SALT LAKE CITY — A federal jury found a rambling street preacher guilty Friday of the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in a case that has tugged at hearts around the nation ever since the Utah teenager was snatched from her bedroom and resurfaced nine months later.
Smart, who aided the conviction with wrenching testimony during the trial, gave a slight smile as she heard the guilty verdicts against Brian David Mitchell on charges of kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor across state lines for the purposes of illegal sex.
Smart then turned to her mother and both smiled. Elizabeth Smart later hugged prosecutors in the Salt Lake City courtroom.
"It's real!" father Ed Smart said on his way out of the courtroom, giving a thumbs up and echoing the words he told a crowd gathered around a church on March 13, 2003, confirming his daughter had been found.
It took the jury just five hours to convict Mitchell, who could face up to life in prison on each count when he is sentenced on May 25. However, a judge also could impose an unspecified, lesser sentence, prosecutors said.
The shackled Mitchell sat singing about Jesus Christ on the cross through the reading of the verdicts. He held his hands in front of his chest as though he was praying.
Mitchell's former stepdaughter Rebecca Woodridge told reporters outside the courthouse that she was shocked that jurors didn't see that Mitchell was mentally ill.
"He honestly believes God tells him to do these things," Woodridge said. "He's upset and frustrated that the Lord is making him go through this."
Smart and her family had hoped for the guilty verdict and a long sentence to end the ordeal that began when she was taken from her Salt Lake City home at knifepoint and held captive for nine months when she was 14.
Smart, now 23, attended the entire trial and provided gripping testimony, describing how she woke up one night to the feel of a cold, jagged knife and being thrust into "nine months of hell" in a mountainside camp.
She said she was forced into a polygamous marriage and endured nearly daily rapes before she was found.
To the chagrin of the family, the case was delayed for years after Mitchell was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial in state court and a judge refused to order involuntary medications. Federal prosecutors later stepped in and took the case to trial.
Carlie Christensen, the U.S. attorney for Utah, praised Elizabeth Smart for her extraordinary courage and determination in seeing justice was done.
"She told it with candor, with clarity and with truthfulness that I think moved all of us," Christensen said.
The prosecutor said one of the biggest challenges of the case was the six years between the time of the kidnapping and the time the case came into the federal justice system. Another hurdle was the state court decision that Mitchell was mentally incompetent to stand trial and its possible influence on the federal case.
The five-week trial turned on the question of Mitchell's mental health — something experts have debated since his arrest in 2003, when state court evaluators began to study his religious writings and behavior, including courtroom antics such as singing hymns and shouting at judges to repent.
His lawyers did not dispute that he kidnapped Smart but wanted him to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Such a verdict would have sent him to a prison mental hospital.
A parade of experts took the witness stand to say Mitchell had an array of diagnoses, from a rare delusional disorder and schizophrenia to pedophilia, anti-social personality disorder and narcissism.
Prosecutors countered that Mitchell was faking mental illness to avoid a conviction, labeling him a "predatory chameleon."
The thinly built Mitchell appeared in court everyday with long gray hair and an unruly beard down to the middle of his chest.
He was routinely removed from the courtroom after loudly singing hymns and Christmas carols and taken to another room to watch the proceedings on closed circuit TV. He kept his eyes closed in court and never spoke to anyone, including his lawyers.
The painful saga began when the Smart family awoke to the frightening realization that someone had slipped through the cut screen of a kitchen window on June 5, 2002, and whisked Elizabeth away in the night.
Within hours of the kidnapping, Smart testified she was forced into a polygamous marriage with Mitchell, tethered to a metal cable and subjected to near-daily rapes while being forced to use alcohol and drugs.
Smart testified that she believed Mitchell was driven by his desire for sex, drugs and alcohol, not by any sincere religious beliefs.
Her abduction and improbable discovery while walking along a Salt Lake City street with Mitchell and his wife on March 12, 2003, riveted the nation and helped focus public attention on child abductions.
The trial's most gripping testimony came from Smart and Wanda Eileen Barzee, Mitchell's estranged wife who pleaded guilty last year to federal and state charges in the kidnapping.
Barzee, 65, testified that she had believed Mitchell's religious revelations that led the couple to live homeless for nearly a decade, traveling the country on foot. She said she had obediently complied when he said God wanted him to "take a young girl by force" so they could practice polygamy.
"I told him that if the Lord didn't open the way, he didn't have to do it," a sobbing and penitent Barzee said during her nearly five hours on the witness stand.
Also troubled by mental illness, Barzee's competency issues were resolved after 15 months of involuntary treatment ordered by a state judge.
Barzee said she also told Mitchell they needed to obey the Lord's commandments then greeted Smart with open arms when Mitchell brought the young girl to the couple's mountainside camp near Salt Lake City.
It was Barzee who prepared Smart for the marriage ceremony, washing her feet and dressing her in handmade robes.
Subpoenaed by the defense, Barzee appeared devastated by her role in the kidnapping and the realization that she had been duped by her husband of 25 years.
"He was a great deceiver," she said.