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.
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