June 24, 1997 in Nation/World

Bombing-Robbery Trial Begins Again Barbee Finally Speaks In Opening Statement To Jurors

By The Spokesman-Review
 

For the first time, accused terrorist Charles Barbee talked to a jury Monday.

Barbee didn’t take the witness stand, but he professed his innocence in a 15-minute opening statement Monday in U.S. District Court in Spokane.

It’s the second time this year that Barbee; Robert Berry, 43; and Verne Jay Merrell, 51, all from North Idaho, have stood trial for bombing and robbing Spokane Valley businesses last year.

Barbee, 45, told jurors he’s afraid of the government, not necessarily anti-government. His views, he said, were shaped by events such as those at Waco and Ruby Ridge, but his distrust of the government goes back 25 years.

In a country voice that started quick and nervous before slowing down, Barbee also talked about his religious beliefs. He challenged jurors to think for themselves and question the reliability of witnesses.

“I’ll state here and now: I’ve bombed nothing, and I’ve robbed no banks,” said Barbee, who employed himself dealing in surplus military gear.

His statement was one detour on a familiar map. The only other major surprise was the announcement by federal prosecutors that they plan to call a new witness - a jailed militia sympathizer expected to testify that Barbee confessed the bank robberies.

Barbee’s hair is longer now, no longer worn military short. Merrell no long er has a beard. The three defendants didn’t shout references to “Yahweh” or interrupt testimony.

Instead, Barbee explained Yahweh - a Hebrew term for God popular with white separatists. “‘God’ is a title,” Barbee said. “His name is ‘Yahweh.”’

Barbee, Berry and Merrell were convicted of minor car theft charges in the first trial, ending April 2. With one juror holding out, the panel deadlocked on the more serious bombing and robbery counts.

The defendants are charged with bombing The Spokesman-Review’s Valley office, and bombing and robbing a nearby U.S. Bank branch on April 1, 1996. Along with a fourth man, the three also face charges for bombing the Valley Planned Parenthood clinic and robbing the same bank branch last July 12.

A fourth man, Brian Ratigan, 38, was arrested in the middle of the first trial. He faces a separate trial in September.

This summer rerun also has a little more color than the first episode. The players know each other now, and know the other side’s game plan. The atmosphere was more relaxed Monday.

During a morning break, Barbee’s lawyer, Roger Peven, handed some Dots candy to FBI agent David Bedford, sitting at the prosecutors’ table.

Merrell’s new lawyer, Frank Conklin, wore red, yellow and blue argyle socks, a bright pink shirt and a black tie with Looney Tunes characters flirting with white polka-dots.

The opening statements were less flashy.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice painstakingly outlined the government’s case. He pointed at a timeline chart that stretched from the first bombing to the arrests of the suspects on Oct. 8, after they drove to a U.S. Bank branch in Portland.

Rice promised jurors about 80 witnesses, three to four weeks of testimony and hundreds of pieces of evidence. Rice stressed the case isn’t about freedom of religion.

“It’s not how they believe,” he said. “It’s what they acted on.”

Defense lawyers portrayed their clients as men who feared the government and hoped to take advantage of the hype surrounding the Valley bombings. They only drove to Portland to deliver a letter to a U.S. Bank branch decrying the government’s behavior.

The defense also tried to discredit government witnesses. Peven called one a severe alcoholic, compared another to a used-car salesman and said a new witness is only trying to get out of jail.

He urged jurors to consider the government’s case from all sides. “It sounded very persuasive,” Peven said. “It sounded clear. … Just because it’s said, don’t make it so.”

Prosecutors plan to call Dennis Stucker as a witness to testify that Barbee confessed to the bank robberies while Stucker was in jail.

Stucker, a friend of Darby, Mont., militia activist Calvin Greenup, is now in jail in Montana, awaiting sentencing on federal firearms convictions.

In December, a Montana judge gave Stucker a 10-year sentence for possessing an arsenal of illegal weapons, including a fully automatic AK-47 assault rifle and four machetes. The term was suspended because Stucker helped a jailer who was being attacked by another prisoner, and for providing state and federal agents with information about a criminal investigation in Washington.

It’s not clear whether that information is related to the case involving Barbee, Berry and Merrell.

“I’ve known this man (Stucker) since 1984,” said Barbee, saying the two worked for AT&T; in Florida before moving to the Pacific Northwest. “Basically he’s trying to get himself out of a problem by selling me. I’m disappointed.”

If convicted, Barbee, Berry and Merrell face up to $3 million in fines and life imprisonment.

, DataTimes


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