Convicted Alaska Militia Leader Fires Attorney

Alaska militia leader Francis Schaeffer Cox has fired his attorney, likely laying the groundwork for an appeal of his nine convictions, which include conspiring to kill a judge and law enforcement officials.

In a two-sentence document filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, the 28-year-old leader of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia said he had discharged defense attorney Nelson Traverso. “I do so voluntarily and intelligently and will seek other counsel,” Cox said.

The basis for the firing, Cox contends, is that Traverso was ineffective and didn’t provide a proper defense, leading to Cox’s jury conviction and, quite likely, a lengthy prison sentence. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 14, but that date could be postponed to allow his new attorney time to review the case.

Traverso, in an affidavit accompanying Cox’s filing, said Cox “has, on numerous occasions, expressed dissatisfaction with counsel’s presentation, direct-examinations, cross-examinations, exhibits, witnesses called on his behalf, and arguments raised during trial.”

“Mr. Cox believes that counsel was ineffective in his representation and that contributed to his conviction on multiple charges in this case,” Traverso wrote.

Motions for substitution of counsel are routinely granted in federal court, and it’s highly unlikely that visiting U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan from Tacoma will block Cox’s request.

Defendants appealing their convictions frequently use the argument that their lawyer didn’t do a good job. But as one Alaska political blog, Alaska Pride, points out, persuading a judge is a tall order. The appeal must make a convincing case that the attorney was not competent and that the attorney’s poor work was directly responsible for the convictions.

In closing arguments capping a six-week trial that ended in June, Traverso described his client as a father of two who isn’t a dangerous revolutionary as the government contends,  but rather a “loudmouth” activist who merely exercised his free speech rights with “liberal use of violent imagery.”

The jury didn’t buy it.

On June 18, after three days of deliberation, the panel convicted Cox on nine of 11 charges, including seven weapons charges. He was acquitted on charges of carrying a handgun while conspiring to purchase destructive devices and possession of a handgun while discussing the murder conspiracy.

Co-defendants Lonnie Vernon, 56, and Coleman Barney, 38, were convicted of related charges in the murder conspiracy.