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Alaska militia trial nears end

Jill Burke

Jurors will spend hours Wednesday listening to attorneys argue the fates of Fairbanks militia leader Schaeffer and his followers Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon.

The trio, arrested in March 2011, is accused of numerous weapons violations and conspiracy to kill state and federal officials. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have spent weeks going over evidence gathered during the investigation. Closing arguments are their final opportunity to convince jurors to see things their way, to either convict or acquit.

On Tuesday, Vernon presented a brief case aimed at showing he was never a part of any conspiracy. Of the three men, he faces the fewest charges -- just three, and each relates to conspiracies to either buy illegal weapons or agree to use deadly force against members of law enforcement or other federal officials.

To distance Vernon from the charges, his attorney, M.J. Haden, had one of the  FBI agents who worked the case testify that Vernon's interest in purchasing a silencer was personal, and not driven by the agendas of anti-government groups he belonged to, including Cox's militia and the Alaska Assembly Post.

Rebuttal witnesses brought to the stand by prosecutors undermined Cox's credibility. A lawyer and advisor for Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks testified that counter to Cox's claims, the U.S. Army base had never offered Cox political asylum. Nor had it taken seriously a "protective order" drawn up by Cox's common law court system which called for the base to protect Cox with an armed security detail and prevent state or federal authorities from apprehending him. The military does not provide asylum, shield people from the arm of the law, or provide private citizens -- let alone commanding military generals -- with the kind of security Cox sought and demanded, Gary Kluka said from the witness stand. 

Another man told the court he'd once followed Cox's movement but later dropped out, citing Cox's "delusional" approach to political transformation. North Pole resident John Watts and Cox were both members of the Interior Alaska Conservative Coalition.

But when Cox began to intensify his activities outside of the IACC, the group wanted less and less to do with Cox. Watts, an IACC board member, found Cox's repeated references to "bloody revolution" and government overthrow distasteful. "I wanted nothing to do with it," Watts told the court.

He'd also once helped Cox's Alaska Peacemaker Militia create a website, but took it down when Cox produced a manifesto detailing the group's military-style command structure. Watts sized it up as improper, and decided aiding the effort in any way was not a good use of his time. 

A third witness, Aaron Brakefield, offered a much different portrait of Cox from a summer day in 2010, when Cox was supposedly terrified for his life, worried that the FBI and others were out to get him. Far from being stressed out, Brakefield said Cox seemed relaxed and congenial during an IACC fundraiser, "a politician meeting the people." Cox had sidled up to Brakefield at a table where a vendor was selling grenade bodies, and asked Brakefield what it would take to make the grenades operable again. Brakefield had come to know Cox through Cox's pro-gun rights group, the Second Amendment Task Force.

But like Watts, Brakefield didn't like Cox's use of the word "revolution." At first he thought Cox's speech-making style was "blow hard rhetoric" meant to get the group riled up for a cause. But he later stopped going, believing it was time to separate himself from what Cox was espousing. 

What to watch for in closing arguments

That very issue -- whether Cox took his speech-making too far -- is of significance for Cox's defense. His attorney has argued that Cox had a First Amendment right to say provocative things critical of the government, even when laced with violent imagery. Only if those statements led to actual violence, or the immediate threat of violence, are they no longer protected under the Constitution, Traverso has said. 

After the jury had been sent home for the day, and while discussing what to tell jurors about the applicable laws before closing arguments are delivered, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan disagreed with Traverso over how imminent the threat needs to be. But Judge Bryan did agree that is constitutionally protected.

That doesn't mean everything that came out of Cox's mouth is free from scrutiny. Jurors will be allowed to decide what it tells them about Cox's intentions when he armed himself, had his militia men act as armed body guards, and mused at length about when taking lives would be justified.

The defense arguments will fall into three main themes: government informants set them up; the men have a right to armed self defense; and they were planning for the future in the event of societal collapse. 

There are other nuances in the legal theories that will likely be debated. For example, can a murder conspiracy occur if the victims are imagined? Earlier in the trial, the judge had said the fictitious band of federal assassins Cox thought was after him might as well have been "little green men from Mars."

Prosecutors counter this by arguing murder conspiracy can be plotted without having identified targets. Merely agreeing to commit the act and taking steps to achieve it is enough.

They will further argue that while some of Cox's intended enemies didn't exist, others did. He'd created conditions law enforcement was likely to respond to, and given orders to prevent law enforcement from coming after him. And there were real people who Cox had become disgruntled with -- including TSA employees, Alaska State Troopers, judges, U.S. Marshals and other court employees -- on a so-called "hit list."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com