CHICAGO – Defense attorneys in the trial of white supremacist Matthew Hale urged jurors Wednesday to look beyond Hale’s hateful rhetoric and closely examine the government’s evidence, particularly the secretly recorded tapes that prosecutors say show Hale tried to have a federal judge murdered.
The government case has been “an appeal to passion and prejudice,” chief defense counsel Thomas Anthony Durkin told the jury in closing arguments in the two-week trial. He pleaded with jurors to give Hale a fair verdict despite “the venom he spews.”
Hale, 32, is charged with obstruction of justice and soliciting the murder of U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow, who had ordered him in a trademark lawsuit to stop using the name World Church of the Creator. The organization’s headquarters are located in Riverton, Wyo., where it exists in mostly name only.
Prosecutors say Hale was furious after the 2002 ruling and urged his bodyguard Anthony Evola to kill the judge. But Evola, an FBI informant who was secretly taping their conversations, acknowledged under cross-examination that Hale never directly said he wanted the judge killed.
Durkin, who called no witnesses during the trial, said the only voice on the tapes urging violence is Evola’s. The prosecution tried to portray Evola as having just stumbled upon an unfolding plan, Durkin said, but the tapes reveal a calculated attempt to lure Hale into a murder plot.
“Who’s soliciting whom here?” Durkin asked.
“You might be tempted to … simply convict because he deserves it on a moral basis,” he said. “We don’t do that in this country.”
But prosecutors told the jury Hale’s racists and violent beliefs are central to their verdict.
Hale believed the white supremacist group he led from East Peoria and its beliefs were under assault and required “a violent response,” U.S. District Attorney Victoria Peters said. Lefkow’s order, “in his mind, was part of this sinister war intended to put the World Church of the Creator out of business.”
Lefkow, who was never attacked, ordered Hale to stop using the name World Church of the Creator because the words were trademarked by an Oregon-based religious group, TE-TA-MA Truth Foundation – Family of URI, Inc., which has no ties to Hale and disavows his views. She also ordered Hale to get rid of all materials connected to his group using that name.
“If his holy books, in his mind, were going to be destroyed, it was time to take the law into his own hands,” Peters said.
Hale sat at the defense table during the closing arguments wearing his orange prison jumpsuit, as he had every day of the trial. He faces up to 30 years in federal prison if convicted.
The case could hinge on how the jury – which listened to more than a dozen tapes – interprets a few short, veiled exchanges between Hale and Evola.
In one exchange, Evola asked: “Are we gonna exterminate the rat?” in a reference to Lefkow.
“Well, whatever you want to do, basically,” Hale replied on the tape.
Moments later on the tape Hale added: “My position has always been that, you know, I’m going to fight within the law and, but, ah, that information’s been provided if you wish to, ah, do anything, yourself, you can. So that makes it clear.”
“Consider it done,” Evola said.
Two weeks after that exchange, during the last meeting between the two men, Hale sounded worried, telling Evola, “I can’t be a party to such a thing.”
Defense attorneys point to the numerous taped comments by Hale saying it is imperative that he not break the law. They said Evola was trying to goad Hale into authorizing him to take action against Lefkow and at least three former followers who Hale felt had betrayed him.
“There’s not one tape where Hale says, ‘I want somebody killed,’ right?” Durkin asked Evola during his cross-examination.
“I don’t believe so,” Evola testified.
The jury, including five African-Americans and one Latino, listened to hours of racial and ethnic slurs from Hale, who was heard at one point laughing as he recounted a murderous shooting spree by follower Benjamin Smith. That 1999 rampage through Illinois and Indiana put Hale in the national spotlight.
One obstruction of justice charge stems from allegations that Hale urged his father to lie to a grand jury by saying Hale began weeping during a TV interview about Smith. Jurors were shown the interview, which shows Hale calm and unemotional. They also listened to a tape of Hale saying it must have “really been fun” when Smith fatally shot former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong.
Hale’s followers have largely scattered since their leader’s arrest in January 2003. Under an order issued by Lefkow, any members of his group who can be identified as such responsible for a $200,000 fine for flouting her order to stop using the name World Church of the Creator.