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. A.l

    Is he charles manson brother?

    December 10, 2010 at 3:27 am | Report abuse |
  2. justice crying

    There is always all sorts of explanations when white criminals act the way they do.All sorts of "logical" explanations and the comments are fair to mild to neutral.Put a black man,Asian or "other " in same spot and ....hell will break loose.White people are inherent criminals–in my ow opinion ,at least!!!!

    December 10, 2010 at 4:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Sheep

      Yes because the continent of Africa and Asia are being ran so wonderfully. I totally agree that white society is the only problem the world faces. The Devil uses race to confuse us and most people are too lazy to get to know someone else who looks different than them.

      December 10, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. sburg

    they should just start public hangings again. we had one of the last ones in the us in my town square. don't see anything wrong with it

    December 10, 2010 at 4:17 am | Report abuse |
  4. Ken Wood

    So, as Ftiz says, just act, convincingly, crazy in court and you might get off or just go to the funny farm???

    December 10, 2010 at 4:21 am | Report abuse |
  5. Ken Wood

    And, if the guy convinces them he is crazy or that his 'intent' was "good", in some twisted definition of the word, then he can get off or get less time or just go to the funny farm (where life is beautiful all the time...) for a little while for kidnapping a minor and raping her many multiple times and taking a minor across state border and raping her many more multiple times, in another twisted sense of the word, "OK", or "not so bad".... is this what Fitz is saying??? someone help me here...

    December 10, 2010 at 4:27 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ken Wood

    ok, and besides, a "real" "prophet" would not go around kidnapping young girls and raping them... am i right on this?

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

    search online for "United Forensic College". You can earn as much as $65,850 with a Criminal Justice Degree by solving crimes

    December 10, 2010 at 6:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. Frank

    People of the United States.
    All of the above comments about punishment in cases like this show what probably a good majority of people in this country would have done in cases like this.But unfortunity we have to go thru the system as it is structured because we have to be civilized in this country.if a defendant become so disruptive in Court,I would recommend the "Hanibal Lector" method of restraint to bring the defentant into Court.I am sure the defendants lawyer would object on grounds it would prejudice the jury.But,so what.

    December 10, 2010 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
  9. USMC Ret.

    Years ago Texas voted to give guys like this the death penalty, but the supreme court ruled against it. They said it was to cruel a punishment for the level of the crime. Well how about now???? Killing this guy and guys like him, just doesn't seem like it's such a bad thing after all.

    December 10, 2010 at 11:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Protoman

      What bothers me is that he was allowed to fester among society for so long. People should start being more vigilant about people like this.

      December 10, 2010 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. indra

    Judges should be allowed to beat the annoying defendants with their gavel. Smack them and then say something witty like "Oh you could have just had a V8." What was with the jedi comment? lol Skywalker battled the Rancor not the kraken.

    December 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Richard in Texas

    Yeah I agree. Who needs our legal system. Like the majority of the people here are saying. Let's either have lynchings or a legal system like China or the former Soviet Union.

    December 10, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  12. thinker

    I know what to do with him: everytime he acts out take him down to the local prison yard and chain him to a tree, leave him cold naked and hungry, then let all the imates have conjugal visits with him as often as they please, just like he did to Elizibeth. Then maybe he will shut up in court.

    December 10, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  13. TanCountryGirl

    Put some duct tape over his mouth and nose! Maybe he'll shut up then!! LOSER PIECE OF DIRT!!

    December 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      First stuff a dead rat in his mouth b/4 the Duct Tape.

      December 10, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mr.mark

    what's missing is a big, tattooed fist crunching into his delicate little nose!

    December 10, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jim

    Castrate him and get it over with. We need to think about the people he committed crimes against

    December 10, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
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