July 19, 1997 in Nation/World

Defense Doubled Efforts In Bombing Trial All Three Suspects Testified And Their Attorneys Called More Witnesses This Time Around

By The Spokesman-Review

While the prosecution’s case in Spokane’s second bombing trial was virtually an instant replay, the overhauled defense amounted to double vision.

There were twice the witnesses.

It took twice as long.

Two more defendants told their stories - in decidedly different ways.

After a week of testimony from more than 30 witnesses, defense attorneys rested their case Friday in the second terrorism trial of white separatists Charles Barbee, 45, Robert Berry, 43, and Verne Jay Merrell, 51.

As attorneys prepare to present closing arguments Monday, both sides likely will be pondering the same question: Will the bigger defense change the outcome?

“I haven’t a clue,” said defense attorney Frank Conklin, who represents Merrell. “The jury’s not showing any expression. I’m getting a dial tone.”

The first trial ended in April in a hung jury, when one juror refused to convict on the most serious charges.

Two of those former jurors offered opposing views of the new case.

One was surprised to hear that family members in this trial placed Merrell 1,000 miles away on March 31, 1996 - one day before bombs exploded at the Valley office of The Spokesman-Review and a nearby U.S. Bank branch. The bank also was robbed.

“That would have been good stuff to hear,” said Alan Eschenbacher, who served as jury foreman. “We really didn’t have any evidence that they (the defendants) were anywhere else.”

But another ex-juror, who asked not to be named, said only a Perry Mason-style last-minute confession to the crimes from someone else would have changed his mind.

“There was so much evidence against them,” the Spokane man said. “And I kept thinking, ‘why haven’t there been more bombings since they’ve been in jail?”’

The three Sandpoint anti-government rebels are charged with the crimes on April 1, 1996, and with bombing Planned Parenthood in the Valley and robbing the same bank a few months later, on July 12.

Prosecutors in the second trial added a few new witnesses but didn’t significantly alter their case.

In the defense case, however, Barbee, Berry and Merrell took turns professing their innocence and explaining their radical views. Only Merrell testified during the first trial.

“It would have been nice to hear from them,” said Eschenbacher. “We all wanted to know what they’d say.”

Prosecutors aren’t talking until the case is over, but defense attorneys said they felt the defendants did well on the stand - even though none could prove his alibi and many of the prosecutor’s questions went unanswered.

“I don’t think anything they said was disproved by the government or contradicted by the government,” said John Rodgers, Berry’s attorney.

While prosecutors repeatedly badgered the defendants, only Berry stuttered and seemed to stumble on the stand.

Rodgers said he hoped jurors accepted that as part of Berry’s personality.

“He’s always like that,” Rodgers said. “He has feelings and well-developed thoughts. He just has trouble expressing them.”

In addition to Barbee and Berry, new defense testimony also came from a forensic expert, Randy Weaver’s future son-in-law, a host of new eye-witnesses and members of Merrell’s family.

A convenience store manager said three men driving what appeared to be the bombers’ getaway van stopped at her store along Interstate 90 near Moses Lake the weekend before the April 1 crimes.

The three men had shoulder-length hair. One appeared to be Asian, and none looked like Barbee, Berry or Merrell, she said.

A witness to one of the bank robberies said the getaway driver had a thick brown beard. Prosecution witnesses picked out Merrell - who sometimes has a gray-and-white beard - as the driver.

Several new defense witnesses - including people who barely knew Merrell - said he was clean-shaven in late March 1996. Prosecution witnesses had said the getaway driver had a thick beard.

The forensic expert testified that the handgun used in the robberies could have been many things, including a BB gun. Federal agents identified the weapon as a Ruger Vaquero, which Berry owned.

David Cooper, a former skinhead once known as “Spider,” said he was with Merrell at Weaver’s 1992 stand-off when people were handing out letters resembling those found at the crime scene and on Merrell’s home computer. Cooper is now engaged to Weaver’s daughter, Sara.

Idaho private detective Ted Pulver testified that Christopher Davidson Jr., the government’s key informant and chief witness against the defendants, tried to sell him an illegal .20-caliber mounted machine gun.

During the last trial, an Idaho coin dealer made the same claim, but Pulver, an ex-cop, gave it more credibility.

Davidson earlier had denied ever selling illegal weapons.

Despite all that, however, even Eschenbacher wasn’t sure the new evidence would have changed his mind.

“There were just too many coincidences to dismiss,” he said.

Barbee, Berry and Merrell are charged with eight felonies and face mandatory life sentences if convicted.

, DataTimes

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email