Cult women trial faces year's delay: Legal manoeuvrings by defence could postpone start of conspiracy case

TWO British women extradited to the United States to face murder conspiracy charges may not be tried for at least a year because their lawyers plan to file a stack of legal motions in an effort to secure a fair trial.

Attorneys for Sally-Anne Croft and Susan Hagan are preparing for a fierce pre-trial legal battle aimed at convincing the US District Court in Portland, Oregon, that the jury pool in the state has been prejudiced - both by recent publicity and a lingering hostility towards the cult to which the women once belonged.

It is understood they may demand to be allowed to cross-examine potential jurors in judge's chambers during jury selection. Under federal law, judges question panellists before they are chosen - although they can allow attorneys to do so. The women's lawyers hope this will help weed out jurors who still harbour strong feelings about former followers of the late guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh - some of whom were involved in crimes, including a food-poisoning plot, phone-tapping, arson, and attempted murder.

Defence lawyers are also considering requesting that the trial be moved out-of-state, perhaps to California where the cult's activities received less media coverage. Although the women's trial is scheduled to begin next month, legal manoeuvrings could last many months. According to one defence lawyer, it could be at least a year before a full hearing starts.

Ms Croft, 44, a City of London accountant, and Ms Hagan, 47, an aromatherapist, were conditionally released by a federal magistrate on Friday after they agreed to wear electronic monitoring devices. They denied charges of conspiring to murder Oregon's former US Attorney, Charles Turner.

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