Sermon on the Mount

The drive from Phoenix to Safford can take three and a half to four and a half hours, depending on the traffic and your respect for speed limits. Not because it's that far; it's well under 200 miles. But the roads are narrow and treacherous, and the speed limits consequently low.

I leave at 9 and get there just past noon, nearly 90 minutes before the scheduled start of the trial of Wendsler Nosie.

Take one look at Safford, and you can understand why the locals favor development and are so hostile toward environmentalists. The place is a hole. It doesn't have the sort of small-town character found in places like Superior, Miami or Globe. It's just a dump with nothing going on.

I drive around the town, which lies in the shadow of Mount Graham, looking for a cafe where I can get some tea. I don't see anywhere that looks promising. So I get back on the highway and find a Jerry's.

And it's lucky for me that I do. Standing near me is a group of Native Americans and white guys in suits, talking in lawyerspeak. They're Wendsler Nosie, his friends and attorneys. They tell me that the time of the trial has been brought forward, and is now set for 1 p.m. rather than 1:30.

Over at the Graham County Courthouse, the small room where the trial is to be held is busy. Judge Linda Norton appears, and expresses concern about the number of people present. "This is in breach of fire regulations," she says crabbily. Prosecutor Alan Perkins apologizes to her, saying it didn't occur to him that so many would show up. "You couldn't have known," she tells him.

But she's wrong. He could have known, and should have. Plenty of other people knew beforehand that it would be busy. And neither judge nor prosecutor knowing is evidence that they don't understand that many people consider this case to be an important one.

For the state, this is just a trial about a Class 3 misdemeanor, criminal trespass.

For the Native Americans, it's a case of major cultural and religious significance, the outcome of which will have consequences that will reach far beyond this one individual.

For environmentalists who oppose development atop Mount Graham, it's another chance to demonize the University of Arizona, which, despite fierce opposition from Indians and environmentalists, has managed to get telescopes built atop the 10,720-foot peak.

It's unlikely that any of this is on Judge Norton's mind as she moves the trial to a larger room in the basement of the courthouse.

Here are the facts of Wendsler Nosie's alleged crime: On August 30, Nosie [pronounced NO-see], a former San Carlos Apache tribal councilman, climbed Mount Graham, a site sacred to traditional Apache.

He says he'd had a vision, and God had told him to go up there to pray for his daughter's passage into womanhood. When he realized a storm was brewing, he decided to get off the peak as quickly as possible. So he walked down the nearest road, which he says wasn't the route he had taken on the way up.

Nosie was on an access road which has signs, posted by the university, reading "No Trespassing." But, according to Nosie, since he was walking down the hill, the same direction the signs face, he didn't see them.

He was stopped by two forest rangers. They told him he was trespassing, but they didn't bust him. Instead, they called the UofA police. The officer who responded, Lance Lines, cited Nosie for trespass.

But trespass really doesn't seem to be the issue in this trial. At least, not the major issue. It must be frustrating for prosecutor Alan Perkins, whose point seems to be that, whatever the political and cultural controversies, this trial is about whether Nosie did or did not knowingly walk on a road he wasn't allowed to walk on.

Nosie's attorneys--William Foreman, Jeff Bouma and Gil Venable--respond to this by arguing that the UofA doesn't have the legal right to keep people off the road, or even to post "No Trespassing" signs. They also say that since Nosie didn't see the signs, he couldn't be guilty of trespass, because you have to know you're doing it to be guilty. Perkins argues that the university does have authority to put up the signs, and accuses Nosie of knowing exactly what he was doing.

But these legal arguments are pretty much beside the point. Today this courtroom isn't just the scene of a trial; it's a political forum. And while the philosophical debate is fascinating to listen to, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the charge. Nosie isn't charged with praying. In fact, he isn't even charged with trespassing on Mount Graham's Emerald Peak, where the telescopes are. He admits he was there, but that's not where he was found. What he's charged with is being on a road that's not open to the public.

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Barry Graham