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Jury: Two not guilty of Whitmer kidnapping; mistrial for other two

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U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker presided over a nearly four-week trial of men accused of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Shutterstock)

Jurors on Friday acquitted two men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and told a judge they were unable to reach a verdict on charges against two others charged in the alleged conspiracy.

The jury of six men and six women in Grand Rapids found Daniel Harris, 24, of Lake Orion and Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton Township not guilty of the felony conspiracy charges that were punishable by up to life in prison.

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But U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker declared a mistrial in charges against the alleged ringleaders — Adam Fox, 38, of Wyoming, Michigan, and Barry Croft, 46, of Delaware — after jurors said they couldn’t reach a verdict.

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Federal prosecutors said they intend to retry Fox and Croft, whom the Detroit News reported remain jailed.

The acquittal of the two men followed a nearly four-week trial during which government informants and undercover agents played starring roles.

But those same men may have been crucial to the acquittals, said Detroit defense attorney Mike Rataj.

“Clearly, the jurors didn’t believe the government witnesses,” said Rataj.

Rataj was the defense attorney for the federal government’s last major domestic terrorism case in Michigan: The Hutaree religious militia group near Adrian. 

As with the Whitmer kidnapping, that case resulted in no convictions, as a federal judge in 2012 dismissed charges alleging seven men plotted to kill police officers to spark a revolution against the government. 

The identity of Whitmer jurors is private, but all are white and many are from northern Michigan. The Detroit Free Press on Wednesday published short profiles of what is known about them, noting that at least four own guns.

During the trial, prosecutors presented hundreds of hours of recordings from informants, videos and testimony from two men who had already pleaded guilty in the case. 

The government contended the men — all militia members — were fed up with Whitmer COVID-19 orders and plotted to kidnap her from her vacation home in northern Michigan and blow up a bridge to delay a police response.

But defense attorneys say the men had no intention of carrying out any plot and instead were egged on by FBI informants. The defense portrayed the men as stoners who talked tough but were incapable of executing the scheme.

The government presented evidence showing surveillance of Whitmer’s second home, but the two men who were acquitted — Harris and Caserta — did not participate it.

Caserta’s attorney Michael Hill told reporters his client never agreed to kidnap Whitmer and said the government had no proof despite hundreds of hours of secret recordings. 

“When did he agree? He never did,” Hill said outside the federal courthouse Friday.

Harris was the only defendant to testify and he said he did not agree to kidnap the governor.

Fox’s attorney Chris Gibbons said after the decision he is ready to try the case again and said the acquittals of Harris and Caserta showed the “serious shortcomings” of the case.

Michael Bullotta, a former federal prosecutor now working as a defense attorney, said prosecutors had a glaring problem: There was never a date or specific plan to commit the crime.

That was an “impossibly high hurdle” for jurors, even though Jonker instructed them that a practical plan wasn’t necessary for conviction.

“The governor was not kidnapped. She was never harmed,” Bullotta said, adding, “the jury was left to guess, ‘were they really going to go through with it?” 

Bullotta was one of the lead prosecutors in the corruption trial that ended with the conviction of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2013.

He suggested federal agents could have waited longer for more concrete evidence, like settling upon a date. But he said he understood why they were also concerned about the governor’s safety.

Following the verdict, Whitmer’s chief of staff, Anne Huls, released a statement saying 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. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened,” Huls said.

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The alleged plot was revealed when the men were arrested in October 2020. For months there had been protests in Michigan over Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies enacted to lessen infections and reduce deaths but which angered many unhappy with restrictions on businesses and individuals.

There were several protests, including one on April 30, 2020, at which armed militia members entered the Capitol. 

The case was viewed as a test of the federal government’s ability to combat what some view as an increase in right-wing extremism. 

Susan Corke, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, issued a statement saying that “justice was not served” and “actions of this kind are a direct attack on our democracy.”

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