Freemen Prosecutor Honored by Kennedy Family as a Profile in Courage
Boston, MA, May 29, 1998 - In the same week that members of the militant Freemen group went on trial in Billings, Montana on a 40-count federal indictment alleging conspiracy to commit fraud, threatening to kill federal officials, firearms violations, and armed robbery, the part-time county attorney who defied their death threats and enforced the law against them was honored by members of President Kennedy's family as the winner of the 1998 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
Garfield County Attorney Nickolas C. Murnion, who successfully prosecuted the Freemen for advocating terrorism and who rallied a small Montana community to stand up to the extremist hate group long before federal authorities were prepared to act, was honored today at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum for demonstrating "courage of the kind celebrated in stories of the Old West." Murnion was presented the $25,000 prize at a ceremony attended by President Kennedy's children, Caroline and John, and by his brother, Senator Edward Kennedy. Today would have been President Kennedy's 81st birthday.
"My father most admired those politicians who had the courage to make decisions of conscience without regard for the consequences,"said Caroline Kennedy, President of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. "Nick Murnion is a shining example of such courage. Although his life was threatened and a bounty placed on his head, he met the responsibilities of his office with honor and distinction. His passionate defense of our democratic system of government should be a source of pride for all Americans."
Kennedy presented Murnion with a sterling silver lantern representing a beacon of hope. The lantern was designed by Edwin Schlossberg and crafted by Tiffany & Co. His citation read:
When heavily armed, anti-government extremists, the self-proclaimed Freemen, moved in on Jordan, Montana in 1994, declaring themselves the law and threatening the lives of local elected officials, Nickolas Murnion, the County Attorney, refused to be intimidated. With courage of the kind celebrated in stories of the Old West, he went alone to face evil, and all the while refusing to go armed. Through two years of extreme tension, when violence seemed inevitable, with his life and that of his family constantly at risk, he prosecuted individual Freemen as they broke the law and rallied the people of the community, calling on their faith in elected government, and taking strength, as he said, from their resolve. We are all made wiser and stouter-of-heart by his example, a true profile in courage.
The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award is presented annually to an elected official who has made a decision based on principle, and on the national good, despite opposition from local constituents, special interest groups, or adversaries. Described by one recipient as the "Nobel in Government," it is named for President Kennedy's 1957 Pulitzer prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers to fight for what they believed in. The award was created by the Kennedy Library Foundation in 1989 and is presented on or near May 29, in celebration of President Kennedy's birthday.
Murnion is the ninth individual to receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
As Garfield County's attorney, Murnion was on the front lines in defending the nation's rule of law against the Freemen, a private militia-type movement whose members reject the U.S. government and its laws and claim for themselves sovereign rights such as printing their own money orders and creating their own courts of law. They harass and intimidate public officials by trying them in absentia for treason, and by issuing official looking felony notices, arrest warrants, and multimillion-dollar common law liens threatening seizure of their property. Ideological allies of radical militia groups and white supremacists, the Freemen believe the United States is a Christian republic governed by Biblically-derived common law.
In March, 1994, the Freemen posted a $1 million bounty for the arrest and conviction of Murnion, the county sheriff and several others who were involved in the foreclosure of a Freeman's property. They threatened to hang those found guilty from a nearby bridge.
Recognizing the growing movement as both a danger to public safety and as a serious threat to the nation's constitutional form of government, Murnion stood up to the Freemen, and, using every legal option available to him, began prosecuting its members. He charged them with a variety of felonies including impersonating public officials, solicitation of kidnaping, and "criminal syndicalism," a little-used state statute which makes it a felony to belong to a group that promotes violence or other methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing political ends. He obtained the state's first conviction under the statute.
In the three Freemen cases he prosecuted, Murnion obtained convictions. But several more of the defendants wanted on felony charges became fugitives, creating an armed camp at "Justus Township" a 960-acre ranch outside Jordan, Montana.
In his 1995 appearance before the House Subcommittee on Crime's hearing on militia-type movements, Murnion testified, "We don't get paid extra to prosecute these type of cases which subject us to such personal attacks. We do so because we took an oath of office and because of the belief that right should and will triumph in America if each of us does our part."
On March 25, 1996, more than a year after Murnion first asked for federal aid, the FBI began its 81-day siege of the Freemen's armed camp - the longest siege in FBI history. Five members of the Freemen were found guilty earlier this year of various felonies. On Wednesday, one member pled guilty to threatening to kidnap and murder a federal judge while another defendant pled guilty to interstate transportation of stolen goods. Twelve other members went on trial this week in Billings on a 40-count federal indictment alleging conspiracy to commit fraud, threatening to kill federal officials, firearms violations, armed robbery of TV news crews from ABC and NBC and wire, bank and mail fraud.
Murnion, 44, was elected to office in 1979 and is currently running for his 6th term as Garfield County Attorney, a part-time position serving an electorate of 1500 citizens in a 5000 square mile area. A 1978 graduate of the University of Montana Law School, Murnion is the only attorney in Garfield County. He lives in Jordan, a town of 500, with his wife LeAnn and their two children.
Murnion was selected for the prestigious award by a committee chaired by John Seigenthaler, Chairman of the Freedom Forum at the First Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University. Its members include: David Burke, former executive vice president of ABC News and president of CBS News; William F. Connell, chairman, Connell Limited Partnership; Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Edward M. Kennedy, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts; Caroline Kennedy, author, attorney, and president of the Kennedy Library Foundation; John F. Kennedy, Jr., editor, attorney and vice chairman of the Kennedy Library Foundation; David McCullough, historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography Truman; Angela Menino, program assistant, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company; Sherry H. Penney, Chancellor, University of Massachusetts at Boston; Mary Reed, vice president of human services, Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries, Inc.; Alan Simpson, former U.S. Senator of Wyoming, and director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government; and William vanden Heuvel, attorney, investment banker, and former special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Past winners of the award are: former U.S. Congressman Carl Elliott, Sr. of Alabama; former U.S. Congressman Charles Weltner of Georgia; former Governor of Connecticut Lowell Weicker; former Governor of New Jersey James Florio; U.S. Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas; former U.S. Congressman Michael Synar of Oklahoma; Calhoun County, Georgia School Superintendent Corkin Cherubini; and Charles Price, Circuit Court Judge of Montgomery County, Alabama.
The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history and the importance of public service.
Tom McNaught (617) 514-1662