GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CBS DETROIT/AP) — Two of four men were acquitted Friday in a conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, motivated by fury at the Democrat's tough COVID-19 restrictions early in the pandemic.
The jury's verdicts against Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were read in the federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the case presided over by U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker. Jurors said they couldn't agree on verdicts against Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. Prosecutors described Fox as a ringleader of an anti-government group.
Fox, Croft and Harris faced additional charges. The two most serious charges, kidnapping conspiracy and conspiracy to use explosives, both carry potential life sentences.
In a statement on Friday, Whitmer's chief of staff said:
"Today, Michiganders and Americans—especially our children—are living through the normalization of political violence. 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, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.
"The governor remains focused on her work on behalf of Michigan and all Michiganders. That includes addressing violence and threats to our democracy. We appreciate the prosecutors and law enforcement officers for their work on this case."
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist issued the following statement:
"Governor Gretchen Whitmer is a fierce leader and a dear friend. I have seen who she is: a mother who loves her family and her friends. It has been the honor of my life to serve alongside her as Lieutenant Governor. Since day one, when she asked me to run, I have seen her dedication and commitment to the people of Michigan. I have seen her devotion to the kind of public service that works around the clock to make Michiganders' lives better and delivers real change for every community. I have seen her step up to the plate to make tough decisions.
"Today's outcome is disappointing. But it cannot and will not prevent us from standing tall for Michigan. When we took our oaths of office, we committed to serving Michiganders, and while violent extremists try to scare us and prevent us from doing our jobs, we will keep that commitment. We will keep working hard and living up to the oath we took.
"Our differences must be settled at the ballot box, not through violence. We need to be honest and clear about what causes violence by extremists and do all we can to address the root cause of it. Elected officials, parents, teachers, faith leaders, all of us have a duty to stand up to these hateful actions and teach our kids that there is a better way."
"I know that Governor Whitmer will continue leading with grit to do what is right. She loves this amazing state and she will keep putting Michiganders first—no matter what."
Defense attorneys portrayed their clients as credulous weekend warriors prone to big, wild talk, who were often stoned. They said FBI undercover agents and informants tricked and cajoled the men into agreeing to a conspiracy.
To counter that entrapment claim, prosecutors entered evidence that the men discussed abducting Whitmer before the FBI sting began. They went way beyond talk, including scouting Whitmer's summer home and testing explosives, prosecutors told jurors.
Croft is from Delaware while the others are from Michigan.
Earlier Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker acknowledged the struggle of deliberations. Decisions to convict or acquit must be unanimous.
"I know it's tough. We all know it's tough," Jonker told the jury.
There were 10 charges in the case: one against Brandon Caserta, two against Adam Fox, three against Barry Croft Jr. and four against Daniel Harris. The men all faced the main charge of a kidnapping conspiracy; the other counts are related to explosives and a firearm.
"It's important to reach unanimity if you can. ... If you just can't see it, then that's what we need to hear eventually as your final answer," Jonker said.
Deliberations resumed earlier Friday with a court employee handing over a large plastic bag containing pennies, known as exhibit 291. The pennies were requested before jurors went home Thursday.
Pennies taped to a commercial-grade firework were intended to act like shrapnel, investigators said.
According to evidence, a homemade explosive was detonated during training in September 2020, about a month before the men were arrested.
In his closing argument on April 1, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said Croft wanted to test the explosive as a possible weapon to use against Whitmer's security team. He quoted him as saying the pennies would be so hot they could go "right through your skin."
The trial now has covered 20 days since March 8, including jury selection, evidence, final arguments and jury deliberations.
Prosecutors offered testimony from undercover agents, a crucial informant and two men who pleaded guilty to the plot. Jurors also read and heard secretly recorded conversations, violent social media posts and chat messages.
Prosecutors said the group was steeped in anti-government extremism and angry over Whitmer's COVID-19 restrictions.
Defense lawyers, however, said any scheme was the creation of government agents who were embedded in the group and manipulated the men.
Croft is from Bear, Delaware, while the others are from Michigan.
Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the plot, though she referred to "surprises" during her term that seemed like "something out of fiction" when she filed for reelection 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.
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