One of the men who bombed the Spokane Valley offices of Planned Parenthood and The Spokesman-Review in 1996 was sentenced Tuesday to more than 58 years in prison.
Robert S. Berry, 66, was resentenced after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling found the federal law under which he and his co-conspirators were initially prosecuted and sentenced was unconstitutionally vague.
Berry and Jay Merrill, 74, were convicted for their roles in the white supremacist-motivated bombing of the two Valley locations, as well as armed robbery of a nearby U.S. Bank branch.
Both men – along with Brian J. Ratigan, 61, who participated in the Planned Parenthood bombing and a subsequent armed robbery, and Charles Barbee, 68, who was convicted of related crimes – were members of the Phineas Priesthood, a domestic terror organization that gained a foothold in North Idaho.
U.S. District Court Judge Frem Nielsen, who presided over Berry’s trial decades ago, sentenced him Tuesday to the low end of the possible sentencing range, which carried a mandatory minimum 50-year sentence. Berry has been in prison since his arrest in 1996.
While Nielsen noted that at the time of his trial Berry was “easily classified as a terrorist,” he also said Berry has changed during his time in prison.
“I’m also convinced the Robert Sherman Berry standing at the podium today is a different person,” Nielsen said. “You haven’t wasted time that could have been wasted.”
Berry was present in the courtroom just days after undergoing surgery related to a cancer diagnosis, his attorney, John Nollette, said.
While many of Nollette’s arguments related to the pre-sentencing brief were overruled, he and Berry both asked Nielsen to rule on the low end of the sentencing range.
Joseph Harrington, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington, asked that Berry be sentenced to the high end of the possible range “based on the terror that the Spokane metropolitan area was subjected to.”
At the sentencing, Berry took an opportunity to apologize not only to the victims of his crimes but also to his family and the court.
“I have no good excuses for going astray,” Berry said. “I want to be clear that there’s no one to blame for what I did.”
During his initial trial, Berry rejected the court’s dominion over him, claiming he was not a citizen of the United States but rather an ambassador and servant of Yahweh, according to a 1997 Spokesman-Review article.
Berry apologized Tuesday to the court and to Nielsen specifically.
“I was wrong. I swallowed conspiracy theories whole,” Berry said. “Despite my statements to you, you were always respectful to me.”
Berry said that watching the news today he is reminded of how wrong he was in 1996 and how important due process is in society.
“I too was upset over something the government did and threw a tantrum,” Berry said. “Vigilantism is the opposite of due process.”
Over the last 24 years in prison, Berry said he has grown and reflected on his wrongdoings.
“I’ve changed since 1996, and I am no longer a danger,” Berry said. “I no longer want to destroy things. I want to start building them.”
Nielsen said he agreed that Berry is not a risk to the public and has been a “model prisoner.” The judge cited the presence of Berry’s family, along with numerous letters of support written to the court on Berry’s behalf, as indicators of a strong support system.
“All that I referred to indicates you underwent a rehabilitation,” Nielsen said.
Despite Nielsen’s conclusions, Berry’s sentence could only be reduced so much.
If Berry serves the entirety of his sentence, he will be over 100 years old before his release.
Merrill is set to be resentenced Wednesday, and Barbee is scheduled for resentencing later this month. Ratigan was released from prison earlier this summer.
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