Brian D. Mitchell, the man charged in the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, was found fit to stand trial this week. Mr. Mitchell has undergone several competency hearings over the years, with reports claiming that he was suffering with everything from “narcissistic delusions” to antisocial personality disorder or possibly schizophrenia.
He has been held in a state psychiatric hospital in Utah since 2005, when he was first found unfit to stand trial. In the years since his admission, the constant observation of hospital staff has provided new information to support the claim that he is not only in fact competent for trial, but also possibly malingering (faking) psychotic symptoms to avoid life in prison.
While his fitness for trial does not rule out the possibility of an insanity plea, it does make it possible for the case to be tried in front of a jury. Being fit for trial means that presently Mr. Mitchell understands the charges against him, the court process, and his own role in the proceedings. If Mr. Mitchell and his lawyers decide to pursue an insanity defense, they will have to prove that he was mentally ill at the time of the crime.
It seems as though this case will take center stage in the media as the trial plays out, with people likely feeling divided about whether or not Mr. Mitchell has a mental illness. Insanity pleas are “hot button” topics in such high profile cases. Despite the amount of media attention, insanity pleas are only raised in about 1% of all cases, and of those who attempt to use this plea, only a small percentage actually succeed.
Something about the insanity defense invokes images of sane people “acting crazy” to avoid spending time in jail; however, the reality is that there are very few people who can fake a mental illness so well that they avoid criminal charges. In fact, many people in our jails and prisons may have had a legitimate mental illness at the time of their crime and were still not able to use an insanity defense.
I think the biggest misperception is in the idea that those who receive a Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) verdict are some how “getting off easy.” While this may be up for debate, my experience working with individuals who have been remanded to psychiatric hospitals for an indefinite period of time after an NGRI verdict does not support this view. In fact, individuals who are found NGRI may spend more time “locked up” than if they had been sentenced to prison.
Of course, there are pros and cons to each, and arguably, neither a civil commitment to a psychiatric hospital nor a prison sentence are positive experiences. It will be interesting in the weeks to come to see how the media portrays mental illness within the legal system regarding the Brian D. Mitchell/Elizabeth Smart case. Stay tuned for updates.