The judge had insisted that it was a simple smuggling case. Talk of political or humanitarian motives -- of alleged atrocities in Central America -- would not be permitted.

But amid the endless legal technicalities of the trial here, jurors who appeared to know little about the Sanctuary Movement at the outset are catching vivid glimpses of what led 11 Arizonans to risk jail by helping dozens of illegal immigrants enter the United States.

Now entering its 13th week, the trial of the self-styled Sanctuary underground railroad has begun to move in the direction its Christian activist defendants hoped: Refugees have testified about escaping death and persecution, government informers are tripping over inconsistencies in their own stories, and federal prosecutors are finding themselves undermined by their own investigators.

U.S. District Court Judge Earl H. Carroll, who has a passion for judicial efficiency and decorum, has rejected several defense motions for mistrials and for his withdrawal. With 11 defense lawyers and their clients overflowing the attorneys' table to his left, Carroll has fought to keep lawyers from duplicating each others' efforts and barred discussions that might draw the jury's attention from times and dates of entry and toward a controversy over U.S. foreign policy.

In one of several digressions caused by the troubled past of government informer Jesus Cruz, Carroll chastised U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agent James Rayburn on Jan. 22 for failing to tell him or any lawyers in the case about another investigation by Cruz while the Sanctuary case was being prepared.

Defense attorneys demanded dismissal of charges against all Sanctuary defendants because Cruz, a convicted smuggler and the government's key witness, had secretly involved another Sanctuary case witness in an unrelated smuggling arrest, given the man money and failed to disclose the incident on the witness stand.

Despite an accusation from defense attorney William G. Walker that "the dignity of this entire proceeding is insulted," Carroll said last Thursday that the trial would continue. "I find the conduct is not so patently egregious as to warrant dismissal," he said.

This clash between Carroll and defense lawyers, and between Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald M. Reno Jr. and some of his witnesses and investigators, took place out of hearing of the 12 jurors and two alternates. They must decide whether a cattle-ranching Quaker, a Presbyterian minister, two Roman Catholic priests, a nun and six church lay workers committed 67 felonies in a conspiracy to smuggle, transport and conceal illegal aliens.

The defendants are part of a Sanctuary Movement that has spread to more than 270 churches and the city councils of Los Angeles, Seattle and several smaller cities, each place vowing to protect illegal immigrants from Central America who said they fear death or injury from political enemies if sent home.

Carroll has insisted that only the defendants' deeds, not their motives, are relevant. But through adept cross-examination or the judge's inattention, the Sanctuary Movement's argument is coming through, raising defendants' hopes that the jury will sympathize with their actions. They have been unable, however, to present their more sophisticated legal argument, that they behaved in accordance with the 1980 Refugee Act providing U.S. asylum to anyone with a "well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion."

Earlier this month, Arizona State University law professor Michael L. Altman, attorney for Roman Catholic nun Darlene Nicgorski, managed to reveal the heart of the movement's case by asking about some of the sanctuary meetings Cruz attended while gathering evidence for the government:

Altman: Do you recall people discussing disappearances in El Salvador?

Cruz: At times they did say that, yes sir.

Altman: What about "500-pound bombs being dropped on people?"

Cruz: Yes sir, they spoke of many things.

Altman: Do you remember her Nicgorski talking about the white phosphorus that soldiers were throwing on people in El Salvador?

Cruz said he could not remember "word for word."

Altman: Do you remember her saying this: "We hear you. What you are saying matters very much to us. We will call upon our people to share your sorrow, protest our government's part in your pain and try to get the killing stopped."

Only when Altman tried to ask Cruz about another refugee statement ("A lot of us are disappearing. Many are dying horribly."), did Carroll sustain an objection from Reno.

The trial has produced what Sanctuary supporters said is a new outpouring of support for their cause. But both sides remain upset by other events linked to the continuing flow of illegal immigrants over the Mexican border.

INS officials in California reported new records in border-crossing traffic last week and at least four deaths caused by bandits preying on refugees. Sanctuary supporters said several unexplained break-ins at Sanctuary churches indicate a campaign of intimidation by government agents or anti-immigrant groups.

Jim Corbett, a Tucson rancher who helped start the movement in 1982 and who is a defendant here, said between court sessions last week that the charges against him have probably helped spread the Sanctuary Movement. But he said he remains concerned about Carroll's attitude.

"It will come down to whether the jury will do what they sense is right or what the judge instructs them to do," Corbett said.