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White supremacists who bombed S-R offices, Planned Parenthood in 1996 seek early prison release

UPDATED: Tue., March 3, 2020

Four white supremacists, who in 1996 bombed The Spokesman-Review’s office in Spokane Valley and a Planned Parenthood clinic and who robbed banks, are scheduled to be back in Spokane this month as they seek an early release from their life sentences.

A federal judge has agreed to hear resentencing arguments in the cases of Charles Barbee, 68; Robert S. Berry, 68; Jay Merrell, 74; and Brian J. Ratigan, 61. The four men, who were linked to the domestic terrorist group the Phineas Priesthood, were convicted of multiple federal crimes – including armed robbery and arson, that carry mandatory minimum terms in prison under federal law – a year after their arrest as fugitives near Yakima.

But a 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court found that some of the statutes the men were convicted under were unconstitutionally vague about the elements of crimes that require long prison sentences. The men requested new hearings by U.S. District Court Judge William Fremming Nielsen, who had originally heard their criminal trials in 1997. The judge granted them an opportunity to make their case for lesser sentences in October.

Federal prosecutors argued in court records that the four men should remain behind bars, despite the intervening court case.

“The Defendants present a grave danger to the public,” U.S. Assistant Attorney Joe Harrington, who originally prosecuted the case, wrote in court filings in November.

The Supreme Court ruling effectively reversed the convictions of Barbee, Berry and Merrell on two criminal counts, which included pipe bombing The Spokesman-Review’s former office building on Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley on April 1, 1996.

Shortly after that bombing, the three men robbed a nearby U.S. Bank branch of nearly $72,000.

A conviction for bombing the Planned Parenthood clinic in Spokane Valley on July 12, 1996, was also dismissed as a result of the Supreme Court ruling.

A second bank robbery occurred after that bombing at a different U.S. Bank branch on Sprague Avenue.

No injuries were reported in either bombing, but authorities said at the time that the foot-long, 2-inch-in-diameter incendiary devices were large enough to kill bystanders.

The Phineas Priesthood is a loose collection of followers who have taken violent action in support of their beliefs against interracial marriage, abortion and charging interest in lending, a consequence of anti-Semitic sentiment.

Ratigan was tried separately from the other three men, and received a 55-year sentence that is scheduled to be complete in 2044. Ratigan, who was being held at a correctional facility in Colorado, argues in court filings that he should be released for time served. His resentencing hearing is scheduled for March 17.

The other men do not make a specific request in court filings for a sentence, but argue that the multiple life sentences handed down by Nielsen in 1997 should not stand because of the dismissal of other violent crime counts against them.

In court filings, Matt Campbell, a federal defense attorney who represented all four men until December, argues that prosecutors purposely offered differing recommendations for Barbee, Berry and Merrell compared to Ratigan because of their desire to keep all of the men behind bars until their death.

“The ends don’t justify the means, and the Court should not accept the government’s proposal to adopt whatever procedures will ensure lengthy sentences,” Campbell wrote.

One of the criminal convictions that remains for all three men carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 30 years. That would keep them in prison until at least 2027.

The court has since appointed new attorneys for each of the defendants. Berry is scheduled to be sentenced March 18 and Merrell on March 25. Barbee, who is currently being held at a federal prison in Talladega, Alabama, has had his resentencing scheduled for September.

Ratigan was booked into Spokane County Jail on Monday afternoon, according to jail records. Berry and Merrell are not listed in federal custody and are likely on their way to Spokane for hearings later this month.

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