GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The jury is now deliberating in the trial of four men accused of plotting to kidnap and kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Closing arguments wrapped up late Friday afternoon and the case is now in the hands of the jury.
Closing arguments began Friday in the trial of four men accused of plotting to kidnap and kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler turned to face the jury to, for the last time, make his case for a sinister conspiracy to kidnap the governor and to try to prove the guilt of the four men he says were involved.
For Barry Croft, it was vanity that drove him. He saw himself as a “second founding father.” He even commissioned a flag for his new Republic.
For Adam Fox, it was humiliation. He was living in a basement “without a bathroom,” said Kessler. Fox was fed up.
For Daniel Harris, a retired Marine who told his fellow militia members he could “make things go boom” and admitted to constructing a homemade bomb, the idea sounded fun. He said so himself on the stand.
Brandon Caserta recorded videos of his plans to kill cops after accumulating a number of traffic tickets. Caserta, Kessler said, had a disdain for authority.
Whatever Kesler claimed their reasons were, he said these four men conspired to kidnap the governor of Michigan. As Kessler and the government share the burden of proof, they will lay out their arguments first before the four defense attorneys get their own chance to defend their clients a final time.
Before arguments began, the jury heard their instructions from Chief Judge Robert Jonker.
All of the defendants are facing a single charge each of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. Judge Jonker reminded the jury that in order to prove a conspiracy, the government must successfully show that two or more defendants conspired to commit the crime, each knowingly and voluntarily joined the plan, and each did something to advance the conspiracy.
Kidnapping is defined by law as “seizing, confining, or abducting a person” without their consent.
Not all of the acts have to take place in Michigan to constitute a conspiracy, only one.
“This was not just talk,” said Kessler on Friday, speaking on the men’s numerous trainings, casings of the governor’s home, and use of encrypted chat apps to communicate. “That’s not what you’re doing when you’re exercising your constitutional right to free speech.”
The group, referred to as “the boys” throughout the trial by their own defendants, could face up to life in prison for the crime of conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
“Barry Croft is my age,” said Kessler. “The youngest one is 24. These aren’t boys, these are grown men.”
U.S. prosecutors have to show that the four men were already planning to commit the crime before the involvement of the government.
The defense team will try to convince the jury that this was all legal activity, and nothing more than tough talk protected by the First Amendment. Their claim is one of entrapment – that the government, not their clients, pushed the conspiracy forward.
“You don’t make terrorists so we can arrest them,” said Christopher Gibbons, defense attorney for Adam Fox. “That’s unacceptable in America, that’s not how it works.”
Gibbons and attorneys for the other men have focused their attention on a handful of undercover agents and informants, namely Dan Chappel. In his opening statement, Gibbons said Chappel was “the framework upon which” the case hung. Chappel, who was known in the group as “Big Dan,” first made the FBI aware of the alleged conspiracy and began informing for them shortly after the Wolverine Watchmen group formed. Gibbons claimed Chappel was highly motivated by the prospect of “building his resume” in hopes of obtaining employment with the FBI after the case, and money – Gibbons said Chappel was paid a total of $54,000 in the short few months he worked for the agency.
All of the defendants have held that Chappel was considered the group’s leader.
“It’s called radicalization,” said Gibbons, “the federal government inviting people to a theater where they are given false senses, and somebody rattles the keys, somebody beats the drum and gets them all worked up.”
Gibbons claimed his client was a loner who was desperate for approval, set up by the government with a false sense of authority, facilitated with equipment, men and ideas – taken advantage of. Throughout the trial, Fox has been accused of being the ringleader of the conspiracy, a claim both his own attorneys and both former defendants asserted was not the case.
“Adam Fox is not the leader the government wanted him to be,” said Gibbons, “he never became the leader the government wanted him to be because Adam Fox is not a leader.”
“You guys are our last chance,” continued Gibbons to the jury. “You're the firewall. You, the citizens of this country, make these decisions.”
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