Michael Carey: Cox and Vernon have predecessors

Criminal trials are conducted in phases. Sentencing, the last phase of the trial, is by far the most somber.

All the participants and those seated in the audience know what they are about to see is not theater, not television, not film. The judge's sentence changes lives forever.

Monday, Fairbanks militia man Lonnie Vernon, 57, was sentenced to 310 months in federal prison. Tuesday, his leader, Schaeffer Cox, 28, received the same sentence. Both were convicted of a variety of weapons offenses and conspiring to kill federal officials.

Vernon did not take the witness stand in his defense. He occasionally could be heard talking to his lawyers or the federal marshals, and numerous tape recordings of his conversations with Cox and others made by informants were introduced into evidence.

His voice was familiar when he addressed the courtroom at sentencing, but the experience of watching him speak for an extended period was not.

This was the voice of inarticulate rage. The lawyers were whores, the informants were scum, and so forth. Vernon is well versed in profanity and proved it. If sentencing is an out of the everyday experience, so is watching a man call a room full of people the vilest of names without provoking a response. Silence prevailed -- except when Judge Robert Bryan intervened to remind Vernon why they were in court and what needed to be done. The judge seemed to take the attitude if this is what Mr. Vernon has to say, he can say it - for a while - even if he denounces Hillary Clinton for unspecified crimes against him.

Schaeffer Cox wept. He was contrite, apologetic, and assumed responsibility for his crimes. This did not make him sympathetic but was in stark contrast with his arrogant, evasive performance on the witness stand.

His lawyer, Peter Camiel, brought to the judge's attention a psychologist's recent evaluation of Cox. The psychologist, highly credentialed according to Camiel, believes Cox is a schizophrenic suffering delusions and paranoia. The diagnosis seem to have no impact on the sentence.

The introduction of schizophrenia, delusions and paranoia into the courtroom raised all kinds of serious (and unanswered) questions about the relationship between political belief, political action and mental health. If Cox was, to use a Lonnie Vernon word, nuts, when did he go nuts? Was he mentally ill when he denounced the United States government in a Montana speech? Was he mentally ill when he created the Second Amendment Task Force to protect gun-owners' rights? Was he mentally ill when he convened the common law court at Denny's that put the City of Fairbanks on trial for persecuting him?

And what about the members of audiences that cheered him, encouraged him, enjoyed his confrontations with Big Government? Were they, to return to Vernon speak, nuts too?

Cox, sane or insane, not only has a personal history, he comes to us from a national tradition as described by Richard Hofstadter in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

This tradition has been alive, at times thriving, in my lifetime, raising its own questions. Was Sen. Joseph McCarthy mentally ill? His biographer, Richard Rovere, concluded "The truth wasn't in him." Is the inability to recognize and speak the truth a form of mental illness? Was George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, nuts (Vernon speak again) when driving around Washington D.C. in his Volkswagen bus, which he christened "the hate bus," telling anyone white who would listen he planned to send all black American back to Africa on the "Coonard Line"?

Judge Bryan did not address these questions. He probably would tell us he is not qualified to answer them. But questions about the relationship between political belief, political action, and mental health will continue to trouble us. They are an inescapable element of our history.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.