GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted two men of all charges in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer but failed to reach verdicts against the two suspected leaders, a stunning defeat for the government after a week-long trial that focused on a notable FBI sting operation just before the 2020 election.
Whitmer did not immediately comment on Friday’s outcome, though her chief of staff was critical, saying Americans are “living the normalization of political violence.”
The result was announced on the fifth day of deliberations, a few hours after the jury said he had been fighting to find unanimity in the charges in the 10-count indictment. The judge told the panel to keep working, but jurors came back out after lunch to say they were still stuck on some issues.
Daniel Harris, 24, and Brandon Caserta, 33, were found not guilty of conspiracy. Additionally, Harris was acquitted of charges related to explosives and a weapon.
The jury could not reach verdicts for Adam Fox, 38, and Barry Croft Jr., 46, meaning the government may retry them on two counts of conspiracy. Croft also faces a separate explosives charge. They will remain in custody.
No juror spoke publicly about the mixed result.
“Obviously we are disappointed with the result. … We have two defendants awaiting trial and we will get back to work on that,” said US Attorney Andrew Birge.
Harris and Caserta hugged their attorneys as US District Judge Robert Jonker said they were free after 18 months in prison awaiting trial. Family members moments before gasped and wept with joy as the verdicts were read.
The Michigan arrests came amid turmoil in the US in 2020. The year began with pandemic lockdowns and then shifted to armed protests on Capitol Hill over COVID-19 restrictions ordered by Whitmer and other governors. In late May, anger over racial injustice and the assassination of george floyd by Minneapolis police erupted into demonstrations in cities across the country.
In a Grand Rapids courtroom, during 13 days of testimony, prosecutors offered evidence of undercover agentsan crucial informant Y two men who pleaded guilty to the plot. Jurors also read and listened to secretly recorded conversations, violent social media posts and chat messages.
Ty Garbin, who has pleaded guilty and is serving a six-year prison sentence, said the plan was to trap Whitmer and cause enough chaos to spark 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 they were among six who were arrested in October 2020 amid rumors of raising $4,000 for an explosive to blow up a bridge and hamper any police response to a kidnapping, according to trial testimony.
Prosecutors said the group was immersed in anti-government extremism and furious at Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions. There was evidence of a crudely constructed “shoot house” to practice entering and exiting their vacation home, and a night walk by Croft, Fox and undercover agents to check out the property.
But defense attorneys portrayed the men as gullible weekend warriors, often high on marijuana and prone to talking wildly. They said that FBI agents and informants deceived and cajoled the men in targeting the governor.
During closing arguments a week ago, Fox’s attorney, Christopher Gibbons, called the plan “complete nonsense” and pleaded with jurors to be the “firewall” against the government.
Harris was the only accused of testify in his own defenserepeatedly telling jurors “absolutely not” when asked if he had attacked the governor.
“I think what the FBI did is inconceivable,” Caserta’s attorney, Michael Hills, said outside court. “And I think the jury sent a loud and clear message to them that these tactics, we’re not going to stand for what they’ve done here.”
He said Whitmer “was never in any danger.”
Gibbons said the acquittals of Harris and Caserta demonstrated serious deficiencies in the case of the government.
“We will be ready for another trial. … We will eventually get what we wanted out of this, which is the truth and justice that I think Adam is entitled to,” Gibbons said.
Meanwhile, Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said the “outcome is disappointing.” Whitmer’s office issued a harsh reaction from the governor’s chief of staff, JoAnne Huls.
“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 and divisive rhetoric that is all too common in our country,” Huls said. “There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, the extremists will be emboldened.”
Deliberations resumed earlier Friday with a court clerk handing the jury a large plastic bag containing pennies, known as Exhibit 291. The pennies were requested before the jury went home Thursday.
According to the government, the pennies attached to a commercial firework were intended to act as shrapnel against Whitmer’s security team.
The trial spanned 20 days from 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, was not a witness at the trial and did not attend. She rarely speaks publicly about the plot, though she did refer to “surprises” during her tenure that seemed like “something out of fiction” when she ran for re-election on March 17.
She has 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, as well as four alternates. little is known about them. Citing privacy, Jonker ordered that they only be identified by numbers. Two jurors were fired during the trial due to illness.
The jury came from a 22-county region in western and northern Michigan that is largely rural, Republican and conservative. Several people were fired after saying they had strong feelings toward Whitmer, positive or negative, or the government.
Matthew Schneider, a former federal prosecutor in Detroit, believes prosecutors “could have done a better job” of learning the backgrounds and personal views of some jurors who were summoned near the end of the all-day selection process.
“The government had exposed its case. The jury didn’t buy it,” Schneider said of the verdict.
Separately, authorities in state court are prosecuting eight men who are accused of helping the group who was on trial in federal court.
Find full AP coverage of the Whitmer kidnapping plot trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial
White reported from Detroit. Associated Press reporters Sara Burnett in Chicago; David Eggert in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.