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Bombing Trial Jurors Say It Was Hard To Convict While Crimes Were Violent, Valley Case Dealt With ‘Real People’

Fri., July 25, 1997

They felt crushing sadness.

Jurors in Spokane’s bombing trial carried that burden with them as they filed into a quiet room in the U.S. Court House for deliberations Tuesday.

Three Sandpoint white separatists were accused of bombing three buildings and twice robbing a bank in the Spokane Valley last year.

“They were violent crimes, but these were real people,” said one of the jurors, Randall Farris of Chelan, Wash.

After 23 days of testimony, featuring 500 pieces of evidence and 100 witnesses, the jury of eight men and four women now had to decide: Did they do it?

“We commented on the fact that now, when we could talk, it was suddenly quiet,” said Julie Guggino, a juror from Ellensburg. “We prayed. Then we started.”

It would be the next day before they found Charles Barbee, 45; Robert Berry, 43; and Verne Jay Merrell, 51, guilty of the eight counts each faced - crimes that carry mandatory life sentences.

The verdicts didn’t come easily, four of the jurors said Thursday.

At the outset, they voted secretly, on scraps of paper, and found themselves divided.

Seven to convict; five unsure.

“To me, it was anything but black and white,” said Guggino, a Central Washington University graduate student.

They sat at two folding tables pushed together. Jurors occasionally wandered over to the piles of evidence lined up behind them.

They studied threatening letters the men were said to have written on Merrell’s computer before dropping them off with a bomb at The Spokesman-Review on April 1, 1996.

They scrutinized the blue jeans seized from Barbee’s home, the same pair prosecutors contend were worn during an armed robbery at U.S. Bank the same day.

They looked at buckshot found in bomb debris at the Planned Parenthood office on July 12, 1996, and talked about FBI reports that it was “indistinguishable” from shot found at Berry’s home.

And the mood grew heavier and heavier.

“After a while, it was clear that the (government’s) evidence was overwhelming,” Farris said. “There were just too many coincidences.”

A handful of jurors didn’t want to believe.

Some admitted that they liked the men, and found their commitment to their unusual religious beliefs eerie, yet admirable. One defendant reminded a juror of her brother.

But then the jurors talked about the defendants’ own testimony - and the inconsistencies.

They debated the trio’s April 1 alibis: Berry and Merrell had claimed to be traveling; Barbee said he was home.

“We went over it and over it,” Guggino said. “We tried to make (the alibis) solid, but they just weren’t.”

She was disturbed that Berry couldn’t name the hotel he supposedly stayed at during an automobile trip to Michigan on April 1.

Guggino couldn’t see why the defendants would bomb the newspaper, but flipped through the “Vigilantes of Christendom,” a religious, anti-government book seized from Barbee’s home, and found her answer.

One paragraph mentioned a connection between the media and usury - the charging of interest. The defendants had called usury a crime punishable by death under God’s law.

“To me, that was motive,” she said.

In the end, the jurors were convinced by the jeans, Merrell’s computer and holes in the defendants’ testimony.

“We did everything we could to make it not so,” said juror Elizabeth Polk, 71. “But there was just no getting around it.”

“They had potential,” Polk said. “They weren’t dumb. They just took a wrong turn somewhere and became something bad.”

They felt the men weren’t cold-blooded, and unanimously agreed it wasn’t an accident that no one was injured.

“It was like they went out of their way to make sure no one was hurt,” said Farris, a county government employee.

Early Wednesday afternoon, the jurors took another vote. Jury Foreman Scott Potter announced the unanimous verdicts. The room fell silent.

Yakima retiree Elmer Prokash, 83, found no joy in the moment.

“I think we did the right thing,” he said. “But I don’t have a proud feeling about it, no sir. It just had to be done.”

For Guggino, it was important that the verdicts came with a struggle.

“I was glad I got to know them,” she said of the defendants, “… it made the decision harder.” , DataTimes

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