Men Who Plotted to Bomb Newspaper, Planned Parenthood in Washington in 90s Have Sentences Reduced

Men Who Plotted to Bomb Newspaper, Planned Parenthood in Washington in 90s Have Sentences Reduced

By Kip Hill/The Spokesman-Review

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

Charles Barbee, 70, and Verne Merrell, 77, were arraigned this month by U.S. District Court Judge William Fremming Nielsen on charges of armed bank robbery, destruction of a building and use of a firearm during a crime of violence. Nielsen was the judge who originally sentenced the two men to life in prison after the 1996 crime spree that targeted a Planned Parenthood clinic, The Spokesman-Review offices and local bank branches.

The two men, along with collaborators Brian Ratigan and Robert Berry, were inspired by an anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideology to carry out what federal prosecutors called “a horrific wave of violent crimes,” including detonating pipe bombs and robbing banks during the ensuing police response.

Barbee and Merrell returned to court after a successful appeal of the sentences handed down to Nielsen in 2020 and early 2021. Those sentences — 55 years for Barbee and 58 for Merrell — were also prompted by appellate review of their cases after a the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling 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 congressional act revising mandatory minimums for certain felonies, the so-called “The First Step Act”.

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

Jeffrey Niesen, who represented Merrell at his Dec. 14 retrial hearing, said relief from the federal appeals court is rare. Merrell has 17 more years to serve on his sentence, however, which would bring him close to 93 when he is released.

“It’s the equivalent of a life sentence,” Niesen said. “It is what it is.”

Barbee had asked Nielsen for what’s known as a “compassionate release,” a plea to a judge for early release from prison because of 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 was also changed by the 2018 federal law, allowing inmates to appeal to a judge, rather than the Bureau of Prisons, for release.

Since the law change, judges have accepted 4,234 requests for release from federal custody, according to a September 2022 report by the US Sentencing Commission.

Many of these were during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021, when the disease was spreading rapidly through prisons and jails. According to the report, the number of requests has decreased significantly since September 2021.

Berry, who was also initially 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 who successfully petitioned for relief. In a Nov. 16 phone hearing, Berry was scheduled to remain under court supervision until 2026.

Ratigan was released from custody in June 2020 following his retrial 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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