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SALT LAKE CITY -- The courtroom saga surrounding the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart has taken an unexpected twist. Prosecutors want to explore one of accused kidnapper's religious beliefs to prove he is not mentally incompetent to stand trial.
The U.S. Attorney's Office is asking the judge to allow testimony from two experts; one is an expert on scripture, the other is a veteran investigator of the murderous Ervil LeBaron polygamy cult.The key question still is whether Brian David Mitchell is mentally competent to stand trial. The prosecution wants non-psychiatric experts to address what may seem like a strange issue: Are Mitchell's beliefs "delusional," or are they "just odd, mistaken or extreme," as the prosecutors' motion phrases it? In the 1970s and ‘80s followers of Ervil LeBaron left a trail of more than two dozen bodies across Mexico, Utah and other states. LeBaron himself justified the killings in biblical language in his "Book of the New Covenant."
After Brian David Mitchell's arrest for the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, investigators learned he also wrote a book of scripture. In "The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah," Mitchell seems to be saying he has powers greater than God's.Psychiatric experts labeled such beliefs "bizarre" and said they cause Mitchell significant distress and a decline in his ability to function in society. Their conclusion: he's delusional and mentally ill. But in a pretrial motion prosecutors asked the judge to allow two expert witnesses "to demonstrate that Mitchell's religious expression is not 'bizarre' when viewed within context."
Dick Forbes is a veteran investigator and expert on the LeBaron Cult. Prosecutors say, "He will show that there is a cultural explanation for Mitchell's views;" similarities between LeBaron's beliefs and writings and those of Mitchell. LeBaron was eventually convicted of murder and died in the Utah State Prison.
Dr. Daniel Peterson is a BYU Professor of Islamic Studies and an expert on the analysis of scripture. Prosecutors say he "will speak to the coherency of Mitchell's writings." Peterson told us by phone he will testify about whether Mitchell wrote his scripture in an "ecstatic" mental state or whether the writings are "the product of a deliberate, cool mind."
Peterson did not reveal his conclusions to us, and prosecutors barred interviews.
In a motion opposing the testimony, Mitchell's defense team said, "Whether other fringe groups or individuals share similar delusions as Mr. Mitchell's is irrelevant."
A judge will decide later if the two will be allowed to testify.