By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The leader of an Alaska militia group and one of his followers were found guilty on Monday of conspiracy to commit murder and of various weapons offenses in a plot to kill government officials and law enforcement officers.
But a U.S. District Court jury in Anchorage failed to reach a unanimous verdict on a murder conspiracy charge against a third co-defendant in a case that federal prosecutors said highlighted a rise in anti-government militancy in recent years.
The prosecution of Schaeffer Cox, 28, founder of the Alaska Peacekeepers Militia, and two followers, also tested the limits of free-speech rights and the point at which violent talk can be interpreted as a threat to act violently.
Cox and his co-defendants, Lonnie Vernon, 57, and Coleman Barney, 38, stood trial for six weeks on conspiracy to commit murder and other charges stemming from what prosecutors described as a plot to kill judges, Alaska state troopers and other government officials.
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 six-week trial.
After 2 1/2 days of deliberations, the jury found Cox and Vernon each guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit murder, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Cox also was convicted on seven counts of various weapons charges plus one count of solicitation to commit a crime of violence. Vernon was additionally convicted on one count of conspiracy to possess unregistered weapons.
While the jury deadlocked on the murder conspiracy charge against Barney, he was convicted of possessing unregistered weapons and conspiracy to possess such weapons. All three men were acquitted of carrying firearms during a crime of violence.
Sentencing is set for September.
CROSSING THE LINE
In closing arguments last week and in comments to reporters after Monday's verdict, 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 and planning specific and gruesome acts, Skrocki said.
Skrocki referred in closing arguments to secretly recorded conversations, played as trial evidence, in which the defendants spoke of beheading judges, sending severed heads in boxes to serve as messages, hanging bodies of government workers from trees like "wind chimes" and firebombing houses of government officials, then shooting the fleeing occupants.
The case also went beyond minor firearms infractions, Skrocki told reporters Monday. "It's one thing to have a machine gun that's not registered. The why is another thing," he said.
The charges resulted from an investigation carried out over a year and a half, he said.
Any decision about retrying Barney on the murder-conspiracy charge will be made by the US Attorney for Alaska, Skrocki said.
Defense attorneys said prosecutors had exaggerated the acts and words of their clients, whom they described as dissidents, and had 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 Cox's actions were legal, Traverso said.
RISE OF ANTI-GOVERNMENT GROUPS
Defense attorneys also claimed that any plans for violent action were suggested by the undercover informants, whom they described as untrustworthy characters being paid off by the government.
Defense attorneys were not immediately available for comment after Monday's verdict was read.
Cox was a fixture on the Fairbanks political scene and at one time considered a rising star in local Republican politics. He testified in the trial about organizing Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign in Alaska, and he ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat that year.
Vernon and his wife, Karen, still face separate charges connected with an alleged plot to kill a federal judge who presided over the couple's 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 groups has swelled since the economy slumped into recession and President Barack Obama, a Democrat and the nation's first black president, was elected in 2008.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston. Desking by Christopher Wilson)