Freemen’s anti-government legal gibberish infecting fellow prisoners
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Standing scornful and defiant, the defendants shout their cases. They are sovereign citizens, not subject to the court! The judges are unqualified! The lawyers are illegal!
``To hell with you and your kangaroo court!″ one defendant bellows at his sentencing for dealing drugs.
The bizarre claims are trademarks of the Montana Freemen, the militant anti-government zealots who have been jailed here, awaiting trial, since their 81-day standoff ended 16 months ago.
But the claims are now coming from garden-variety criminals, fellow inmates in the Yellowstone County jail. These non-Freemen are proving to be ardent students of the convoluted legal fantasies of the jail’s most famous residents.
They are firing their lawyers, torpedoing their own plea agreements, writing their own legal briefs, arguing _ and losing _ their own cases. They are making life and work difficult, and often miserable, for those who run the court system.
Chief public defender Sandy Selvey calls the Freemen a plague. At least seven clients of his office have tried ``Freemanspeak″ in state court; others have tried it in federal court.
``They’re contaminating our good criminals,″ says District Judge Diane Barz, who tangled with the Freemen as a federal prosecutor.
About two dozen Freemen have been among the jail’s 300 inmates since June 13, 1996, when they surrendered after an armed, 81-day standoff with FBI agents at their isolated farm compound in the remote outback of eastern Montana’s ``Big Open.″ Three minor figures have pleaded guilty, but trials for the rest won’t begin until next spring.
The host of federal charges against them include wire and bank fraud and threatening the life of a federal judge and other public officials. The FBI says some 800 people from around the country attended classes at the rural stronghold, learning to issue the worthless liens and ``warrants″ that the Freemen claim are legal tender.
People in several states have been charged, and some convicted, of trying to use such documents, often bearing the name of Freeman leader Leroy Schweitzer. The Dallas Morning News reported that at least 151 people in 23 states were under investigation for Freeman connections.
The Freemen’s legal ``philosophy″ is a jumble of odds and ends from the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, the Magna Carta and the Uniform Commercial Code, the body of federal laws that govern interstate financial transactions.
They dress it up in pseudo-scholarly terms and meaningless Latin phrases and claim, in essence, they are laws unto themselves _ and over everyone else.
``There are some real gaps in their education, and ... I think they are darned close to acting like the mentally ill,″ Ms. Barz says.
The Freemen commonly rant, belch, challenge the federal judges and get banished from the courtroom to watch on closed-circuit TV as appointed lawyers try to defend them. More conventional inmates soon started imitating them.
Their verbose legal filings, often prepared by Freemen, are so peculiar that District Court Clerk Jean Thompson rejects many of them.
Wife-murderer Jerry Swinney filed a 25-page ``Demand for Bill of Particulars.″ Adopting the Freemen’s name style _ Jerry period comma Swinney _ it opens this way:
``Jerry., Swinney, Affiant, hereinafter at all times relevant, Demandant, a self-realized entity, a Man upon the free soil of the several American independent and sovereign states, ...″
Twenty-five eye-glazing pages later, this is how it closes:
``NOTICE. This instrument comes under, and brings into the instant action, the doctrines of res gestae, res ipsa loquitor, tacit procuration, prior knowledge, willful intent, as against YOU and you and your private characters. Further affiant sayeth not.″
County Attorney Dennis Paxinos, public defender Selvey and the judges say the biggest problem the Freemen imitators have created is how to protect themselves from themselves. It may be a bad idea for them to act as their own lawyer _ but it’s their legal right.
``The judges and prosecutors seem to be as concerned with protecting these Freeman-type people as their own attorneys are,″ says Deputy County Attorney Joe Coble. ``The only people who seem to want to run roughshod over these people’s rights are these people themselves.″
``The real concern I have is trying to figure out if, hidden among the rubble of rhetoric, there’s any viable complaint or issue we really should consider,″ says District Judge G. Todd Baugh.
As far as the judges can recall, that hasn’t happened yet.
``It’s incredibly difficult to figure out what they’re trying to say,″ says District Judge Russell Fagg.
Judges usually appoint a standby lawyer, often over the defendant’s protests.
``Standby is the worst possible situation for a defense lawyer,″ Selvey says. ``You have to know all the facts, all the witnesses and what they’ll testify to, all the forensic evidence, and the authorities the guy’s going to cite.
``And then you have to stand there and watch while he goes down in flames.″