Defense witness in Brian David Mitchell competency case goes on offensive

She believed in 2004 that he wasn't capable of aiding in his defense

Published: Friday, Dec. 11 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Drawing depicts Dr. Jennifer Skeem, a forensic psychologist from California on the stand Thursday in a hearing for Brian David Mitchell.

Michelle Christensen, Deseret News

One of the expert witnesses for Brian David Mitchell's defense team on Thursday passionately defended her 2004 examination of the man accused of kidnapping and raping Elizabeth Smart.

Jennifer Skeem, a forensic psychologist from California who grew up in Utah, took the stand in federal court during the ninth day of a hearing to determine if Mitchell is competent to stand trial. At times, her testimony seemed less about issues relating to Mitchell's competency and more about what she believed was "character assassination" in previous comments by the government's expert witnesses to discredit her evaluation of Mitchell.

"I'm not a hired gun who intentionally collaborated with an unethical defense team," Skeem said.

Last week, Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist, showed a timeline of events in 2004 leading up to when Mitchell's defense team asked for a new competency review. He criticized notes taken by Skeem and questioned her reasoning for calling Mitchell "situationally competent" in her first report and then incompetent in her second report a short time later. He pointed to a motion from defense attorneys who indicated one of the reasons they wanted a new hearing was because of a decline in Mitchell's "ability to manifest appropriate courtroom behavior."

He said the motion was filed before Mitchell ever displayed inappropriate behavior by repeatedly singing in court.

Skeem said Welner should have focused on the entire petition rather than just one sentence and said he missed its overall meaning.

Skeem said even leading up to her interview with Mitchell, he was "all over the map" with his legal reasoning. At the rate he was going, she believed he would not be able to assist his attorneys in the courtroom. At one point, she said, Mitchell wanted to plead guilty to all the charges against him, believing he would be delivered by God out of jail shortly.

"Dr. Welner gave an interpretation of a small excerpt of my notes," she said. "I'd be happy to review all my notes and what they mean and don't mean."

Skeem also addressed a point raised by Dr. Noel Gardner, the government's other expert witness, that Mitchell would only grant an interview at that time to Skeem, whom he described as a young, attractive female.

"I've never been so offended by something you would think is so flattering," Skeem fired back, adding that she was not a "wide-eyed young miss" that Mitchell was able to "efficiently mislead."

Skeem said she believed Welner had developed his "very strong" opinion of Mitchell before reading her notes, and that some of the testimony given earlier in the hearing trying to discredit her report "bordered on unprofessional."

Skeem said that she currently did not have an opinion on Mitchell's competency because she was not retained by the federal defense team to perform an evaluation. She said she would defer to Dr. Richart DeMier's opinion.

DeMier evaluated Mitchell for 45 days at a federal prison in Missouri in 2008 and determined Mitchell suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He said he believes Mitchell has a factual understanding of the legal proceedings but does not have a rational understanding and is mentally incompetent to stand trial for Smart's kidnapping.

"I think his delusional beliefs, they are not possible," DeMier said. "I think that it is a bizarre belief that he has been ordained and appointed by God … to battle the Antichrist."

It was not a belief of the end of days that makes Mitchell's beliefs delusional, but rather "his insertion of himself personally into that belief that he's a savior," DeMier said. "There's a lack of a rational understanding of what's going on."

Based on the definition outlined in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for mental disorders, DeMier said that because he found Mitchell's delusions to be "bizarre," he declared Mitchell to have schizophrenia based on the criteria.

In his report, DeMier said Mitchell "is preoccupied with these well-entrenched beliefs, they appear to have caused him significant distress, and they have led to a drastic decline in his ability to function effectively in society."

During cross examination, assistant U.S. attorney Diana Hagan brought up the argument that the notion of being the "one mighty and strong" is a common belief among many fundamentalist groups, and having personal revelations from God was a common part of mainstream LDS culture. Even Mitchell's contention that he was the "hand of God" was a direct quote taken from the Book of Mormon.

DeMier acknowledged that cultural context had to be taken into consideration when deciding whether a belief is bizarre or not.

Several video clips of DeMier's interview with Mitchell in 2008 were shown in court Thursday. During one exchange, Mitchell talks coherently and rationally about the legal proceedings against him, seeming to show an understanding of why he was at the federal facility.

Hagan tried to establish an argument that Mitchell was actually trying to obstruct interviews with DeMier by not being cooperative. During portions of the interview, Mitchell spoke in religious speak, using phrases such as "it mattereth not" several times.

At one point, Mitchell tells DeMier, "I understand you have your work to do, and I have my work to do. Our work doesn't mix, like wine and water."

DeMier said he does not believe Mitchell is malingering, or faking an illness to avoid prosecution, adding that most patients who malinger try to exhibit symptoms not consistent with the illness they're trying to fake.

For example, some patients will claim to see little green men in their rooms, he said. Mitchell's delusions, on the other hand, are consistent with schizophrenic delusions.

Furthermore, DeMier said Mitchell "abhors the thought of (being found incompetent). It's something he can't accept."

In illustrating some of Mitchell's delusions, DeMier said that while at the Utah State Hospital, Mitchell asked staff members about the conversion rate of shekels to U.S. currency in order to pay Ed Smart for his daughter.

DeMier also testified that people who have delusional beliefs don't have to talk about such beliefs all the time. "That doesn't mean they think about it every single minute," he said, adding that a person can act normally in every way until they "trip that trigger to talk about their delusional beliefs."

Hagan countered with a couple of incidents, including the time Mitchell was in Virl Kemp's home in San Diego in 2003 and talked religion at length with him, but acted as a person investigating the church. Mitchell later allegedly returned to Kemp's home in the middle of the night in a failed kidnap attempt of his daughter.

Mitchell has not been seen in the courtroom since the third day of the hearing. He has been transported to the federal courthouse each day of the hearing but has refused to come out of his holding cell. Court proceedings, however, are broadcast into his cell.Skeem testified Thursday that she looked in on Mitchell and found that he had chewed up a napkin, stuck pieces of it in his ears and was turned away from the video screen of the proceedings. She said that was in contrast to earlier testimony from lay prosecution witnesses that Mitchell traditionally acted normally after being removed from the courtroom.

e-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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