Disorder in the court: What's a judge to do when defendants act out?
December 9th, 2010
10:35 PM ET

Disorder in the court: What's a judge to do when defendants act out?

What do Hustler founder Larry Flynt and Black Panther Bobby Seale have in common with Brian Mitchell, the man accused of kidnapping Utah teen Elizabeth Smart?

All three have been disruptive defendants at their criminal trials, either through sartorial choices (diapers), Christmas hymns ("O Holy Night") or by calling the judge names ("pig").

Distracting defendants pose a tough challenge for judges, who are tasked with maintaining order in the court and preserving a defendant's fair trial rights, even when those interests seem to conflict.

"A judge won’t put up with any kinds of shenanigans or behavior - intentional or unintentional - that might have the effect of swaying the jury one way or another. He wants the jurors focused on the evidence and not the other things," said Paul Lisnek, a trial consultant who has worked on the cases of O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector and Heidi Fleiss.

"But, the judge is also always thinking about getting overturned on appeal," he added. "An appellate court may say, 'Why didn’t you control your courtroom?' "

Mitchell’s disruptions began in pretrial hearings in 2004, when he’d sing and hum to himself –- an action he took toward the end of his police interrogation a year earlier. The behavior continued during his federal trial, which began in October in Salt Lake City.

Each day, he’d enter the courtroom and sing at the defense table. U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball advised him that he’d waive his right to attend his trial if he kept singing. The judge waited, the singing continued and Mitchell was led each day to a room equipped with audio and video feeds, where he could watch the trial.

He’d stop singing as soon as he entered the room, according to testimony.

It was a delicate balancing act for the judge to keep the jury focused while ensuring Mitchell’s right to a fair trial. Mitchell’s rights include the ability to confront witnesses, to defend himself against the accusations and to have the proceedings explained to him at every step of litigation, said Georgia defense attorney Ann Fitz, who is not involved in the Mitchell case.

"He is still being afforded an opportunity to view what’s going on and to hear the evidence being presented, so I think that guarantees his constitutional protections while removing the distraction and allowing the proceedings to continue," Fitz said

There’s the possibility that Mitchell’s behavior may even help his case, Fitz pointed out. His lawyers have raised an insanity defense, claiming that he Mitchell was so delusional he could not understand his actions were wrong when he abducted Smart. Several mental health experts testified for the defense, offering diagnoses that ranged from delusional to psychotic to paranoid schizophrenic.

"If he is so convinced in his mind that he is a prophet and that the kidnapping and rape of a young innocent girl was somehow part of his religious beliefs, then that would negate the criminal intent of actually committing crime for a malicious purpose," Fitz explained.

Mitchell’s singing, taken with his unkempt appearance in jailhouse garb, long, tousled hair and scraggly, chest-length beard, might help his "crazy" look, Fitz said.

"If he's displaying this persona of someone who sing songs and that all goes along with the religious insanity defense, I think that’s helpful to him," she said.

Mitchell has been far less obstreperous than Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panthers who was one of eight defendants to stand trial for the violent demonstrations at the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

More "Disorder in the Court" on truTV.com

Seale repeatedly called U.S. District Judge  Julius Hoffman a "pig," a "fascist" and a "rat," and the judge ordered Seale gagged and bound to his chair.

But Seale wasn’t the only one to rankle Hoffman during the trial, which turned into a venue for the defendants to espouse their political beliefs. By the trial's end in February 1970, Hoffman had found the defendants and their attorneys guilty of 175 counts of contempt of court and sentenced them to jail terms from two to four years.

Larry Flynt, founder and publisher of Hustler, appeared in court throughout the 1970s and 1980s on charges related to the edgy smut on the pages of his magazine. He sported T-shirts with expletives and provocative slogans in court and wore an American flag as a diaper during his obscenity trials.

Flynt was jailed for contempt on numerous occasions.

In some cases, a defendant can't help but who he is, and that also sends a message to the jury, said Lisnek, the trial consultant. Whether that message helps or harms someone depends on whether jurors base their verdict solely on the evidence.

"As a jury consultant, we’re concerned about all sorts of things nonverbal. We tell our clients, the jury is always looking at you," he said. "They’re watching everything."

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Filed under: Crime • Elizabeth Smart
soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. GodFearingChristian

    That David Mitchell is the anti Jesus. I certainly hope my lord and savior wasn't like this psycho.

    December 9, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • I

      well i am orthodox christian but why fear god he is a all loving god i think only reason to fear him yes he is all powerful but stay unsinful you got nothing to worry about

      December 10, 2010 at 1:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Diane

      I'm in favor of bringing back the cattle prod with the electrical tip. I want something out of a Planet of the Apes movie where we hang them from a net before the jury too if they turn into a royal pain in the ass.

      December 10, 2010 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
    • SeventhSon

      He sure looks alot like Jesus.

      December 10, 2010 at 2:17 am | Report abuse |
    • anon

      White angl-saxon Jesus?

      December 10, 2010 at 2:23 am | Report abuse |
    • SeventhSon

      Ok, ok he sure looks like the common western portrayal of Jesus.

      December 10, 2010 at 3:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Clint

      He isn't very insane if he sings in court then stops when he is removed, that sounds like attention seeking behavior to me. Whatever the "delusion" he knows that in our society kidnapping is wrong, and at any point he could have said something but didn't.

      December 10, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • alumette

      your lord and savior...does it not sound like some archaic primitive time in human history when peasants were slaves of the "lord and savior" kind of persona? I never get that use of our language.

      December 10, 2010 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • jason van atta

      wow creepy. you have doubts in your mind that ol jesus was a pedophile. freaking me out man......

      December 11, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ConfusedReader

    Why is there a picture of Jim Morrison on here?

    December 10, 2010 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  3. LiamNeason

    Release the Cracken!!! One day you will be a Jedi that's fully capable of sword fighting with the best of them.

    December 10, 2010 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Alfred, Lord Tennyson

      It's spelled, "Kraken," you half-wit.

      December 10, 2010 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
    • LiamNeason

      Whoah easy killer. I don't spell the word kraken everyday. I just think this guy looks like Qui gon jin. Sorry if I spelled that wrong Alfred. Go tend to master Bruce now. Off you go.

      December 10, 2010 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  4. Bill

    Since when did it become so difficult deciding what to do with a piece of shvt?

    December 10, 2010 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
  5. Doug

    This guy knows very well what he's done is wrong.. If the really believed he were a prophet then he would not hide in the woods for months, he would not have held Elizabeth captive.. What he did to that innocent child he should die for.. I just hope the jury sees right through him.. But, on the other hand, I would not want to be charged with his crime in Utah.. That in itself could be grounds for appeal..

    December 10, 2010 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
  6. Donald Funkhouser

    This guy's a dirt bag American. Convict him and get it over with. Oh wait, can't do that because the appeals process will take forever as he sits in jail sucking US taxpayers money.

    December 10, 2010 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
  7. Becca

    Get rid of this poor excuse of a human! He is guilty so why use up Tax dollars for a trial. This is just too stupid. If our justice system does not want to put him to death so he does not do this again then they just need to put him in a tiger cage and let them eat him alive. For all we know he may have killed other women too. STOP wasting time on this goof ball. I just do not understand our court system at all when it is a known fact that a poor excuse for a person is guilty! There is no need to prove him quilty he has done the crime already and does not need to prove he is not quilty he is guilty! He is just doing all this stuff so they will think he is crazy and not keep him in jail. If he is sent to a looney bim the will excape no doubt and be left out to do the crime again and again.

    December 10, 2010 at 1:52 am | Report abuse |
  8. bremen3011

    Wish there was a scientific way to make sure he is insane if he is and was in his own sphere of mind when he committed the crimes. Because I for one if caught and charged would do everything in my power to make the jury think I was insane because I would get a less severe punishment most likely.
    People use this ploy all the time, and it happens more and more. So yes a scientific examination f the suspect in question during a trial (if it's possible) would be nice to have handy to make sure the defendant really is truly insane.

    December 10, 2010 at 2:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Protoman

      They have EEG technology to map brain activity. There still needs to be lots of research though. The brain is very complex. People like this guy give mentally ill a bad name. I've volunteered with mentally ill people and they are quite nice if not hilarious to be around. People are trained by their surroundings to be violent or sociopathic. Look at modern entertainment and tell me that the supposed normal people among us aren't a little sick.

      December 10, 2010 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  9. anon

    Why give the insane special rights or privledges if they are a danger to society? Crminally insane should always end in the death penalty because they are a danger to all and not curable. Tax payers should not have to pay for keeping the criminally insane alive if they are a threat.

    December 10, 2010 at 2:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Oy.

      Very astute opinion you have, Perry Mason. There's this little thing called "intent" which relates to how children, the mentally disabled and the insane form their thoughts. You should perhaps move to Uganda – I hear they don't have silly things like "justice" there.

      December 10, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  10. phil

    Everyone entering a courtroom should be sworn in. This would include judges, jurors,(especially when they are trying to reach a verdict) lawyers, district attorneys, etc. No more licensed liars in the court. This would settle things down quite a bit.

    December 10, 2010 at 2:23 am | Report abuse |
  11. Kirpopp

    Yea he looks like Jesus. Hate to break it to ya all but Jesus is not real.. The bible was made up. Mary was no virgin..It's all a farce. Go out and buy some presents....his birthday is pretty soon.

    December 10, 2010 at 2:39 am | Report abuse |
    • A.l

      He looks more like charls manson

      December 10, 2010 at 3:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Protoman

      There are some truths in the Bible, but it requires one to actually not take things so literally. The snake in the garden of eden at the tree of knowledge was just a metaphor for a liar ruining a loving and innocent relationship between a man and a woman. I don't follow any particular religion, but think there are some good things about it. If everyone waited for marriage to engage in "relations" you'd see a serious decline in STDs, deadbeat dads, and broken homes. I don't follow any particular religion, but can see some good in it. It's the nutcases (snakes) that twist religion causing some mindless sheep to hurt others in the name of God. I buy gifts for my family at christmas because I like doing nice things for people, not because I think Jesus will reward me.

      December 10, 2010 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Protoman

      Sorry about the repeat sentence.

      December 10, 2010 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  12. Nina

    Religious and insanity are two words that go together like milk and cookies. No surprise here.

    December 10, 2010 at 2:58 am | Report abuse |
  13. Anonymous

    Can we just sentence this man to death already? I used to think that with his evil ways he deserved to suffer in prison the rest of his life, but at this point I just say kill him.... the world doesn't need people like this is it

    December 10, 2010 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
  14. Chef Sun

    I have some very sharp chef knives that can be used to end his singing. I'll be glad to render my services to the court free of charge.

    December 10, 2010 at 3:05 am | Report abuse |
  15. Denny Hayes

    This article was about 3 cases, but they did not really have a lot in common. I have read the court transcripts in the Larry Flynt case, and it was very obvious, in both the transcripts and the movie that the judger was way out of line. Flynt and his attorney could see that he was being railroaded, and the supreme court agreed. Cincinnati courts are well none for abuse, so to push their buttons was the only way to end up with a fair result. But in this Smart case the court was proceeding properly, but the defendant is definitely weird or nuts. To me anyone who believes in any deity is a little nuts and not very rational. But the death penalty sentence is a little out of line when there were no deaths involved. And when you consider another of today's news items showing both vast prosecurial misconduct and well as incompetent defenses, the finality of the death penalty issues great risk. But from the other comments here, I can see very little empathy for anyone who is different from the norm, and a prevalence for the annihilation of those who are different, which is what the muslins are trying to do to us.

    December 10, 2010 at 3:19 am | Report abuse |
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