A federal jury resumed deliberations for a fourth day on Thursday in the trial of four men charged with a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, a case that highlights the political rift surrounding the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prosecutors said Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris planned to abduct Governor Gretchen Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan, aiming to end what they perceived to be draconian restrictions championed by the Democrat to control the spread of coronavirus.
The defendants had hoped that the kidnapping would spark a second American civil war ahead of the 2020 presidential election as the pandemic exacerbated the country’s intense political and cultural polarization, prosecutors said.
During a trial that has lasted nearly a month, defense attorneys argued that FBI informants coerced their clients into discussing the plot. The men never made concrete plans on their own and were victims of entrapment and overreach by the prosecution, their attorneys argued.
All four of the defendants face charges of conspiracy to kidnap the governor. Fox, Croft and Harris were also charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction as part of the kidnapping plot. If convicted the men could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Earlier in their deliberations, the jury asked U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker for a definition of a “weapon,” in an apparent reference to the second charge. They also asked Jonker for transcripts of testimony from the trial. He declined that request, saying that the 3,400 pages of transcripts were not yet available and that jurors must rely on their memories, the Detroit Free Press reported.
“I’ve been a judge for 15 years, but I still get a little breathless when we’re waiting for the jury,” Jonker said on Wednesday in reference to waiting for the jury’s verdict, the newspaper reported.
The case has cast a spotlight on the emergence of militant right-wing organizations in the years since former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. It also suggests the extent to which the pandemic and government efforts to control it have become a wedge issue in U.S. politics, pushing some people to extremes.
Two other men who had been initially charged – Ty Garbin and Kalen Franks – struck plea deals and served as star witnesses for the prosecution during the trial. Garbin is currently serving a six-year sentence, while Franks awaits sentencing.
The four men on trial, plus Garbin and Franks, are among 13 who were arrested in October 2020 and charged with state or federal crimes in the alleged kidnapping conspiracy. Seven of them are facing charges in state court.
The FBI said it had begun tracking the group’s movements after seeing online discussions that included posts about the violent overthrow of some state governments. The group’s goal was to end curbs on social and business activities imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors have also accused them of wanting to start a second American civil war, while defense attorneys have said that their clients were often high on drugs and prone to “crazy” talk rather than concrete action.
Harris, Caserta and an undercover informant who testified at the trial were members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a militia group, prosecutors say. Croft and Fox were members of the “Three Percenters,” a similar far-right organization. (Reporting by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Mark Porter)