A federal judge granted a 30-day delay Friday before a case against three accused domestic terrorists will be reviewed by a grand jury in Spokane.
Attorneys representing imprisoned suspects Charles Barbee, Robert Berry and Verne Jay Merrell say the delay violates the rights of the “constitutional fundamentalists.”
But federal prosecutor Tom Rice argued that the delay is essential to protect witnesses and finish the investigation.
The three men were arrested Oct. 8 and charged with the bombings and two bank robberies in April and July in the Spokane Valley - crimes that authorities call “unprecedented acts of domestic terrorism.”
The suspects have ties to white supremacy and the militia movement.
Federal cases are routinely taken to a 23-member grand jury within 30 days of an arrest. The grand jury examines evidence and hears testimony in secret before deciding whether to return an indictment.
The question of guilt or innocence is then decided in trial by a U.S. District Court jury.
Federal law says defendants have a right to stand trial within 70 days of their arrests, but an extension can be granted to preserve the “ends of justice.” Defendants also can waive their speedy trial rights and often do.
In this instance, a delay in the indictment process is appropriate, Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno said in granting the extension to Dec. 6.
She also left open the possibility that prosecutors could seek another extension at a later date. Her ruling could be appealed to a U.S. District Court judge.
“The government is not going to appeal it,” Rice said after the hearing. “We’re happy with the 30 days and the fact we can return later for another extension if we need it.”
The delay means that defense lawyers and the public won’t know until at least early December the names of two informers who could split $130,000 in reward money for providing information to federal agents.
Once an indictment is issued, prosecutors must begin turning over investigative reports to defense attorneys preparing for trial.
“We have statements from witnesses, many of whom are fearful for their lives,” Rice told the judge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Lister said the informers and their families likely are going to be relocated.
“We have concerns about these defendants because of their religious beliefs,” Lister said. “They have very violent religious beliefs.”
That brought a sharp response from federal defender Roger Peven.
“Last I looked, the Constitution protects one’s religious beliefs,” said Peven, who represents Barbee.
Barbee insisted on addressing the court, but the judge urged him to consult with his attorney.
“I don’t think I’ve signed away my right to speak for myself,” Barbee told the judge. Barbee said he, Berry and Merrell are being wrongly labeled as dangerous domestic terrorists. “I don’t think any one of us has been accused before of a violent crime,” he said.
Peven said he and Barbee can’t begin preparing a defense until an indictment is returned. “If the indictment is delayed, my ability to begin working on the defense of Mr. Barbee is delayed,” Peven said.
The three men have been in jail without bond since their arrests Oct. 8 near Yakima.
In mid-October, the judge ruled that there is “probable cause” to believe the three men from Sandpoint committed the crimes. They are charged in a nine-count complaint with two bank robberies, three bombings and possession of destructive devices during crimes of violence.
Berry is charged in a 10th count with being a felon in possession of firearms.
The judge said that count won’t be affected by the 30-day extension. Evidence involving that isolated count is expected to be taken to a grand jury on Tuesday.