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The jury begins deliberating the case of an alleged conspiracy to kidnap the governor of Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — The government allegations were harrowing: Several men with ties to the militia had plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her vacation home. The group, prosecutors and witnesses said, held a series of “field training drills” and discussed killing them in a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan or stranding them.

When the trial of four men took place last month, federal prosecutors presented a spate of alarming news and secret recordings which they said revealed the group’s plan to storm Ms Whitmer’s home, eliminate her security details and blow up a bridge to slow any police response to the kidnapping. Another man, a former co-defendant who pleaded guilty before the trial, testified that he hoped the kidnapping would start a civil war and prevent Joseph R. Biden Jr. from becoming president.

Testimony at the trial, one of the most prominent domestic terrorism charges in recent memory, has provided a glimpse into the increasingly brazen and violent discourse among some far-right. But the case has also raised questions about when hateful political speech and gun ownership cross the line from constitutionally protected acts to crimes.

The men charged in federal court in Grand Rapids were among 14 arrested in October 2020 before there was an attempt to carry out a plan. The jury briefly began deliberations on Friday afternoon and was scheduled to resume those discussions on Monday.

During closing arguments, defense attorneys contended that there never was a firm plan to kidnap Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat, and that the defendants, who could face life imprisonment if convicted, were controlled by a network of FBI whistleblowers and undercover agents in the discussions had been lured agents. Prosecutors described the defendants – Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft, Adam Fox and Daniel Harris – as threats to America’s democratic order who spoke openly about political violence as their frustration with Covid-19 restrictions mounted ahead of the 2020 election. Ms. Whitmer, a first-term governor with a national profile, took a more restrictive approach to the pandemic in 2020 than some other Midwest governors, maintaining many rules even as case numbers fell.

Nils Kessler, a prosecutor, told jurors Friday that exercising freedom of speech, owning guns and voting politicians out of office are perfectly legitimate.

“What we can’t do is kidnap them, kill them or blow them up,” said Mr. Kessler. “That’s also what makes America great.”

But Christopher Gibbons, an attorney for Mr Fox, described the entire case as a trap set by the government to seduce outsiders with unpopular political views. Mr. Gibbons insisted that his client had never been involved in a conspiracy to kidnap Ms. Whitmer.

“He’s a great talker,” Mr. Gibbons said of his client, who he said lived in the basement of a vacuum shop and had few friends. “He never really stops talking. He talks about things the government doesn’t like.”

But prosecutors relied heavily on recorded statements and social media posts to convince jurors the conspiracy was real.

“Which governor will end up being kidnapped first and hanged for treason?” Mr. Croft posted on Facebook in May 2020, according to an FBI agent investigating his account.

Another FBI agent testified that Mr. Caserta posted in January about the Second Amendment, which gives people the right to “kill government agents if they become tyrannical.” In May, just before the peak of the pandemic lockdowns, this FBI agent said Mr. Caserta posted that it was “about time Americans used” the Second Amendment “for its intended purpose.”

Prosecutors said Mr. Croft, who lived in Delaware, made repeated trips to the Midwest for weapons training and meetings during the summer of 2020, including an overnight “reconnaissance mission” to the governor’s vacation home near Elk Rapids, Michigan, a rural town in near 250 miles northwest of Detroit. Some of the men ended up driving aimlessly down her street because they had written the wrong address for the house.

On the same trip, an undercover FBI agent who offered to sell the men explosives said he had joined Mr. Fox in scouting the bridge, which prosecutors said the men planned to destroy to prevent police from following Ms Whitmer’s home reached her planned kidnapping. When the agent spotted another bridge nearby, he testified that Mr Fox had said they should blow it up too.

Joshua Blanchard, an attorney for Mr. Croft, accused the government of goading his client into fabricating a conspiracy and attempting to use offensive social media posts as a substitute for an actual conspiracy.

“They want to push that; They want to make it look like there was an agreement,” Mr Blanchard said, downplaying his client’s words as the ramblings of a “truck driver who likes to get stoned and talk about the Constitution”.

Some defense attorneys stressed that prosecution witnesses had given different testimonies as to how one boat or more than one boat could have been used in the hijacking. Prosecutors said the lack of clarity about the details should not be confused with the lack of a conspiracy.

“You might have managed to kidnap her out of the house and found out that this whole boat thing isn’t going to work,” Mr. Kessler said. He added: “Does that make them more or less likely to kill her?”

All four defendants are charged with conspiracy to kidnap. Mr. Croft, Mr. Fox and Mr. Harris are also accused of plotting to blow up the bridge and are charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Federal and prosecutors have filed charges against 14 men as part of their investigation. Two men pleaded guilty to federal charges and testified before the jury hearing the federal case against the four men. Eight other men were charged in state court.

The disagreement at the heart of the federal case, when rhetoric becomes a criminal conspiracy, became clear Thursday when Mr. Harris, 24, a Marine Corps veteran, took the witness stand. He was the only defendant to testify on his own behalf at the trial.

Mr. Harris’ attorney repeatedly asked him if he consented to kidnapping the governor. Mr. Harris said no over and over again.

But when prosecutors confronted him with chat messages about Ms Whitmer’s shooting, he admitted sending them, including one in which he suggested impersonating a pizza delivery boy and killing her when she answered the door.

During a tense cross-examination Thursday, Mr. Harris appeared to distinguish between words and deeds in his own way. Mr. Harris repeatedly used harsh language to describe Dan Chappel, a military veteran who turned to law enforcement and became an FBI whistleblower after saying he was concerned about social media posts by militia officers. Mr. Chappel pretended to be friends with Mr. Harris and the other men and at times helped organize training trips for the group while secretly recording their conversations and reporting to the agents.

“Words hurt you? Words scare you?” Mr Harris said under cross-examination, referring to Mr Chappel, who testified earlier in the trial that he feared the group’s anti-government and anti-law rhetoric would escalate into violence.

Mr. Harris said he considered Mr. Chappel the leader of the group.

Several of the accused men were members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a militia group that hosted training trips and participated in Second Amendment protests, including some in the Michigan Capitol. But prosecutors and defense attorneys have described a mix of overlapping anti-government ideologies among the defendants, including Three Percenter, the boogaloo movement and anarchist affiliations.

Mr Harris testified on Thursday that he had long been concerned about a possible breakdown in civil order. He said some of his messages, shown in court, were about actions he would take after such a collapse, rather than a specific plot to kidnap the governor, as prosecutors have suggested. Mr Harris said he did not see Ms Whitmer as a bully but that she was bad at her job.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors showed an abundance of high-powered rifles and body armor, which they said were used in the attack on Ms Whitmer. They also displayed Hawaiian shirts commonly worn by boogaloo supporters and the anarchist flag that the FBI confiscated from Mr. Caserta’s apartment.

In response, defense attorneys have suggested that prosecutors criminalize the exercise of First and Second Amendment rights. “The anarchy flag — there’s nothing illegal about flying political flags, is there?” Michael Hills, an attorney for Mr. Caserta, asked an FBI agent.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/01/us/whitmer-plot-trial-closing.html The jury begins deliberating the case of an alleged conspiracy to kidnap the governor of Michigan

Ethan Gach

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