News Organizations Seek Open Competency Hearings in Smart Case

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News organizations are opposing a judge's decision to close the mental competency hearings of the couple accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart (search).

Third District Judge Judith Atherton will hold a hearing Monday on petitions asking her to reverse her decision to have the hearings, set for later this month, closed.

A homeless couple, Brian David Mitchell, 50, and Wanda Barzee, 57, are charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated burglary in the June 5, 2002, abduction of the then 14-year-old girl. She was found in their company nine months later.

Mitchell's attorney, David Biggs, said Mitchell's right to a fair trial would be jeopardized if the competency hearing was open. The judge agreed and closed both his and his wife's hearings.

Jeff Hunt, attorney for the Deseret Morning News, KSL-TV and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, argued in a memo Wednesday that Biggs had failed to show that media coverage would hurt Mitchell's right to a fair trial and that no feasible alternatives to closing the trials exist.

Michael Patrick O'Brien, attorney for The Salt Lake Tribune, also filed court papers Wednesday, arguing that the Utah Supreme Court has held in previous cases that there is a constitutional right of access to mental competency hearings in criminal cases unless closing them will preserve a "higher value."

He has cited a number of high-profile Utah cases in which competency hearings remained open.

Barzee's hearing was set for Jan. 9, while Mitchell's was scheduled for Jan. 27-28.