GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — With secret tapes and other evidence, prosecutors pledge to show how four men were united behind a wild plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor in response to his aggressive measures to slow COVID -19 during the first months of the pandemic.
Jury selection began Tuesday for a trial that could last more than a month in federal court in western Michigan, with U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker telling potential jurors: “This is not your average criminal case” due to the extraordinary allegations of a conspiracy against an elected official.
Jonker stressed that potential jurors must set aside any personal feelings about politics, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her administration’s response to COVID-19 to hear the case fairly or they cannot serve. Two men were fired after the judge’s questions revealed a dislike for the Democratic governor, with one saying: “I’d probably be pretty biased.”
A few other people were fired due to work or family disputes, including a nurse who worked throughout the pandemic. The woman said she finally had a trip planned and “I really want to go on vacation”. A man who said he followed intense media coverage of the case was released after saying: ‘I think they are guilty.’
In 2020, Whitmer was trading taunts with then-President Donald Trump about his administration’s response to COVID-19. His critics, meanwhile, regularly demonstrated at the Michigan Capitol, clogging the streets around the state house and legally carrying semi-automatic rifles into the building.
During this turbulent time, when stay-at-home orders were in place and the economy was tight, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris proposed a plot to snatch Whitmer, prosecutors say.
They are accused of taking critical actions over several months, including secret messages, gun drills in the woods and a night drive through northern Michigan to scout his second home and figure out how to blow up a bridge.
The FBI, which had infiltrated the group, said it thwarted the plan with the arrest of six men in October 2020. Two of them, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, have pleaded guilty and will appear as crucial witnesses for the government. , giving jurors an inside view of what was expected.
Garbin, for example, said Fox, the alleged ringleader, wanted the men to chip in for a $4,000 explosive big enough to destroy a bridge near Whitmer’s house and distract police during a kidnapping.
“The blood of tyrants must be shed,” Garbin quoted Caserta as saying during a meeting.
Garbin and Franks insist that no one in the group acted due to undue influence from undercover agents or informants.
“It’s not the end of the case for the defense, but it’s a big hurdle to overcome,” John Smietanka, a former federal prosecutor, said of the pair’s cooperation. “It will depend on the credibility of the witnesses and the effect of any extrinsic evidence, such as the tapes.”
Indeed, prosecutors have said much of the evidence will be the defendants’ own words taken from secret recordings. The government will also offer screenshots of text messages as well as photos and videos posted on social media.
Prior to trial, defense attorneys reviewed the case, particularly the “staggering use” of informants. They deny any conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer and have reported an entrapment defense.
“Agents and whistleblowers recruited defendants, arranged meetings, paid for travel, paid for hotels, rented cars, produced promotional videos demonstrating explosives, purchased equipment, vetted new members, hatched ideas and directed transactions,” said Joshua Blanchard, who is Croft’s attorney.
Defense attorney Christopher Gibbons said Fox did not want to kidnap Whitmer, despite making “numerous inflammatory remarks” about the governor and what he considered to be unconstitutional acts.
Agents and informants were the “binding force and catalyst behind every event, impassioned speech and nearly every suggestion of criminality,” Gibbons said in a court filing.
Assistant US Attorney Nils Kessler said informants were paid to gather information, not to incite crimes.
“The things they recorded were the defendants’ own words. This is what makes the defendants guilty,” Kessler told a judge on Friday.
A successful entrapment defense requires evidence that the government instigated someone to commit a crime they otherwise would not be inclined to commit, Smietanka said.
Whitmer, who is seeking re-election this year, rarely speaks publicly about the case and is not expected to attend the trial. After charges were filed in 2020, just weeks before the fall election, she accused Trump of “reassuring” anti-government extremists with his rhetoric.
“The conspiracies and threats against me, however disturbing, could not deter me from doing all I could to save as many lives as possible by listening to medical and health experts,” Whitmer said. last summer, referring to COVID-19.
Separately, state court authorities are prosecuting eight men accused of aiding the group.
White reported from Detroit and Burnett reported from Chicago.
Find full AP coverage of the Whitmer Kidnap Plot Trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial