Outside the Michigan courthouse, where a jury did not convict any of the four men accused of planning to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a defense attorney says jurors view the alleged plot as what it was: dirty FBI tactics and “gossip”.
The men – who were heard on audio during the trial talking about the Whitmer murder, the bridge explosion and other violence – said nothing shocking, attorney Michael Hills said. He noted that one of the defense witnesses he planned to call to testify planned to claim that he had “heard worse from pregnant mothers on Capitol Hill.”
“If I don’t like the governor and it’s rude talk, I can do it in our country. This is what is beautiful in this country. That’s what’s great,” Hills said. “So hooray, freedom in America. He is always there.
READ MORE: Michigan jury deadlocked on some charges in Whitmer kidnapping conspiracy trial
But for others, Friday’s outcome after a week-long trial was a chilling reminder that the political violence raging in the United States too often goes unpunished. From attacks on social media and elsewhere that disproportionately affect women legislators, to the January 6 insurrection in the United States Capitol and the Whitmer kidnapping plan, people are growing increasingly angry and feel encouraged to act, they say.
Whitmer, a Democrat, accused former President Donald Trump of stoking anger over COVID-19 restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists. On Friday, his office said people across the country were experiencing “a normalization” of violence. A Democratic state lawmaker said threats made would not be taken seriously “until someone dies”.
“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,” Whitmer’s chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, said in a statement. . “There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.
Whitmer has not publicly commented on the outcome of the case. She was not a trial witness and did not attend the trial.
Four men – Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris – were arrested in October 2020. Federal prosecutors said they wanted to kidnap Whitmer because they were angry at the pandemic restrictions she had imposed and saw her as a “tyrant” who needed to be removed.
The charges came at a particularly divisive time, with the debate raging over the pandemic and just weeks before the 2020 presidential election between Trump and Joe Biden. Armed protests were taking place at the Michigan Capitol and elsewhere in the United States, and on the streets of many cities protests over the police killing of George Floyd turned violent at times.
Prosecutors presented evidence at the federal trial in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of undercover agents, an FBI 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.
Defense attorneys argued the men had been framed by the FBI – drawn into an alleged plot they never would have participated in had the government and its informants not lured them in. They portrayed the men as midshipmen who were often high-born and easily influenced, or in one case, a former member of the military who wanted to brush up on his firearms training.
Before delivering their verdicts, the jury said that after nearly five days of deliberation, they could not unanimously agree on the 10 charges against the men.
Harris, 24, and Caserta, 33, were found not guilty of conspiracy. Harris was also acquitted of the explosives and firearm charges.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict for Fox, 38, and Croft, 46, meaning the government can try them again.
US Attorney Andrew Birge said after the verdicts that “we have two defendants awaiting trial and we will get back to work.”
Hills, who defended Caserta, said the result was a message to the government that the FBI’s actions were “inadmissible”. He said the feds should “let it go” rather than take Croft and Fox to court a second time.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican, tweeted after the verdict that “the FBI and DOJ need a complete and total cleanup. … All the rot must be removed and these agencies must be restored.
Others were stunned by the jury’s decision and said it set a dangerous example.
US Representative Debbie Dingell, a Democrat, called for an end to “hate and division in this country” and said she was “deeply concerned that today’s decision in the kidnapping trial of Whitmer will give people greater freedom to choose violence and threats.”
Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist called on elected officials, parents, teachers and others to stand up to “these hateful actions and teach our children that there is a better way.”
“Our differences should be settled through the ballot box, not through violence,” he said. “We must be honest and clear about the causes of extremist violence and do all we can to address the root cause.”
Michigan State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, a Democrat, noted on Twitter that a man who threatened to kill her in 2020 had been acquitted.
“The next time you ask why we can’t get good people to run for office, consider today’s verdict,” she said, adding, “It won’t be taken seriously until that no one will die.”