© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer visits the Ford Bronco off-road track during the Motor Bella 2021 auto show in Pontiac, Michigan, September 21, 2021. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo
(Reuters) – A federal jury entered a third day of deliberations on Wednesday in the trial of four men charged with a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, a case that highlights the political rift surrounding government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prosecutors said Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris planned to snatch Governor Gretchen Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan in the hope of ending what they perceived to be draconian restrictions championed by the Democrat to control the spread of coronavirus.
The defendants had hoped the kidnapping would spark a second American civil war ahead of the 2020 presidential election as the pandemic exacerbated the country’s intense polarization, prosecutors said.
During a trial that has lasted nearly a month, defense attorneys argued that FBI informants coerced their clients into discussing the plot. The men never made concrete plans on their own and were victims of entrapment and overreach by the prosecution, their attorneys argued.
On Tuesday during their second day of deliberation in a Grand Rapids court, the 12-person jury asked U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker for transcripts of testimony from the trial. He declined their request, saying the 3,400 pages of transcripts were not yet available and that jurors must rely on their memories, the Detroit Free Press reported.
The case has cast a spotlight on two of the militant right-wing organizations that have emerged in the years since former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. It also suggests the extent to which the pandemic and government efforts to control it have become a wedge issue in U.S. politics, pushing some people to extremes.
All four of the defendants have been charged with kidnapping conspiracy. Fox, Croft and Harris were also charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. If convicted the men could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Two other men who were initially charged – Ty Garbin and Kalen Franks – struck plea deals and served as star witnesses for the prosecution during the trial. Garbin is currently serving a six-year sentence, while Franks awaits sentencing.
The four men on trial, plus Garbin and Franks, are among 13 who were arrested in October 2020 and charged with state or federal crimes in the alleged kidnapping conspiracy. Seven of them are facing charges in state court.
The FBI said it had begun tracking the group’s movements after seeing online discussions that included posts about the violent overthrow of some state governments. The group’s goal was to end curbs on social and business activities imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors have also accused them of wanting to start a second American civil war, while defense attorneys have said their clients were often high on drugs and prone to “crazy” talk rather than concrete action.
Harris, Caserta and an undercover informant who testified at the trial were members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a militia group, prosecutors say. Croft and Fox were members of the “Three Percenters,” a similar far-right organization.