FORT SMITH, Ark. -- A federal judge said Wednesday 14 men on trial for seditious conspiracy and plotting to kill federal officials were not being tried for what they believed but for taking unlawful actions.
U.S. District Court Judge Morris Arnold took about 30 minutes to instruct the all-white jury before opening arguments began.
Arnold said the men were not on trial for their white supremacist philosophy but he said it was important to show what they might do. He told jurors to judge each defendant separately.
In his opening statement, Steve Snyder, an assistant U.S. attorney, said he intended to prove that 10 of the defendants plotted to overthrow the government and that the others were guilty of trying to kill a federal judge and an FBI agent, among other things.
He outlined an intricate plot of weapons stockpiling, military training, armored car robberies, assassinations and municipal sabotage, including blowing up electrical lines in Fort Smith.
Some of the defendants delivered their own opening arguments. Others planned to let their attorneys do the talking. Opening testimony was scheduled to begin Thursday. The prosecution said it planned to call 200 witnesses and the defense said it would call 25 in what observers believed would be a lengthy trial.
Snyder said leaders of right-wing white supremacists groups in 1983 discussed the possibility of poisoning the water supplies of New York and Washington, D.C. He said the poisoning scheme was discussed between James Ellison and Robert E. Miles and between Ellison and Richard G. Butler. Snyder said Ellison had about 200 pounds of sodium cyanide in his possession at the time.
Ellison is the former leader of the north Arkansas survivalists group known as the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, or CSA. He testifed before the grand jury that returned indictments against the 14 defendants. He as convicted in 1985 on racketeering charges in connection with activities at the CSA compound
Butler, 69, leader of the Aryan Nations Church at Hayden Lake, Idaho, and Miles, 63, the former grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan and said to be the No. 2 man in the Aryan Nations Church, are charged with seditious conspiracy.
The men are charged in a 1983 plot to overthrow the government and establish a white nation in the Pacific Northwest. Prosecutors said the conspiracy was financed through robberies and counterfeiting and was to be carried out by bombings, destruction of utilities, pollution of public water supplies and killings of federal officials and minority members.
Ten defendants are charged with scheming to overthrow the federal government. One of those men and four others are charged with plotting to assassinate federal officials including H. Franklin Waters, chief federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas, and Jack Knox, an FBI agent in Little Rock.
Others charged with seditious conspiracy include Louis R. Beam Jr., 41, a Lufkin, Texas, native and former grand grand dragon of the Texas KKK who was arrested last year after a shootout near Guadalajara, Mexico; David E. Lane, 49, of Denver; Bruce C. Pierce, 33, a former resident of Metaline Falls, Wash., and Richard J. Scutari, 40, a New York native.
Lane and Pierce were convicted of civil rights violations last year and sentenced to 150-year prison terms in the 1984 slaying of Jewish radio talk show host Alan Berg, who was gunned down outside his Denver home. Scutari was acquitted of the charges in the same trial.
The government said the case against the men has developed from investigations surrounding the 1983 harboring at Smithville, Ark., of fugitive tax protester Gordon Kahl and the 1985 prosecution of members of the CSA. Kahl was killed at Smithville in a firegfight with law enforcement officers in June, 1983.
Kahl was member of the Posse Comitatus, a tax protest group, and authorities believe he was used as a rallying figure, and that his death fostered a spate of CSA terrorist activites in 1983.
Federal and state officers laid siege to the CSA camp in April, 1985, and found a large cache of illegal firearms, an anti-tank rocket, an armored car and a huge amount of sodium cyanide.