Judge Morris Arnold, who now sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, presided over the case and carefully instructed the jury on the complex nature of the charges. According to Judge Arnold, he told them, “The fact that you may think it was impossible for the defendants to overthrow the government is not a defense to the charge.” What mattered, Judge Arnold said, was that the defendants believed they could topple the government and took steps toward that end.
In the government’s opening statement, Mr. Snyder laid out the defendants’ intricate plot, which involved weapons stockpiling, paramilitary training, armed robbery, murder of government officials, and planned attacks on infrastructure targets.
But wrapping all of those crimes up into a seditious conspiracy would be a tough sell.
Rodney Smolla, now the dean of Widener University Delaware School of Law, lived near Fort Smith at the time and was quoted in several newspaper reports on the trial. He was wary of the prosecution’s legal strategy from the beginning. “Sedition has a troubling history in this country,” he said recently. “It has typically been used to suppress political speech.”
The defendants and their supporters seized on the suppression-of-speech narrative — rhetoric still heard today from the far right. Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., then the head of the White Patriot party, said, “The whole purpose of this is to silence the white patriot movement.” (He would go on to kill three people in an anti-Semitic shooting in Overland Park, Kan., in 2014.) Protesters outside the courthouse marched behind a banner that read “Repeal the anti-free speech sedition law.” And Mr. Beam called the charges “the McCarthyism of the ’80s.”
Judge Arnold remembered reporters swarming Mr. Beam as he was brought to the courthouse. “Louis, did you aspire to overthrow the United States government?” a reporter called out. He responded with swaggering sarcasm, “What else would a country boy do on a Saturday night?”
The government’s key witness in the seven-week trial was Jim Ellison, the head of the C.S.A. who had turned state’s evidence. A dark-haired, barrel-chested man, Mr. Ellison rattled off a litany of criminal activity, including a plot to kill a federal judge and the obtaining of 30 gallons of cyanide to poison the water supply of New York and Washington, D.C. He also corroborated the defendants’ exchanging of information and resources with the intent to overthrow the government.
But under cross-examination, Mr. Ellison’s credibility withered. He admitted that he had appointed himself “King of the Ozarks,” believed himself to be a direct descendant of King David of Israel and had declared one C.S.A. member to be “spiritually dead” so that he could marry his wife.