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Hurt Fingers and Latin Phrases Foretell Rocky Freemen Trial

Unruly acts during pretrial motions leave officials wary

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Seven months after surrendering to federal agents following the longest armed standoff in US history, the saga of the Montana freemen continues as one marked by defiance.

During pretrial motions, some of the anti-government renegades have been forcibly ejected from the courtroom after shouting unintelligible Latin phrases at judges, refusing to enter pleas, and generally challenging the authority of the US government to try them.

One defendant reportedly sprained his finger in a struggle to prevent deputy sheriffs from getting his fingerprint.

Officials are concerned that the same unpredictable atmosphere that characterized the 81-day freemen rebellion near Jordan, Mont., may lie ahead as the defendants, collectively known as "The Billings 24," are tried in federal court here in March.

"It is very difficult to predict whether these trials will go smoothly or be marked by disruptive behavior," says US Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci. "My hope is the defendants will perceive the seriousness of their situation and conduct themselves appropriately."

Ms. Matteucci says the federal government has "bent over backwards" to afford the accused their due process of law because it knows how closely the case is being watched by anti-government groups across the country. In light of the coming trials of alleged Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in Denver, the freemen trials here hold symbolic ramifications.

She acknowledges, however, that the prosecution also is meant to inform other freemen and militia groups across the country that illegal expressions of antigovernment hostility will not be tolerated.


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