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Judge delays trial of suspects in eco-arsons.

Byline: Bill Bishop The Register-Guard

With tens of thousands of pages of evidence to analyze, and more coming, defense lawyers on Tuesday got a delay in the scheduled Oct. 31 trial of four defendants charged in a multistate federal investigation of arsons by radical environmentalists.

No new trial date was set, but U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken indicated that she would consider delaying it as long as mid-March.

Aiken also unsealed some previously withheld documents related to the plea deals made last month by six other defendants in the same case, but she kept tight wraps on the most sensitive information: their statements and the specifics of their agreements to cooperate with prosecutors in the trial of the remaining co-defendants.

The documents were sealed last month at the request of defense lawyers for the six who pleaded guilty in the case, dubbed Operation Backfire by investigators.

Part of Tuesday's hearing was to determine how the remaining four defendants should be allowed access to statements and agreements of the other six - materials they are legally entitled to see in order to prepare their defense for trial.

Defense lawyers for the six argued last month that the safety of their clients would be jeopardized if the plea deals were revealed publicly.

Under last month's order by U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Coffin, the remaining four defendants and their lawyers were forbidden from making copies of any of the protected documents. Further, Coffin ordered the defendants not be allowed to view the documents except under the direct supervision of their lawyers, to ensure that the statements are not disclosed before trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Ray told Aiken on Tuesday that prosecutors also fear for the safety of cooperating witnesses if their statements and plea deals are made public.

"This is a matter of great concern, not just to the government, but to the defendants," Ray said in court. Pointing to a thick binder containing the agreements, he said, "This is much sough-after material. Critical material."

Defense lawyers for the four defendants facing trial told Aiken the restrictions were an unneeded burden.

However, Eugene lawyer Richard Fredericks, who represents one of the defendants who accepted a plea deal last month, said his client is very worried that protected information already is being leaked to Internet Web sites and to a national magazine.

Fredericks, who represents Stanislas Meyerhoff, said the Internet sites are rife with anonymous threats against so-called "snitches" within the radical environmental underground.

Aiken ruled the protective orders covering the documents are necessary to ensure the personal safety of cooperating defendants and witnesses. She said the secrecy does not give an advantage to the prosecution because it is widely known that federal cases of this nature rely on informants making deals with prosecutors.

She urged all the lawyers to report any apparent violation of the court orders protecting the documents.

"I will deal immediately and effectively with people who violate them," she said.
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Title Annotation:Crime; The specifics of plea deals for six other defendants are kept from the public
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 23, 2006
Words:493
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