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Schaeffer Cox takes stand to detail when deadly force is justified

Jill Burke

For weeks, federal jurors have been hearing a lot of people say a lot of things about Schaeffer Cox. The Fairbanks-based militia commander is on trial, accused of being the ring leader in a plot to violently defy the government. Cox, a self-described "sovereign citizen" and a gifted orator who spread his anti-government philosophy to anyone who would listen, believed the government wanted him dead. He'd taken steps to make sure that didn't happen. He wore a bullet proof vest. He armed himself. And orbiting him in his hometown of Fairbanks were other members of his Alaska Peacemakers Militia -- guys he'd convinced to defend him, armed, the government alleges, with automatic weapons and grenades.

On Monday, after listening for weeks as prosecutors and witnesses characterized him as a narcissistic fugitive willing to break the law in defiance of the justice system, including with violence and murder, it was Cox's turn. He wanted to let jurors know he'd been misunderstood -- that his words, through someone else's interpretation, had become twisted. It's too early in the trial to know whether Cox's brand of persuasion will convince jurors to set him free. And they will need to separate his moral convictions -- the source of his reform platform -- from the letter of the law in considering whether to convict him.

“The only time that the use of force is morally justified is to stop someone from hurting you,” Cox said from the witness stand, prompted by a question from his attorney. “The use of violence to protect your family is morally justified. The use of violence to promote your fancies is not...”

It may be an important point in swaying how jurors choose to view the case. A chord of sympathy to draw upon could help. So could political or moral views that jurors can relate to.

But Cox didn't get to finish the sentence. His answers were too long, and according to the judge, gratuitous. Cox wanted to explain himself in his distinct manner -- long winded responses laced with witty, poignant phrases.

In long speeches that had caught the attention of investigators in 2009, Cox made repeated reference to tyranny and corrupt government and about trying to win “hearts and minds.” The logic is that government flows from the people. If enough people buy into to your way of thinking, change will follow.

On Monday, Cox was again on a campaign, although the stakes were perhaps higher than ever before. For acquital, jurors needed to see him as the victim, a dissenter whom government attempted to silence via wrongful capture.

The court required direct answers, and Cox's attorney had to remind his client more than once to refrain from getting off base. But Cox managed to get his point across: He takes intellectual inquiry seriously, likes to study history and law and engage in philosophical debate. He thinks government is broken, he insisted, but he wasn't out to overthrow it.

Cox isn't accused of plotting government overthrow. But his beliefs on that subject have come up numerous times in the case, which charges Cox with weapons crimes and in a conspiracy to kill federal officials.

Confident and charismatic on the stand, Cox answered his attorney's questions and attempted to demonstrate that he is reasonable, likeable and cares about other people.

He cried when recalling the “precious” time he spent as a youth growing up in Colorado backpacking and hiking mountains with his father, a preacher. As though introducing people in his living room, he took time to point out his father in the courtroom, seated among the trial's observers, as he had done when speaking of his wife, Marti. He made eye contact with jurors, and to all corners of the courtroom.

Traverso questioned Cox on the origins of his militia, and about some of his guiding principles. Cox explained the militia would be good to have around during environmental disasters, like floods. Or when government may break down and people begin to act poorly -- a version of dependable neighbors you can rely on in a time of need. He called his Alaska Peacemakers Militia a group that had become more social than serious. But soon after, he would begin to talk about his militia in much more powerful terms.

Traverso also asked Cox to describe what the sovereignty movement means to him. Whether jurors know that sovereign citizen extremists are considered a top domestic terrorism threat by the FBI isn't known; it hasn't come up during the proceedings.

Cox isn't accused of domestic terrorism. But the term can have a negative connotation, and Traverso wanted Cox to be the one to give it its intended meaning. “That the people are the master and the government is the servant,” Cox answered.

Traverso also questioned Cox on his established rules for societal change: undermine heavy- handed law enforcement; establish friendly relations with local officials; and be able to take care of your family if society breaks down.

“Why do you believe in friendly relationships with law enforcement?” Traverso asked.

Through the question, Cox was given a chance to soften the image jurors had earlier received, one of Cox knocking on the door of a startled state trooper's home one evening, uninvited.

“Historically, when a country rejects the idea of an objective truth, people start doing nasty things to each other, and people don't like doing nasty things to people they know," Cox said. "We are trying to make things personal. It is a small town. Barney Fife's not going to do bad things in Mayberry. He knows everybody.”

In the context of the trial, bad things to Cox would have been his child being taken away -- a concern he had expressed following a domestic violence dispute that led the Office of Child Services to seek an interview with Cox's son -- or his arrest.

Traverso then got to what he called “the skinny” -- the heart of the case. He asked his client: “Do you believe in the use of violence against the government?”

In typical Cox style, the defendant managed to be both specific and circuitous. “Yes and no. If your government is breaking the law, if they turn murderous like they did in Syria, then yes. But no, in that by breaking the law and turning murderous they are not the government anymore. They are criminal.”

While Cox was not allowed to go on at length on the stand, his attorney did find a way to let him speak to the court for more than an hour and a half without interruption. Prosecutors had used excerpts from a speech Cox made in Montana during their case, but Traverso wanted jurors to hear the speech in its entirety. The speech has come to be known as “the Solution” -- a reference to the many tactics Cox offers during the talk to combat what he perceives as an ailing government and society.

“We know in our gut that something is horribly wrong,” Cox said to audience members in Montana during the speech, which jurors watched on an overhead screen.

In the speech, Cox talks about tyranny, about how government uses money to control people, and the nobility of defiance. And he speaks about three ways he has encouraged Alaskans to fight back.

He created the Liberty Bell Network, a group of volunteer witnesses that will show up if summoned via a phone tree to record the interaction of law enforcement with citizens. He started a common-law court, something he described as having parallel jurisdiction to Alaska courts. And he talked about the creation of his Alaska Peacemakers Militia.

“Instead of trying to create a third (political) party, we made a second government,” Cox said -- to cheers and clapping, audible in the background. Cox cautioned, though, that that second government was not to be used to antagonize existing government.

Yet, in the speech, Cox plants the seeds for people to take up arms in resistance by defining government in terms that make it a justifiable enemy. In the speech he offers the definition of terrorism as “government through intimidation,” and more than once states that “our government does not operate under the rule of law” but “under the rule of force.”

He goes on: “My deepest fear is that our government is not going to hear us until we speak to them in their language, which is force.”

Cox spent time explaining to jurors that force doesn't necessarily mean violence. Force can be showing up en masse, or boycotting, or harassment, or ridicule -- any kind of pressure that achieves the end sought.

In his activism, Cox is seeking what he calls a “philosophical shift,” a “rebirth of the original ideas.”

Yet this is the same man who during the same Montana speech uttered “I am not against spilling blood for freedom. I will kill for liberty,” and, “you've got to put right and wrong above legal and illegal.”

Cox's testimony resumes Tuesday.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com