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Verne Merrell, third of 4 Planned Parenthood bombers to be re-sentenced, gets 58 years

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 2, 2020

Facing the same federal judge he refused to stand for two decades ago, one of the four men who participated in a spree of terrorist bombings and robberies in Spokane Valley in the mid-1990s did not repudiate his beliefs Wednesday.

The bombing of a Planned Parenthood clinic and the offices of The Spokesman-Review, and subsequent bank robberies, were conducted to make others aware of what he called “the degradation of our Constitutional system,” Verne J. Merrell said under questioning in a federal courtroom in Spokane, the same courtroom where he was sentenced to two life terms in 1997.

“It just didn’t happen,” he continued, suggesting that people didn’t heed his attempt to draw attention to his beliefs.

U.S. District Court Judge Frem Nielsen handed down a prison sentence of 58 years to Merrell.

He’s the third of four bombers to be re-sentenced for crimes committed in 1996, while they adhered to the beliefs of the white supremacist group the Phineas Priesthood and participated in “terror that was imposed on the Spokane community,” U.S. Assistant Attorney Joe Harrington said in brief remarks to Nielsen.

Robert S. Berry, 66, and Brian Ratigan, 61, both distanced themselves from the racist ideology that inspired a violent crime spree 24 years ago, which occurred just a year after the deadly bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.

No one was injured in the bombings in Spokane, both of which coincided with armed bank robberies at a nearby U.S. Bank branch.

Nielsen told Merrell, who elected to quote from the Bible and refused to stand for his sentencing two decades ago, that he wanted to know whether the U.S. Navy veteran still believed those ideas after spending 23 years in maximum security prisons.

“I have been interested to know whether you adhere to that philosophy or not,” the judge said.

Jeff Niesen, the Spokane attorney representing Merrell at sentencing, said after the hearing he didn’t believe his client “had a great appreciation for what the judge was asking him to say.” At several points during the half-hour long hearing, which included no friends or family in the gallery, Merrell said he was having trouble hearing the judge.

Niesen noted that Merrell had no surviving friends and family that hadn’t rejected him during the long prison sentence, most of which he’s spent in isolation.

“This is a man, literally, on his own,” Niesen told the judge.

Ratigan was released from custody in June, and Berry received a similar sentence to Merrell’s on Tuesday.

The hearings were prompted by a review of the case in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision finding that the federal law the men were convicted under wasn’t clear enough for sentencing enhancements that would keep them behind bars for life.

Niesen argued that, because the men had been granted new hearings, Merrell’s sentence amounted to a new review of the case, which would mean that a 2018 law passed by Congress should apply and reduce the amount of time his client needed to serve. Nielsen, the judge, rejected that argument in both Merrell and Berry’s cases, a ruling that Niesen said would be appealed in the coming days.

“If he’s entitled to that, he would have been released today,” Niesen said of his client.

Instead, Merrell was led from the courtroom in handcuffs, just as he was following sentencing in October 1997. Under the sentence handed down Wednesday, the 75-year-old would spend the next 34 years behind bars.

Charles Barbee, the final defendant in the case whose case is scheduled to be reheard, is scheduled to appear before Nielsen on Sept. 22.

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