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Two defendants freed, two face new trials with no guilty verdicts in Whitmer kidnapping plot case

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Kent County Jail
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A jury hearing the trial of four defendants Charged in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were (from left) Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft, Adam Fox and Daniel Harris. The jury's verdicts against Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were read in the federal court in Grand Rapids in the case presided over by U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker. Jurors said they couldn't agree on verdicts for Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. Prosecutors described Fox as a ringleader of an anti-government group.

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.

“I think what the FBI did was unconscionable, is what I think,” he said following the verdicts. “And I think the jury just sent them a message loud and clear that these tactics are not going to be – we’re not going to condone what they’ve done here.”

Prosecutors say the plot was well underway 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 of the governor’s COVID restrictions and pandemic mandates.

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. US Attorney for western Michigan Andrew Birge called the verdicts a disappointing and said he plans on a retrial.

“We still believe in the jury system and there’s not too much more I can say at this time,” he said. “I appreciate the time the jury put in, listened to a lot of evidence, deliberated quite a bit. But we have to defendants awaiting trial and we’ll get back to work on that.”

The verdicts can only be described as a defeat for the US 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 other defendants already entered guilty pleas and cooperated as part of a sentencing deal.

Matthew Schneider is a former US Attorney for the eastern Michigan district. He says plans for a retrial suggest prosecutors think they came close to a conviction.

“For the retrial, the whole thing starts all over again,” he told Michigan Public Radio. “So, it’s as if they didn’t even have the trial.”

Schneider said deadlocked juries often mean the case hinged on nuances that could go in a different direction the next time. “What you take from this is only that the government failed to prove its case,” he said.

“What you cannot take from this verdict is that it’s OK to threaten Governor Whitmer, or it’s OK to do harm to her. Because that’s not right and that’s not what this verdict means.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office released a statement following the verdict:

“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."

It’s now up to the judge to set a new trial schedule and court dates for the remaining two defendants.

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Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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