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The court-appointed defense attorneys who represented Brian David Mitchell before, during and after his trial in the kidnapping and sexual brutalization of Elizabeth Smart have taken plenty of punches in the public forum.

How could they defend a man so intent on committing one of the worst crimes this state has ever seen — stealing a 14-year-old from her home and subjecting her to pain and humiliation for nine long months?

The answer can be found in the U.S. and Utah constitutions; all defendants have an absolute right to an attorney, and if they can't afford one, the court can appoint one.

That attorney, said Salt Lake City defense lawyer Mary Corporon, must "represent the defendant zealously within the law and at every stage of the proceedings."

Mitchell, found guilty in December, will be sentenced on May 25. Federal prosecutors are seeking a life sentence. The defense is seeking a lesser term based partly on its belief that Mitchell "has a mental condition that contributed at least in part" to his crime.

This is a man who plotted for months to commit an unspeakable crime against a child. It took cunning, patience and precise execution. Even if he is mentally ill, he certainly had the ability to carry out his plan.

Due to changes in jurisdiction and lengthy proceedings to establish Mitchell's competency to even stand trial, it took more than eight years to get to trial in federal court. Mitchell's attorneys, members of the Utah Federal Defender Office, did all they could to give him the best representation possible. As sentencing nears, they still are.

That's considered the "duty of loyalty" for a defense lawyer, not only to a client but to justice itself.

As Corporon put it, anyone should "pray to God [that an attorney] presents everything zealously in every way, in case someday you're the defendant."

The alternative to the rule of law for judges, prosecutors and defenders is a banana republic, she said. Rather than a courtroom, "let's all go to the soccer stadium, hold a two-hour mock trial and then mow them down with a machine gun."

Consider, too, Corporon said, that nationally there have been more than 200 exonerations for convicts on death row. That's due in no small part to the national Innocence Project, dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system.

For her, it's a matter of backing the individual against the "government or the collective.

"I think about the Salem witch trials, and I have sympathy with them, not the mob," Corporon said.

"I think this whole constitutional system is a beautiful thing. It depends absolutely on an independent judge and a strong defense bar," she said. "I can still read the first 10 amendments and get tears in my eyes."

Even in a case as abhorrent as Mitchell's, the system is working as it must. Prosecutors and defenders are doing the job that the Constitution, the legal system and we, the public, demand.

I can't deny that I would prefer to see him imprisoned for life, but that's not my call.

Now it's up to Judge Dale Kimball, who managed the trial with great skill, equanimity and attentiveness. That in itself is proof our legal system is, in most cases, capable of administering justice.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at