Order trial jurors look for credibility of former members

After 14 weeks of testimony, a federal court jury here is now deliberating the case against The Order, a militant white supremacist group that allegedly declared war on the US government, Jews, and racial minorities. It's expected to be several days before the jury sorts through the complexities of the testimony it has heard and the federal Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law usually used to thwart traditional organized crime networks and drug rings.

Nine men and one woman are each accused of one count of racketeering and one count of conspiracy. The strategy of applying RICO to this case stems from a secret meeting in Seattle at which FBI agents and US attorneys from six western states decided to use RICO to put the accused neo-Nazis behind bars for long prison terms -- up to 20 years -- for each count of racketeering and conspiracy.

Dozens of criminal acts are alleged as part of a pattern of racketeering -- including the machine gun assasination of Denver radio personality Alan Berg. Mr. Berg often ridiculed white extremist groups on air. Counterfeiting, and bank and armored car robberies in Washington and California worth more than $4,000,000 are also included in the racketeering charges. Additionally, defendants face individual counts of robbery, firearms violations, and other crimes.

Government prosecutors portray the defendants as ``racists'' who tired of the rhetoric of the white extremist movement and took action. The all-white jury must sort through more than 1,500 exhibits and testimony from 370 witnesses -- especially statements of a dozen former members and associates of The Order.

Attorney Tony Savage, who represents defendant Andrew Barnhill, says the credibility of the former Order members is ``absolutely crucial. If the jury believes them, why there're going to be convictions all way around. If the jury has reasonable doubts about their truthfulness, why then there'll be a lot of acquittals.''

Other defense attorneys essentially agree, but are harsher in their assessment of the government's case. Attorney Mike Ruark, who is defending Mr. Pierce, attacked the government's case as ``trial by gossip,'' consisting of hearsay statements repeated second-hand by turncoat witnesses seeking lighter sentences.

The prosecution's first witness Denver Daw Parmenter, for example, testified that he was told by defendant Bruce Pierce, the alleged triggerman in the Berg murder, that Berg ``fell so fast it looked like the rug had been pulled out from under him.''

University of Washington law professor John Junker agrees that the racketeering statute is ``exceedingly broad.'' Prosecutors need only prove two specific criminal acts to win convictions on racketeering charges of defendants who may only be peripherally involved in a criminal enterprise.

Professor Junker notes the conspiracy law allows statements by co-conspirators to be used against every other defendant, so long as there is some evidence that ties each defendant to the alleged enterprise. ``The law doesn't choke on that chicken-and-egg problem,'' says Junker, but he adds, ``juries can't help but have problems.''

But outside the courthouse Mr. Savage candidly admits that although attorneys talk about it being very complex, any juror could sort out the issues after thinking about it a bit. ``RICO enables the government to take criminal activity that's widespread over a number of states and put it all together in one comprehensible package. I don't think the complaints [about the government's case] are particularly well-founded,'' Savage says.

Twenty-three people were originally indicted, but 11 have struck a plea bargain with the government, one has been sentenced to life without parole for the murder of a Missouri state trooper, and one remains a fugitive.

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