Former street preacher gets life in Smart case

May 25, 2011 - 5:57 PM
Elizabeth Smart

FILE - This Dec. 10, 2010 file photo shows Elizabeth Smart speaking to the media following the guilty verdict in the Brian David Mitchell trial outside federal court in Salt Lake City. Nearly nine years after she was taken at knifepoint, raped and held captive, Smart is set to publicly confront her kidnapper, Mitchell, for the first time Wednesday, May 25, 2011, when he is scheduled to be sentenced. (AP Photo/Colin E Braley, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Nearly nine years after she was abducted at knifepoint from her bed, Elizabeth Smart watched Wednesday as a federal judge ordered a street preacher to spend the rest of his life in prison for kidnapping and raping her while holding her captive for months.

The sentencing of Brian David Mitchell closed a major legal chapter in the heartbreaking ordeal that stalled for years after Mitchell was declared mentally ill and unfit to stand trial in state court.

"I know that you know what you did is wrong," Smart said to Mitchell, who sang quietly in the courtroom. "You took away nine months of my life that can never be returned."

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball handed down two life sentences for Mitchell at the hearing in Salt Lake City. A jury earlier unanimously convicted the 57-year-old Mitchell in December of kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor across state lines for sex.

Smart was 14 when she was snatched from the bedroom of her family home in Salt Lake City. Wednesday was the first time she faced her kidnapper in court; he was removed from the trial for singing hymns when she testified.

Now 23, she testified in excruciating detail about waking up in the early hours of June 5, 2002, to the feel of a cold, jagged knife at her throat and being whisked away by Mitchell to his camp in the foothills near the family home.

Within hours of the kidnapping, she testified, she was stripped of her favorite red pajamas, draped in white, religious robes and forced into a polygamous marriage with Mitchell. She was tethered to a metal cable strung between two trees and subjected to near-daily rapes while being forced to use alcohol and drugs.

The sex charge was based on Mitchell transporting her to California for five of the nine months.

The disappearance and a massive search to find the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl riveted the nation, as did her improbable recovery while walking with her captor on a suburban Salt Lake City-area street on March 12, 2003.

Though Smart testified at Mitchell's trial, she never addressed him directly then, because he was removed from the courtroom each day after singing hymns to disrupt the proceedings. Smart was a steady, clear-voiced witness who never wavered with emotion, even as she described the horrific events of what she called her "nine months of hell."

She recalled being forced to live homeless, dress in disguises and stay quiet or lie about her identity if ever approached by strangers or police. Daily, her life and those of her family members were threatened by Mitchell, she has said.

On Wednesday, her father spoke to the man who kidnapped his daughter

"Exploitation of religion is not a defense," Ed Smart said. "You put Elizabeth through nine months of psychological hell."

The facts of the case have never been in dispute, but defense attorneys have said Mitchell's actions were tainted by mental illness and long-held delusional beliefs that he had been commanded by God to fulfill important prophecies.

Smart, who described her captor as vulgar and self-serving, testified that she believed Mitchell was driven by his desire for sex, drugs and alcohol, not by any sincere religious beliefs.

"Nine months of living with him and seeing him proclaim that he was God's servant and called to do God's work and everything he did to me and my family is something that I know that God would not tell somebody to do," Smart said during the trial.

Much of the case has turned on questions over Mitchell's mental health. In federal court he was deemed competent for trial, but a parallel state case — where he remains charged with six felonies — stalled after a judge twice determined he was unfit and rejected a petition for forced treatment.

Mitchell finally stood trial after a key witness for federal prosecutors, New York forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, concluded Mitchell was "malingering" or faking a mental disorder to avoid prosecution.

Defense attorneys maintain Mitchell needs psychiatric attention and asked the judge to recommend incarceration in a federal prison hospital rather than a standard prison.

Wanda Barzee, Mitchell's estranged wife and a co-defendant in the case, is already serving a 15-year sentence in a federal prison hospital in Texas for her role in the kidnapping.

Barzee, 65, pleaded guilty to federal kidnapping and unlawful transportation charges in November 2009. Upon her release, Barzee is expected to be transferred to the Utah State Prison to serve a sentence on a conviction in a companion case involving the attempted abduction in 2002 of Smart's cousin.