December 10th, 2010
05:02 PM ET

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

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Emanuella Grinberg

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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Filed under: 360° Radar • Crime & Punishment
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Kim

    The judge in the Elizabeth Smart case did a fantstic job in this case and I'm glad that her kidnapper was found guilty there is something wrong with him but he's definitely isn't insane justice was served

    December 10, 2010 at 10:45 pm |
  2. Annie Kate

    The judge by putting the defendant in his own room where he could see and hear his trial but not disrupt it did the smartest thing available to do. I don't think the defendant has been denied his rights so on appeal the judge's approach should be approved of.

    December 10, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
  3. Donna Wood (731)307-1125 Lexington, Tn.

    I feel for the Judge in these situations, I really do! And thanks to this story I understand a little better the difficulty involved in prosecuting these cases. And may I say to the Judge involved in the Elizabeth Smart case, bravo, job very well done!

    December 10, 2010 at 6:13 pm |