(Reuters) — A jury will begin deliberations on Monday in the trial of four men charged with conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, in a case that pits domestic terrorism allegations against accusations of entrapment and prosecutorial overreach.
In closing arguments on Friday, a government prosecutor described the men as «paranoid» and bent on sparking a civil war by abducting Whitmer and holding her accountable for placing restrictions on social and business activities due to COVID-19.
Defense attorneys, on the other hand, said their clients were coerced into discussing the plot by FBI informants and never made concrete plans on their own.
The case stands as one of the most high-profile prosecutions of alleged members of right-wing organizations that have risen in prominence in the years since former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. It also highlights 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.
All four of the defendants — Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris — have been charged with kidnapping conspiracy. Fox, Croft and Harris were also charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. If convicted the men could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
«They trained to kidnap the governor, they cased her house in the middle of the night, they mapped it out, they planned it, they gathered weapons and bombs,» Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said on Friday in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. «That is the conspiracy that they are charged with and in America it’s a crime.»
Defense attorneys accused the FBI of entrapping their clients.
«Somebody rattles the keys, somebody beats the drum and gets ’em all worked up,» Christopher Gibbons, an attorney for Fox, said on Friday. «That’s unacceptable in America. That’s not how it works. You don’t make terrorists so we can arrest them.»
Two other men initially charged in the alleged plot struck plea deals. The pair, Ty Garbin and Kalen Franks, served as star witnesses for the prosecution. Garbin is currently serving a six-year sentence, while Franks is awaiting sentencing.
The four men on trial are among 13 men 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.
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 Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Frank McGurty and Aurora Ellis)