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Jury acquits two men charged in Whitmer kidnapping plot

Jurors in Michigan could not reach verdicts for two other defendants, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial.

A federal jury on Friday acquitted two men of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 and deadlocked on the same charges against two other men.

Four anti-government militia members — Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta — were all charged with conspiracy. The defendants were accused of hatching a plan to abduct Whitmer, a Democrat who faced intense backlash from conservatives over Covid safety measures her office instituted in the first year of the pandemic.

Fox, Croft and Harris were also charged with knowingly conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction to allegedly blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s house in an effort to slow authorities’ response.

Harris and Croft were also charged with possession of an unregistered destructive device. And Harris was charged with possession of a semi-automatic assault rifle that wasn’t registered to him.

The jury in Grand Rapids found Harris not guilty on all charges. Caserta was acquitted of conspiracy. Jurors could not reach verdicts in the charges against Fox and Croft, prompting a federal judge to declare a mistrial on those counts.

The men were charged in the alleged plot just months after armed anti-government protesters stormed the Michigan Capitol, raging against Covid safety protocols. Then-President Donald Trump encouraged his followers at the time to “LIBERATE” Michigan and other states that had Covid safety measures in place. And he continued targeting her in speeches even after the feds reported the alleged kidnapping plot.

Coming at a time when rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 are receiving meager sentences for their crimes, Friday’s ruling could empower others to plot political violence without fear of punishment. 

Whitmer’s chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, voiced those worries in a statement after the ruling: 

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."

Late last year, defense attorneys tried to have the case dismissed, arguing their clients were victims of a government entrapment scheme involving informants and undercover agents. U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker rejected the motion to dismiss in January, but the entrapment claims ultimately made it into the trial. 

“The point is, everything that moves this case forward … it’s the government moving all of it,” an attorney for Fox told the jury.

Jonker said the jurors could consider whether the men were entrapped — and it's clear they were swayed by the defense's arguments.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that the men were conscious and eager participants in a plot they conceived on their own. Two star witnesses who participated in the plot pleaded guilty before the trial and testified they and the other participants weren’t coaxed or goaded into the kidnapping plan.

One of the witnesses, Ty Garbin, said the group planned for the kidnapping to be “ignition” for a civil war in the U.S., and that the hope was “other states or other groups would follow suit.” 

Prosecutors also played several secret recordings taped by informants embedded within the group. In one recording, Croft can be telling his daughter, “Honey, I’m making explosives.” In another recording, Fox can be heard saying, “I want to have the governor hog-tied, laid out on a table while we all pose around like we just made the world’s biggest goddamn drug bust, bro.”