GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.
A jury on Friday acquitted two men of all charges in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer but could not reach a verdict against the two alleged leaders, a stunning defeat for the government after a trial of a week centered on a remarkable FBI sting operation. just before the 2020 elections.
The results were announced hours after the jury said it was struggling to find unanimity on all 10 counts. The judge on the fifth day of deliberations told the panel to keep working, but the jurors returned after lunch to say they were still deadlocked on some points.
Daniel Harris, 24, and Brandon Caserta, 33, were found not guilty of conspiracy. Additionally, Harris was acquitted of the explosives and firearm charges.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict for Adam Fox, 38, and Barry Croft Jr., 46, meaning the government can try them again.
“Obviously, we are disappointed with the result. … We have two defendants awaiting trial and we will get back to work,” said US Attorney Andrew Birge.
Harris and Caserta embraced their attorneys when U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker declared they were free after 18 months in prison awaiting trial. Moments earlier, family members had gasped and cried with joy as the verdicts were read.
Their arrests in Michigan in 2020 came amid upheaval in the United States in a year that began with pandemic lockdowns and then moved to armed Capitol protests against COVID-19 restrictions ordered by Whitmer. and other governors. In late May, anger over racial injustice and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police erupted into protests in cities across the country.
In a Grand Rapids courtroom, during 13 days of testimony, prosecutors presented evidence from undercover agents, a key informant and two men who pleaded guilty to the conspiracy. Jurors also read and heard secretly taped conversations, violent social media posts and chat messages.
Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty and is serving a six-year prison sentence, said the plan was to get Whitmer and cause enough chaos to start a civil war before the election, preventing Joe Biden from winning the presidency.
Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who also pleaded guilty and testified for the government, were among six people arrested in October 2020 amid talks of raising $4,000 for an explosive to blow up a bridge and thwart any response police to a kidnapping, according to trial testimony.
Prosecutors said the group was steeped in anti-government extremism and furious at Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions. There was evidence of a crudely constructed “shooting house” to practice getting in and out of his vacation home, and a night walk of Croft, Fox and secret agents to check ownership.
But defense attorneys described the men as gullible weekend warriors prone to big wild talk and often stoned with marijuana. They said agents and informants tricked and cajoled the men into targeting the governor.
During closing arguments a week ago, Fox attorney Christopher Gibbons said the plan was ‘total nonsense’, and he pleaded with jurors to be the ‘firewall’ against the government.
Harris was the only defendant to testify in his own defense, repeatedly telling jurors “absolutely not” when asked if he had targeted the governor.
“I think what the FBI did is unconscionable,” Caserta’s attorney Michael Hills said in court. “And I think the jury just sent them a loud and clear message that those tactics – we’re not going to condone what they’ve done here.”
Gibbons said the Harris and Caserta acquittals demonstrated serious flaws in the government’s case.
“We will be ready for another trial. … We will eventually get what we wanted from this, which is the truth and the justice that I believe Adam is entitled to,” Gibbons said.
Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said “the result is disappointing.” Whitmer’s office released a statement from his chief of staff, who said Americans are “experiencing the normalization of political violence.”
“The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we have to be honest about what it really is: the result of violent and confrontational rhetoric that is all too common in our country,” said JoAnne Huls. “There must be responsibilities and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.
Proceedings resumed earlier on Friday with a court worker handing jurors a large plastic bag containing pennies, known as Exhibit 291. The pennies were requested before jurors went home on Thursday.
The coins stuck on commercial-grade fireworks were intended to act as shrapnel against Whitmer’s security team, the government says.
The trial has lasted 20 days since March 8, including jury selection, evidence, closing arguments and jury deliberations. Croft is from Bear, Delaware, while the others are from Michigan.
Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely speaks publicly about the plot, although she did refer to “surprises” during her tenure that appeared to be “something out of fiction” when she sought re-election on March 17.
She blamed former President Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the case.
A jury of six women and six men heard the case, along with four alternates. Little is known about them. Jonker ordered, for confidentiality reasons, that they be identified only by numbers. Two jurors were dismissed during the trial due to illness.
Separately, state court authorities are prosecuting eight men accused of aiding the group that was on trial in federal court.
Find full AP coverage of the Whitmer Kidnap Plot Trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial
White reported from Detroit. Associated Press reporters Sara Burnett in Chicago and Dave Eggert in Grand Rapids contributed to this report.