In a shocking twist, a gaggle of white men accused of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the weeks before the 2020 presidential election dodged convictions on Friday.
After five days of deliberations, a Michigan jury acquitted Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta of several charges, including conspiracy, for what prosecutors said was a depraved scheme born out of anti-government anger at the Democratic leader’s COVID-19 restrictions. The jury, however, could not come to a consensus on the other two defendants and alleged ringleaders of the plot—Adam Fox and Barry Croft—and thus their cases ended in a mistrial.
The partial verdict came after five days of deliberation, and marked perhaps the worst blow yet against federal prosecutors seeking to crack down on right-wing extremists after a uniquely violent election season. It also came after the case was marred by misconduct allegations against some of the FBI agents involved, as well as a “double agent” informant the feds effectively disavowed.
Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani called Friday’s verdict “a shocking defeat for federal agents and the Department of Justice.”
“The feds rarely lose, especially this bad,” he told The Daily Beast. Rahmani added that the verdict could send a harmful signal to bad actors who believe they need to take governmental matters into their own hands.
"It will embolden extremists, who are already irrational, to push their cases to trial,” he added. “And it tells the FBI they need more substantive acts to convict defendants in conspiracy cases.”
Since the jury was deadlocked on charges against Fox and Croft, a mistrial was declared, though the two remained in custody.
“Best birthday gift ever” Caserta told the courtroom after the verdict was read, according to reporting from the Detroit News. He and Harris were released immediately.
Outside the courthouse, U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge told reporters that while the verdict was “not the outcome we wanted,” prosecutors still planned to proceed with another case against Fox and Croft. “We thought the jury would convict beyond reasonable doubt based on the evidence... We believe in the jury system,” he added.
In a statement, Whitmer’s chief of staff said the verdict suggested that “Michiganders and Americans—especially our children—are living through the normalization of political violence.”
“The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country,” the statement added, noting that Whitmer remained focused on her work. “There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”
Prosecutors said the defendants, who included militia members and self-described patriots, spent months hatching the violent plan after Whitmer locked down the state in an effort to mitigate spread of the deadly virus. The plot allegedly included plans to kidnap the governor, detonate a bridge to prevent cops from rescuing her, and possibly leave her stranded on a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan.
“In America, there’s a lot of things you can do. You can criticize the government publicly, absolutely,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said during closing arguments on Friday. “If you don’t like the government’s policies, you can protest them. If you don’t like elected leaders, you can vote them out at the ballot box.
“What you can’t do is kidnap them, kill them, or blow them up,” Kessler said.
Defense attorneys for the four men argued throughout the month-long trial that their clients were coaxed by FBI informants into a plot they otherwise would never have become involved in. The attorneys noted that the informants received thousands of dollars over the course of their work.
The feds actually agreed they had an informant problem. One of them, Stephen Robeson, was accused by prosecutors of being a “double agent” who had worked “against the interests of the government.” BuzzFeed News noted that Robeson pleaded guilty last year to a gun charge over a sniper rifle. Still, his secret recordings were critical pieces of evidence, and a second informant testified at the trial.
Meanwhile, at least three FBI agents who had integral roles in the investigation were not called to the stand after a flurry of scandal. One was fired last year after being charged with domestic violence against his wife, allegedly tied to a dispute about an orgy.
Defense lawyers did all they could to zero in on alleged overreach by sloppy feds.
“When I look at what happened in this case, I am ashamed of the behavior of the leading law enforcement agency in the United States,” Josh Blanchard, who is representing Croft, told jurors. “The investigation was an embarrassment. There was no plan and there was no agreement.”
Harris, a 24-year-old former Marine, also insisted to jurors that there was no organized plan to kidnap Whitmer—insisting on the stand that he joined the group to “drink beer, shoot guns, and talk about girls.” He also took the opportunity to bash his fellow defendants, describing Croft as a “stoner pirate” who was “kind of a whack nut” to jurors.
Some combination of picking away at the ways the feds got involved in the plot and casting activities by the defendants as the stuff of regular citizens put them over the top, experts said.
“Entrapment defenses are frequently put forward, but rarely successful,” former assistant U.S. Attorney and Daily Beast contributor Mitchell Epner told The Daily Beast on Friday.
To make the entrapment defense, the defense teams had to prove that their clients were not predisposed to engage in the criminal conduct they were accused of—but were simply encouraged to go through with their bold group discussions by FBI informants and undercover agents.
“I can’t recall a jury ever buying an entrapment defense in a terrorism case,” Rahmani noted.
Epner noted, however, that unlike other trials where defendants try to use the entrapment defense, the FBI agents involved in this case already had a “credibility problem.”
“That was a bridge too far,” he suggested, offering that the next time we see Fox and Croft in court, prosecutors may have a “very different trial strategy.”
Prosecutors say Harris and Caserta were members of a self-styled militia called the Wolverine Watchmen, which, as The Daily Beast reported, put a scare into neighbors in rural Michigan prior to their arrests in fall 2020. Fox—whom prosecutors described as one of the plot’s ringleaders—and Croft were said to be affiliated with the “Three Percenter” far-right anti-government movement. The group name is a reference to the false notion that only a tiny fraction of residents of the 13 colonies fought in the American Revolution. Several current or former adherents to the bogus worldview were charged with conspiracy over the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The only defendant to take the stand, Harris later admitted to building a failed explosive device with Croft and setting it off. “I was putting BBs and a little bit of gunpowder into this balloon, and we were going to blow up a stove,” Harris added. “We put it in a stove. We lit the fuse and we ran.”
His testimony came after two of his alleged former co-conspirators testified against him after pleading guilty to the scheme. Both said that Harris was an active and willing participant in the plot.
Prosecutors argued during the trial that the group took several steps to make their violent plan a reality, including tactical training, bomb building, and amassing an arsenal in the hopes of sparking a second civil war.
By September 2020, however, the group began to unravel after an FBI informant introduced an undercover agent into the mix—who posed as an explosives expert. The men were arrested in October of that year after the FBI and Michigan State Police raided several homes.
“Barry Croft drove across the country four times to plan this. Adam Fox came up (to Whitmer’s cottage) twice. It wasn’t just protected speech,” Kessler said on Friday, arguing the group also took steps to conceal their plans. “They weren’t going to protests. They were specifically keeping a low profile so that nobody would know what they were up to.”
The jury did not buy it. What remains to be seen is how far the impact of their disbelief actually goes in inviting fresh extremist activity—or whether it mostly serves to stoke an even uglier political discourse.
“I think the right will take this as a tremendous victory,” Epner said. “I also believe that (even though it is not accurate) this defines the limits of ‘speech’ that cannot be punished under the First Amendment.”
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