always be able to pick out a person with paranoid schizophrenia from across the room.
"Apart from the delusional belief, a person with a delusional belief can appear quite unimpaired," he said. "Only when you start to talk about the context of the belief that the person starts to unravel.
"People with delusional beliefs are able to get their day-to-day needs met. They can hold jobs, they can have relationships, they can drive, shop, take care of their hygiene. Except for their delusional belief, they're hard to distinguish from everybody else."
There was also talk Thursday about words that Mitchell made up, oftentimes by combining two regular words to make one. DeMier said that could be another sign of a paranoid schizophrenic.
Prosecutors countered by asking if that meant a person who used the word "refudiate," such as Sarah Palin, or coined phrases such as "three-peat" or "guesstimate" also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
Questions were also raised about Mitchell's speech pattern itself, and why he sometimes talked in archaic or biblical language and at other times talked normally. DeMier said Mitchell told him it was because when speaking about religion, he used biblical terms to signify the holiness of what he was talking about.
"Sometimes we use speech to underscore how important something is," Demier said Mitchell told him.
In addition to Mitchell's delusions, "the family history of mental illness just cannot be ignored" when it comes to Mitchell's diagnosis, DeMier said. Mitchell's grandfather was institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia and though Mitchell's father was never officially diagnosed with a mental illness, his 1,000-page tome has been described as very disorganized and rambling.
Even from his teen years, DeMier said there were signs of mental illness in Mitchell.
As for malingering, DeMier said he didn't see that in Mitchell. He pointed out that people who are malingering want desperately to be seen as mentally ill. Mitchell, on the other hand, felt a finding of mentally ill would be detrimental because no one would listen to his message if he was deemed incompetent.
During cross-examination, prosecutors pointed out that DeMier was only assigned to determine whether Mitchell was, in 2008, competent at that time to stand trial. He was not asked to look at whether Mitchell was mentally ill during the nine months Smart was missing.
Prosecutors also noted that Mitchell was the only person DeMier interviewed for his report.
He countered by saying Mitchell has been very consistent in his delusions. And based on the information he was presented, he didn't believe he needed to put Smart through another interview.
"The volume of information I had was so rich and so thorough, and the information was so consistent, I had no reason to believe I'd get any additional information," he said.
During another video segment of DeMier's interview with Mitchell, prosecutors showed how Mitchell seemed to avoid all questions from DeMier that dealt with delusions.
"I understand you have your work to do, I also have my work to do," Mitchell told DeMier, comparing the objectives of the two men to wine mixing with water.
In other segments of the interview, Mitchell tells DeMier that "we're all mentally ill to some degree."
DeMier agreed a person's delusional beliefs occur within the culture that person is most familiar with. In Mitchell's case, it is the LDS Church.
"The delusional part is he's inserting himself," DeMier said.
In one example given by the prosecution, they noted a passage that DeMier had used from Mitchell's "Book of Immanuel David Isaiah" that he cited as being hard to understand and delusional. The passage was actually lifted straight from the Book of Mormon and inserted into Mitchell's manuscript. The only change was Mitchell inserting his name into the passage.
Prosecutors also noted that Mitchell often referred to the "one mighty and strong," a phrase taken from the Doctrine and Covenants and used by other leaders of fundamentalist groups. When asked if that meant all those fundamentalist leaders are also delusional, DeMier said the potential was at least a possibility, but he couldn't make a judgment based solely on that information.
Prosecutors also raised the question of whether those who claim to be the "one mighty and strong" might just be narcissistic rather than delusional.
"When one claims to be the right hand of God, it generally goes beyond narcissism," DeMier said.
Prosecutors also spent time trying to show that Mitchell wasn't sincere about his religious beliefs. DeMier, however, said, "I believe his delusional beliefs are sincere."
But prosecutors also got DeMier to admit there was no foolproof way to determine a true delusion from a psychopathy, which is considered a personality disorder and not a mental illness.
DeMier has been asked to testify on many competency and insanity cases in the past, but this was the first time he ever testified on behalf of the defense.
Even though the defense rested Thursday, the case is still not close to being done. Prosecutors are expected to call about five days worth of rebuttal witnesses. They started Thursday with Daniel Peterson, a professor of religious studies at BYU and an expert in religious texts.
During Mitchell's 2009 competency hearing, Peterson testified that the Book of Immanuel was intelligently written, coherent and "marinated in scripture."
"It's astonishing how many references there are to previously canonized scriptures," he said. "It's a quite impressive production. … These are not poorly chosen examples. They are very sophisticated," he said in 2009.
Peterson is expected to finish his testimony today.
On Wednesday, the defense filed a motion to have Peterson's testimony excluded, saying it wasn't relevant because he was not qualified to make a determination as to a person's mental health.
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