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Politics

2 found not guilty in Michigan governor kidnapping plot

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Michigan today, a jury found two men not guilty of conspiring to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The jury deadlocked on whether to convict two other defendants. This follows five days of deliberations at the federal courthouse in Grand Rapids. We have more from Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Prosecutors say the plot was well under way and dangerously close to fruition when the four men were among those arrested 18 months ago. They described a plan rife with bizarre twists that included staking out the governor's vacation home and practicing with explosives as part of a plan to slow down any response by law enforcement. Prosecutors say they also talked about possibly stranding Whitmer in a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan or putting the governor on trial. All this, according to recorded conversations, was because the men were upset over the governor's COVID restrictions and pandemic mandates.

The defense portrayed the four defendants as big talkers and pot smokers who were tricked into proceeding with their plans by an undercover informant working for the FBI. One defense attorney described the case as laced with marijuana smoke and mirrors. Defense attorney Michael Hill said the verdict shows the government overreached and lured the men into a conspiracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL HILL: I think - what the FBI did is unconscionable is what I think. And I think the jury just sent them a message loud and clear that these tactics are not going to be - you know, we're not going to condone what they've done here.

PLUTA: The judge ordered defendants Daniel Harris and Barry Caserta to be freed following the not guilty verdicts. The future is less clear for defendants Adam Fox and Barry Croft. Prosecutors described these two men as ringleaders. U.S. attorney for Western Michigan Andrew Birge calls the verdict disappointing and says he plans on a retrial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW BIRGE: We still believe in the jury system. And really, there's not too much more I could say at this time. I appreciate the time the jury put in - listened to a lot of evidence, deliberated quite a bit. We have two defendants that are awaiting trial. And we'll get back to work on that.

PLUTA: The verdicts can only be described as a defeat for the U.S. Justice Department's efforts to quell domestic terrorism. The case focused attention on the rise of violent extremism, how the men connected on social media and vented their anger about the power of government and their plans to use the kidnapping as the launching point for an insurrection. Two of the defendants already entered guilty pleas and cooperated as part of a sentencing deal.

Matthew Schneider is a former U.S. attorney for western Michigan. He says plans for a retrial suggest prosecutors think they came close to a conviction.

MATTHEW SCHNEIDER: For the retrial, the whole thing starts all over again. So it's as if they didn't even have the trial. The judge is going to set a new schedule. They'll set a date for the trial, and the government will kick it off again. They pick new jurors. It's like the first trial never happened.

PLUTA: Governor Gretchen Whitmer's office released a statement following the verdict. Quote, "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. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes," end quote. A decision on exactly when a new trial will begin is pending.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BROKEN KEYS' "SLINGSHOT PT.2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.