July 22, 1997 in Nation/World

Bomb Suspects Were ‘At War,’ Say Feds But Defense Says Barbee, Berry And Merrell Are Not On Trial For Their Beliefs

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane’s accused bombers and robbers aren’t prophets or regular workaday Joes, but criminals who consider themselves warriors in an army of God, a prosecutor told jurors Monday.

The three Sandpoint white separatists twisted the word of the Bible to defend terrorism against a community they fear is crumbling, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Harrington said in his closing argument.

“Charles Harrison Barbee is no altar boy,” Harrington said. “Robert Sherman Berry is anything but an ordinary hard-working mechanic. And Verne Jay Merrell is certainly not holier than thou.

“These men are at war,” Harrington said. “They believe violent acts against this ‘Babylonic’ society are justified by their biblical views.”

Defense attorneys countered that unusual - and unpopular - opinions aren’t crimes.

“You might not like Mr. Merrell and you may think he’s dangerous because of his beliefs,” his attorney, Frank Conklin, said. “But he’s not on trial for his beliefs.”

The government has failed to prove its case, the defense team said.

“What have you got that says Rob Berry did it?” attorney John Rodgers asked the U.S. District Court jury. “What is there that shows Rob Berry was even in town?”

Closing arguments will wrap up today, with the jury expected to begin deliberating this afternoon.

The defendants are accused of three bombings and two robberies last year in the Spokane Valley.

Barbee, Berry and Merrell are in their second trial on charges they bombed Valley offices of The SpokesmanReview, Planned Parenthood and U.S. Bank and twice robbed the bank in April and July 1996.

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

Monday, Harrington recounted the evidence against the men, pointing out similarities between the April and July crimes and the defendants’ “midnight run” to Portland shortly before their arrest last October.

In the Valley crimes, men dressed in military garb dropped off bombs and left religious missives before robbing the bank.

During the bank robberies, Harrington said, Berry collected the money while Barbee ushered employees to a far wall, pointing guns at their backs “like a Chicago gangland murder scene.” Merrell drove a stolen getaway van with the back seat removed, the prosecutor said.

In October, the trio traveled with guns and hand grenades, stole a van and removed the seat and drove to Portland, Harrington said. They planned to rob an armored car at a U.S. Bank branch, but the bank was closed, he said.

“They didn’t leave fingerprints, but they left tracks,” Harrington said.

The FBI arrested the three men a few hours later near Yakima.

Defense attorneys contend the men never intended to rob the Portland bank, but planned to deliver apocalyptic letters and capitalize on the publicity from Spokane’s crimes.

Harrington dismissed that and other claims as misdirection. He said his 5-year-old nephew once found so many worms on the ground after a rainstorm he thought it had “rained worms.”

“Do you get the sense that it’s raining worms; that things aren’t making sense?” Harrington asked jurors.

But Merrell’s attorney, Conklin, compared the case against his client to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“It’s been around for a long time … but it’s still a theory,” Conklin said. “There are a lot of missing links.”

Merrell’s brother and his family testified that Merrell was in Colorado about the time the April crimes were committed, Conklin said. And a telephone repairman saw Merrell in Sandpoint an hour before the July crime - too far away for him to have been involved.

“The government’s case is ‘well, maybe, maybe, maybe …”’ Conklin said.

He also noted that most of the eyewitnesses to the April 1 crimes claimed Merrell wore a heavy beard, while one of Merrell’s fellow militiamen claimed he was clean-shaven only a few days earlier.

Rodgers urged jurors to acquit the defendants, even though he suspected they want to solve the crimes.

“I think you kind of want to convict these people,” he said. “I think you really do. The stronger the crime, the more we - being human beings - want to solve it.”

But, he said, the government and its vast resources - “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” - could not erase the inconsistencies.

The government’s key informant was caught in several lies, some eyewitnesses described suspects other than the defendants, and letters found on Merrell’s computer don’t match letters found at the crime scenes, Rodgers said.

In his testimony, Berry maintained he was en route to Michigan at the time of the April bombings.

“It’s the government’s job to disprove that, and they can’t and they haven’t,” Rodgers said.

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

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT? Jury is expected to begin deliberations this afternoon.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT? Jury is expected to begin deliberations this afternoon.

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