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Mon Sep 26 15:38:10 PDT 2022
Apr 10, 2001 6:30 AM
Jim Bell's Strange Day in Court
The cypherpunk accused of threatening federal agents accuses his
attorney of making death threats, admits stealing mail and then takes
the Fifth. His attorney asks for a mistrial. Declan McCullagh reports
from Tacoma, Washington.
TACOMA, Washington – The trial of an Internet essayist accused of
stalking federal agents took a bizarre turn after the defendant
admitted to stealing U.S. mail and accused his attorney of delivering
An increasingly agitated Jim Bell, author of the controversial
"Assassination Politics" essay, told a jury on Monday that he was
unfairly barred from presenting "six hours of testimony" about a
campaign against him by IRS agents and he wanted to fire his
court-appointed defense attorney.
Bell's lawyer, Robert Leen, twice asked U.S. District Judge Jack
Tanner to halt the proceedings because his client had a "major mental
disorder." Tanner, who had previously ruled that Bell was fit to stand
trial, denied the requests.
The 43-year-old chemist and entrepreneur took the witness stand on
Friday to argue he had been conducting a lawful investigation into
official corruption while compiling names and home addresses of
government agents. Bell is charged with five counts of interstate
stalking, and jury deliberations are scheduled to begin Tuesday
On Sunday, Leen visited his client at the nearby SeaTac prison, which
apparently prompted Bell's accusations in open court. Bell testified
calmly on Friday, regaling jurors with tales of how public key
encryption and anonymous remailers worked, but by Monday had become
embittered and combative.
He said that his attorney "communicated a threat" against Bell and
Bell's family during the meeting, and "threatened to cut me off after
30 minutes if I mentioned" accusations against fellow prisoners.
Bell also acknowledged under oath that he had raided the mailbox of a
person he mistakenly believed to be a Treasury Department agent,
recorded personal information from those letters, then discarded them
during dinner at a nearby McDonald's. Although Bell is not charged
with that crime, a conviction would carry a fine and a sentence of up
to five years in prison.
During cross-examination, Bell invoked his Fifth Amendment right
against self-incrimination when asked about $2,000 a month in trust
fund income not reported on a statement that he signed in November
2000 to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. Because of that
document, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robb London said, Bell "is in peril
of being charged with perjury."
"You weren't aware of the trust account that is maintained by you?"
London asked about the Bell's shares of the Templeton Emerging Markets
"Have you no shame?" Bell replied. "I'm taking the Fifth Amendment,
which even innocent people are entitled to do."
Bell said since he was no longer represented by counsel, the
prosecutor's continued questions were inappropriate. "I'm concerned
about your tactics," he said. "I don't believe I should be questioned
under these circumstances.... I've been denied 15 defense witnesses.
This is not a fair trial."
Tanner has quashed all of Bell's subpoenas aimed at U.S. Marshals,
prosecutors, defense attorneys and former and current prisoners,
saying they were not relevant. Tanner has denied repeated motions for
a mistrial from Bell's lawyer, in addition to motions to withdraw as
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"Mr. Leen does not represent me," Bell said. "I wonder if it's legally
proper for them to question me without counsel present."
The Vancouver, Washington resident said he was coerced into taking a
plea agreement on July 18, 1997, in which he admitted to obstructing
IRS agents, writing "Assassination Politics" and stink-bombing the
carpet outside an IRS office.
"Much of that plea was basically fictional," Bell said. He said he was
"given a pill the previous day. "I was groggy and sleepy."
Upon questioning from London, the prosecutor, Bell said he never filed
a motion to withdraw his guilty plea.
London suggested that there were two types of U.S. citizens: Those who
were federal agents and those who are not. He said that Treasury
Department agent Jeff Gordon was authorized to investigate Bell, but
that Bell inappropriately researched information on Gordon.
"Do you understand that (Jeff Gordon) is given authority (as a) duly
authorized law enforcement officer?" London asked.
This case raises the question of what actions are protected by the
First Amendment's guarantees of free expression and what crosses the
line and becomes illegal harassment.
Because Bell repeatedly said he would not violate the law, Leen had
hoped to raise a First Amendment defense – essentially saying that
because the law protects advocacy of violent acts, the jury can find
Bell to be not guilty as charged. Leen asked the judge to incorporate
a First Amendment defense in instructions to the jury.
But Tanner nixed that idea. He said he did not believe Bell was
engaged in political speech.
"Are the IRS laws political?" Tanner asked. "I thought they were
passed by Congress and signed by the president."
Tanner suggested the IRS was as apolitical as a highway "speed limit."
"I'm going to deny those instructions," Tanner said, which means the
jury will not consider the First Amendment implications of the charges
Bell has complained that the media was "boycotting" his trial. On
Sunday, his mother, Lou Bell, sent e-mail to members of the
cypherpunks list saying: "Please send messages to the following
newspapers and ask them why they haven't been following the trial of
James Bell in federal court in Tacoma. There will be extremely
important testimony by James Bell on Monday."
More information about the cypherpunks