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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Pair of Phineas Priesthood bombers see sentences reduced following federal appeal

Two men now in their 70s who participated in a plot to bomb newspaper and Planned Parenthood offices in Spokane in the 1990s recently had their sentences reduced following a successful appeal in the federal courts.

Charles Barbee, 70, and Verne Merrell, 77, had their convictions on counts of armed bank robbery, destruction of a building and use of a firearm during a crime of violence reheard this month by U.S. District Court Judge William Fremming Nielsen. Nielsen was the judge who originally sentenced both men to life terms following the 1996 crime spree that targeted a Planned Parenthood clinic, the offices of The Spokesman-Review and local bank branches.

The two men, along with accomplices Brian Ratigan and Robert Berry, were inspired by an antisemitic and white supremacist ideology to commit what federal prosecutors called “a horrific wave of violent crimes,” including the detonation of pipe bombs, and bank robbery during the ensuing police response.

Barbee and Merrell were back in court following a successful appeal of the sentences Nielsen handed down in 2020 and early 2021. Those sentences – 55 years for Barbee and 58 for Merrell – also were prompted by appellate review of their cases following a 2015 Supreme Court decision that the laws were unconstitutionally vague. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found in June that Nielsen should have viewed their offenses in light of a 2018 act of Congress revising mandatory minimums for some criminal offenses, the so-called “First Step Act.”

Nielsen reduced Barbee’s sentence from 55 years to 40 years as a result of the appeal. Merrell will now spend 43 years in prison, down from his 58-year sentence.

Jeffrey Niesen, who represented Merrell at his resentencing hearing on Dec. 14, said relief from the federal appellate court is rare. Merrell has an additional 17 years to serve on his sentence, however, which would put him close to 93 when he’s released.

“It’s tantamount to basically a life sentence,” Niesen said. “That’s what it is.”

Barbee had asked Nielsen for what’s known as “compassionate release,” a plea to a judge for early dismissal from prison due to a medical condition. Nielsen denied that request, but his attorney, Mark Vovos, filed a notice with the court of an appeal of that decision on Tuesday. Documents say Barbee has hypothyroidism and nerve damage.

The method for applying for such compassionate release also was changed by the 2018 federal law, allowing inmates to appeal to a judge, rather than the Bureau of Prisons, for release.

Since the law changed, judges have granted 4,234 requests for release from federal custody, according to a September 2022 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Many of those were during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in late 2020 and early 2021, when the disease was spreading rapidly through jails and prisons. The number of requests has diminished significantly since September 2021, according to the report.

Berry, who was also originally sentenced to life in prison during a 1997 trial, was granted a compassionate release from custody in May 2021 for throat cancer. He was one of 27 Eastern Washington inmates to successfully petition for the relief. At a Nov. 16 telephonic hearing, Berry was scheduled to remain under court supervision through 2026.

Ratigan was released from custody in June 2020 following his resentencing hearing after being given credit for time served. He is serving a five-year term of supervised release in Sandpoint, according to court records.

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