GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A jury was selected Tuesday for the trial of four men charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 because they were angry over pandemic restrictions the Democratic governor imposed.
Opening statements were scheduled for Wednesday in the federal court in Grand Rapids. Prosecutors have said they will present secret recordings and other evidence against the men, including of a trip to check Whitmer's vacation home and training with weapons and explosives.
Defense attorneys say the men deny any conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer, and have signaled an entrapment defense, criticizing the government's use of undercover FBI agents and confidential informants.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker on Tuesday told prospective jurors: "This isn't your average criminal case" because of the extraordinary allegations of violence planned against an elected official.
He also said they must put aside any personal feelings about politics, Whitmer and her administration's response to COVID-19, to fairly hear the case. Several said they weren't sure they could be impartial.
Some potential jurors were dismissed after the judge's questions revealed that they dislike Whitmer, with one man saying, "I would probably be pretty biased." A woman who said she is an enthusiastic supporter of the governor also was let go, as was a man who told the court, "I don't really trust the government right now." Another man was dismissed after saying he has followed news coverage of the case closely and "I think they're guilty."
The trial could take more than a month. Jonker told those selected to serve on the jury to stay off social media and not discuss the case with family.
"Put them on pause," he said.
In 2020, Whitmer was trading taunts with then-President Donald Trump over his administration's response to COVID-19. Her critics, meanwhile, were regularly protesting at the Michigan Capitol, clogging streets around the statehouse and legally carrying semi-automatic rifles into the building.
During that turbulent time, when stay-home orders were in place and the economy was restricted, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris were coming up with a plot to snatch Whitmer, prosecutors say.
They're accused of taking critical steps over several months, including secret messaging, gun drills in the woods and a night drive to northern Michigan to scout her 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 arrests 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 planned.
Garbin said Fox, the alleged ringleader, wanted the men to chip in for a $4,000 explosive large enough to destroy a bridge near Whitmer's home and distract police during a kidnapping.
"The blood of tyrants needs to be shed," Garbin quoted Caserta as saying during a meeting.
Garbin and Franks insist no one in the group acted because of excessive influence by agents or undercover informants.
"It is not the end of the case for the defense, but it's a big obstacle to overcome," John Smietanka, a former federal prosecutor, said of the pair's cooperation. "It's going to come down to the credibility of witnesses plus the effect of any extrinsic evidence, like tapes."
The pool of prospective jurors was drawn from a 22-county slice of western and northern Michigan, extending from just below the Grand Rapids metro area to the tip of the Lower Peninsula. The region is largely rural and leans Republican, although Democrats recently have gained in Grand Rapids — the state's second-largest city — and surrounding Kent County, which backed Whitmer in 2018. She carried only two of the other counties.
Whitmer, who is seeking reelection this year, rarely talks publicly about the case and isn't expected to attend the trial. After charges were filed in 2020, just weeks before the fall election, she accused Trump of "giving comfort" to antigovernment extremists with his rhetoric.
"The plots and threats against me, no matter how disturbing, could not deter me from doing everything 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, authorities in state court are prosecuting eight men who are accused of aiding the group.
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