By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Jurors began deliberations on Thursday in the trial of three Alaska militia members accused of plotting to murder government officials and acquiring a cache of illegal weapons to carry out their plans.
The case tests the limits of free speech rights and when violence-themed talk can be interpreted as plans for an attack. The case comes as observers have documented a rise in the number of anti-government militias in recent years.
Schaeffer Cox, the 28-year-old founder of the Alaska Peacekeepers Militia, is accused with two of his followers of conspiracy to commit murder and weapons offenses. They planned to kill judges, Alaska state troopers and other government officials, prosecutors said.
If convicted on the most serious charges, Cox and his co-defendants, Coleman Barney, 38, and Lonnie Vernon, 57, face maximum sentences of life in prison.
In closing arguments this week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki said the men went beyond the boundaries of free speech. They were, at Cox's direction, laying the groundwork for what they saw as a violent insurrection, Skrocki said.
The point was to punish perceived enemies and create an alternative government, "which is the sovereign Republic of Schaeffer Cox, where he gets to live under whatever version of liberty he wants," Skrocki said.
Secretly taped conversation played during the five-week trial revealed the three defendants talked of beheading judges, sending heads in boxes as messages and hanging federal employees' bodies as "wind chimes of liberty," Skrocki said.
"They're talking about killing people with these things, with stealth and premeditation," Skrocki said.
Prosecutors said the men had bought or sought to acquire an assortment of weapons, including grenades and silencers. Some of the weapons were displayed in court during the trial.
Defense attorneys said prosecutors had exaggerated the acts and words of clients they described as dissidents and vilified their Alaska-style passion for weaponry.
Cox's attorney, Nelson Traverso, conceded the militia leader, who had a habit of toting guns and confronting state troopers and other officials at their homes or in public, could be "unsettling." But his actions were legal, Traverso said.
"They agreed to no such thing as murder," he said. "They wouldn't have shot anyone if little green men dropped out of the sky."
Each of the three men is charged with conspiracy to murder and at least one count of carrying firearms during a crime of violence. They also face weapons charges, including a charge against Cox of possession of an unregistered machinegun.
Vernon, the other co-defendant, and his wife, Karen, face separate charges connected with an alleged plot to kill a federal judge who presided over the couples' income tax case. Trial on those charges is scheduled for September.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in March that the number of anti-government groups in the United States continued to rise in 2011, with the number of Patriot groups, a largely rural phenomenon sometimes referred to as the militia movement, having increased to 1,274 groups from 824 the year before.
The number of those organizations swelled since the economy slumped into recession and President Barack Obama, a Democrat and the nation's first black president, was elected in 2008.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Eric Walsh)