A US federal jury has acquitted two men of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, with the judge declaring a mistrial for two other men after jurors could not reach a verdict.
The men were charged in a plot prosecutors say had been inspired by their fierce opposition to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that Whitmer’s office imposed, and faced charges including conspiracy to kidnap and use a weapon of mass destruction.
The prosecution, who said the men belonged to self-styled militia groups, accused them of planning to break into Whitmer’s vacation home, spirit her away and put her on “trial” for treason.
The kidnapping, the defendants had hoped, would force an end to Whitmer’s pandemic mandates, while pushing the country – highly polarised ahead of the 2020 elections – into a second American civil war, the prosecution said.
But the prosecution failed to convince jurors in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, federal courthouse. The 12-member panel on Friday found Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris not guilty of any charges. The jury was not able to agree on a verdict for Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr.
The jury’s decision was setback for federal prosecutors in one of the highest-profile cases in years involving domestic terrorism charges and militias.
“Obviously we’re disappointed with the outcome,” Andrew Birge, US Attorney for the western district of Michigan, told reporters outside the courthouse.
FBI accused of entrapment
At trial the defence argued that the government used FBI informants and undercover agents to encourage online discussions about the alleged plot, hoping to entrap the defendants in alleged crimes because of their political views, they said.
The case stands as one of the most high-profile prosecutions of alleged members of right-wing organisations that have sprung up 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 US politics.
The acquittals come despite key testimony from Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, two others who were charged in the alleged plot before striking plea deals with prosecutors. Garbin is currently serving a six-year sentence, while Franks is awaiting sentencing.
The four 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.