FAIRBANKS—A panel of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges has reversed one of Fairbanks militia leader Francis Schaeffer Cox's convictions but affirmed others.
A six-page unpublished memorandum filed on Tuesday states Cox will get a new sentencing hearing. It's not yet clear whether the decision will affect his total prison sentence of 26 years.
Cox, 34, was a one-time Alaska Legislature candidate and leader of a Fairbanks gun rights organization until his arrest in 2011. He has advocated the "sovereign citizen" ideology that disavows the legitimacy of the U.S. government, although he has rejected the label as a pejorative term in writings from prison.
This week's appeals court ruling came less than two weeks after three appeals court judges heard oral arguments in Cox's case in an Anchorage courtroom.
Cox is serving his sentence at a federal prison in Illinois after an Anchorage jury convicted him in 2012 on charges including conspiracy to murder federal officials, solicitation to murder federal officials and charges of owning illegal weapons.
The three appeals court judges hinted during the oral arguments that they might reverse Cox's murder solicitation conviction, which they did in Tuesday's ruling while affirming the remaining convictions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki, who was the lead attorney at Cox's trial, said Wednesday that the appeals court ruling won't change Cox's sentence because Cox was sentenced to serve the murder solicitation sentence concurrently — at the same time as — his murder conspiracy conviction.
"At this point we do not believe there is a legal basis to change the current sentence," Skrocki said.
A letter Cox sent to supporter Rudy Davis in Texas appears to anticipate the appeals court ruling. Davis, who runs the website yearofjubile.com on behalf of Cox and several prisoners, posted part of the letter in a YouTube video Wednesday.
"If the court throws out the 20-year 'solicitation to murder' charge but lets the 27-year 'conspiracy to murder' charge stand, that will be the most illogical contraction ever," the hand-written letter states. "They are the same supposed crime: 'Asking my friends to agree to go murder with me.' The asking is the solicitation count. The agreeing is the conspiracy count. What are the judges saying? 'My friends agreed to do what I never asked them to do?" That's silly."
On the murder solicitation charge, the court agreed with Cox's defense attorney, Michael Filipovic, in his argument that Cox didn't really threaten the life of any federal employees in 2010 outside North Pole television station KJNP. When Cox went into the building to give an interview, he asked supporters to set up a security perimeter to protect him from a fictitious "federal hit team" that Cox said was trying to kill him.
Cox's guards didn't "constitute a sufficient threat to the safety of a federal officer," the appeals court stated, because the "hit team" did not in fact exist.
The appeals panel cited a second reason for throwing out this conviction: Cox's instructions to his supporters were to only use deadly force if they saw federal agents "drawing down" with guns. The court concluded there wasn't enough evidence that "strongly confirmed that (Cox) actually intended for anyone to commit first-degree murder."
On other issues, the appellate judges sided with prosecutors.
The court reviewed the evidence and rejected Filipovic's argument that prosecutors didn't present enough evidence to convict Cox on the murder conspiracy charge. "Defendant (Cox) and his co-conspirators agreed to attack government officials — including federal officers — in the event of certain conditions that they subjectively thought were likely to occur. A rational trier of fact could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the agreement was not merely one of self-defense," the judges stated.
Among the other Interior residents arrested the same day as Cox, Lonnie Vernon and his wife, Karen Vernon, of Salcha, remain in prison. The jury convicted Coleman Barney, of North Pole, on illegal weapons charges but was unable to agree unanimously on the murder conspiracy charge. Barney was released from prison in 2015.
All charges were dropped against Cox’s friend Michael O. Anderson and Coleman’s wife, Rachel Barney.
Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.