In a stunning verdict last week, a Michigan jury acquitted two men on charges to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The same jury was unable to reach a verdict on the other two men being charged in the explosive case, in a development that may well force the Government to dramatically rethink the way it has been handling domestic terror cases. Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta are free men.
The prosecution clearly thought the case was a slam dunk after arresting four men who they said had hatched a plot to kidnap their governor. But questions about the case were raised early on, and those questions only grew more pointed as prosecutors went greater and greater lengths to limit the defense’s options in court. Defense attorneys argued that the FBI’s actions in the case veered into entrapment, goading men into actions they would have not otherwise taken. It appears the jury agreed.
“The jury clearly saw what the FBI was doing to create this case,” Caserta’s attorney Mike Hills told reporters in an interview. “They saw it, and they didn’t like it.”
The federal prosecution brought a staggering amount of evidence for their case, including covertly recorded conversations and online conversations in which the men expressed a desire to inflict violence on Whitmer. Many of the soundbites were disturbing, but the prosecution also worked hard to make sure the defense could not show the jury any evidence that put those soundbites into a broader context. As Buzzfeed News wrote, “the result was, at least from the defense’s point of view, a stunningly one-sided presentation that left the preponderance of evidence out of court and gave jurors precious little to balance against the Justice Department’s claims.”
BuzzFeed News also reported that virtually none of the defense’s potential witnesses agreed to testify, invoking their right against self-incrimination in the face of thinly veiled warnings from the prosecution about possible legal repercussions for testifying. The defense was only able to muster three witnesses, who testified for a total of about 30 minutes. It was a meager offering compared to the prosecution’s avalanche of evidence.
Nevertheless, the defense was able to undermine the prosecution’s case from the margins, arguing that the men may have hated the government but their rants were just that: rants. And their speech, no matter how shocking, was covered by the First Amendment. The defense argued that the men did not have the means to pull the kidnapping plot off on their own, and their one attempt to scout Whitmer’s cottage was a disaster in which they failed to even locate the correct residence.
Overall, the defense was successfully able to convince the jury that the government overreached in an attempt to manipulate citizens into committing crimes. Attorney Joshua Blanchard said that such tactics are “unacceptable in America,” arguing that “we don’t make terrorists so we can arrest them.”
Of course, it has happened many times. The FBI’s efforts to cajole some members of the Black Panther Party into breaking the law are well documented, and those men and women were not afforded a sympathetic jury in the 1970s. But as the government turns its attentions to domestic terror threats from far-right extremists, some conservative white people are finding themselves on the business end of the FBI, and finding their tactics concerning. Maybe this should raise some questions about the validity of other groups’ claims of unfairness in the U.S. legal system.