5 Freemen Guilty, 1 Acquitted

A federal court jury on Tuesday found five Montana Freemen guilty of criminal charges in the first trial resulting from the 81-day standoff between the anti-government militants and the FBI in 1996.

However, the jury acquitted Edwin F. Clark, 47, one-time owner of the foreclosed farm that formed most of the Freemen stronghold. Clark's lawyer had argued he was desperate to save the farm and was swept up in events.

Four of the Freemen were convicted of being accessories after the fact to the armed holdup of an ABC television news crew attempting to film a story on the Freemen.

They were Steven C. Hance, 48, and his sons, James E. Hance, 25, and John R. Hance, 21, all of Charlotte, N.C., and Jon Barry Nelson, 42, of Marion, Kan. All three Hances were also convicted of being fugitives in possession of firearms.

Elwin Ward, 57, of Salt Lake City, was found innocent of being an accessory to any crimes committed by other members of the Freemen. But he was convicted of submitting a false claim to the Internal Revenue Service.

Ward tried to pay a $143,000 federal tax bill with a bogus Freemen warrant for twice that amount, and requested a refund of the excess.

Clark had been charged with bank fraud for trying to deposit a $100 million Freeman warrant in the Garfield County bank in Jordan, and as an accessory to the other crimes, but he was acquitted on all charges.

"Mr. Clark, you are free as of now," U.S. District Judge John Coughenour told Clark. Clark has been in jail since the standoff ended June 13, 1996.

In a comment directed at Ward and Clark, the judge also commented: "I can't resist the irony that some who think our system is so corrupt that they won't participate in it have benefitted from it today."

The six on trial were secondary figures in the long Freemen standoff with the FBI on the Montana plains in 1996. The trial of the Freemen leaders is scheduled to open May 26.

Court-appointed lawyers for Clark and Ward painted them as simple but desperate men, Clark trying to save the family farm and Ward trying to protect his wife and her children from her former husband.

Clark also played a pivotal role in bringing the standoff to a peaceful conclusion, persuading the Freemen to surrender. U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci said that likely influenced the jury.

"He had a story to tell that was very believable and in large part, true, that he believed he could help end the standoff and he did," she said. "I think he'll be a good citizen."

Clark and Ward were the only Freemen to attend the trial. The other four disrupted the opening session with shots and curses on March 16, and were banished to a holding cell to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television.

Clark and Ward posed no disruption, but they were not cooperative at the trial's beginning. They refused to stand when the judge entered or left the courtroom, an act o contempt that was ignored by Coughenour.

By the end of the trial, however, their demeanor had softened. They stood for the judge and for the jury on Tuesday.

While the jury was deliberating Tuesday, the judge disclosed that the anti-government militants had issued "arrest warrants" for him and one defense lawyer.

The handwritten "warrants," bearing hand-drawn seals, were dated March 24, eight days after the trial began, but were not disclosed until Tuesday. They order Coughenour and Lisa Swanson of Helena brought before the Freeman "justices."

Steven Hance signed the "arrest warrants" as circuit justice, along with LeRoy Schweitzer, "chief justice." James Hance was "affiant," and Rodney Skurdal signed as "clerk of special panel." All used the Freeman name style -- first and middle names only. Schweitzer and Skurdal are Freemen leaders.

The Freemen are noted for their bizarre pseudo-legal documents.

One warrant accuses Coughenour of "misprision of felony, subornation of perjury, contempt of court, sedition and treason." It says his actions in conducting the trial "threaten the peace and dignity of our republic."

The warrant against Ms. Swanson, whom Coughenour appointed to defend James Hance, accuses her of conflict of interest related to "the prohibition against titles of nobility guaranteed in our Constitution." It refers to "our country of Montana."

One of Coughenour's instructions to the jury cautioned the defendants "are not on trial for their political beliefs, no matter how unconventional or unpopular those beliefs may be."

Written by Tom Laceky
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