Attorneys defending two of the three men accused of the Spokane Valley bombings and bank robberies say news reports linking them to the unsolved blast at the Olympics could force their trial to another city.
Federal defender Roger Peven said Tuesday he seriously doubts an impartial jury can be found in Spokane.
Peven represents one of the men, 42-year-old Charles H. Barbee. He’s charged along with Robert S. Berry, 42, and Verne Jay Merrell, 51, with the April and July 1996 bombings of The Spokesman-Review’s Valley office, a U.S. Bank branch and a Planned Parenthood clinic.
The men are members of a Sandpoint-based white-supremacist group.
Two recent Spokesman-Review articles detailed possible links between the men and the bomb that exploded July 27 at the Olympics, killing a woman.
Attorney John Rodgers, who represents Berry, echoed Peven’s concerns.
“Sure, this adds adverse publicity. It doesn’t help to have potential jurors hear that your client may be a national terrorist, especially when he isn’t,” Rodgers said.
The attorneys say heightened media attention increases the likelihood that a federal judge will move the Valley bombings trial, scheduled to start Feb. 10.
A lawyer for one of the Spokane bombing suspects had already filed a change-of-venue motion.
Attorney Aaron Lowe, who represents Merrell, argues the defendants cannot receive a fair trial in Spokane because potential jurors have been exposed to “damaging” news stories about their religious beliefs and alleged radical ideology.
Lowe could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Federal prosecutor Stephanie Lister said the U.S. attorney’s office opposes moving the trial.
Judge Frem Nielsen has scheduled a Thursday hearing to review a number of motions in the case, including Lowe’s.
Peven said he still prefers conducting the trial in Spokane. “We could still do that by drawing a jury chosen from people outside Spokane,” he said.
Allegations linking the defendants to the Olympics bombing are extremely prejudicial so close to trial, Peven said.
Peven said he is confident the allegations will be found to be untrue, but that may take time.
“There’s no connection between the two events, I’m sure of that,” he said.
The Spokesman-Review reported Sunday that Barbee, who once worked for AT&T; in Florida and Georgia, may have acted out of vengeance in planting the bomb in Atlanta. An informant quoted in the story said he sold a military-style backpack to Barbee sometime last year. The FBI said a similar backpack was used in the Olympics bombing.
On Tuesday, Peven said Barbee “still has his backpack, the last I heard. Just like 100,000 other people with the same type of equipment.”
The attorney also found fault with a composite drawing by an Atlanta architect, who claims he saw a man who closely resembles Barbee’s friend, Berry, just before the Olympics bomb went off.
The drawing appeared in Tuesday’s Spokesman-Review next to a mug shot of Berry. Both men have curly hair and a beard.
“Except for the hair and a beard, there’s nothing similar between the (Olympics bombing) suspect and Berry,” Peven said.
The architect also said the bearded man was 6 feet 6 inches tall, with a droopy right eye.
Berry is about 6 feet tall, and does not have a droopy eye, Peven said.