By Tyler Clifford and Nathan Layne
(Reuters) -A federal jury will begin deliberations on Monday in the trial of four men charged with conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, as one of the most closely watched trials involving what prosecutors called acts of domestic terrorism neared its conclusion.
The 12-person jury was presented with dueling narratives during closing arguments that concluded on Friday afternoon.
A prosecutor described the defendants as “filled with rage” and bent on sparking a civil war, while defense attorneys accused the FBI of entrapping their clients, who were often high on drugs and prone to “crazy talk” rather than concrete action.
The case stands as one of the most high-profile prosecutions of alleged members of right-wing organizations that have risen in prominence in the years since former President Donald Trump's election in 2016. It also highlights 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.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler sought to portray the men as hatching a concrete plan of attack over several months, which included collecting firearms and conducting reconnaissance on Whitmer's vacation home.
“They trained to kidnap the governor, they cased her house in the middle of the night, they mapped it out, they planned it, they gathered weapons and bombs,” Kessler said in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “That is the conspiracy that they are charged with and in America it's a crime.”
All four of the defendants – Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris – 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.
The attorney for Fox, who prosecutors have accused of being the ringleader of the plot, argued that his client was lured into action by FBI informants, who he also accused of taking advantage of the group's heavy use of marijuana.
“Somebody rattles the keys, somebody beats the drum and gets 'em all worked up,” said the attorney, Christopher Gibbons. “That's unacceptable in America. That's not how it works. You don't make terrorists so we can arrest them.”
Two other men initially charged in the alleged plot struck plea deals. The pair, Ty Garbin and Kalen Franks, served as star witnesses for prosecutors, who sought to prove that the four defendants planned to break into Whitmer's vacation home in northern Michigan, hog-tie her and take her away at gunpoint for a “trial” on treason charges over her COVID-19 mandates.
Garbin is currently serving a six-year sentence, while Franks is awaiting sentencing.
The four on trial are among 13 men 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 pandemic restrictions, as well as trigger a second American civil war as adherents to the “boogaloo” anti-government movement, Kessler said.
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.
In charging documents the men are accused of discussing Whitmer's kidnapping and planning to meet in Wisconsin to train with assault rifles. The men were also alleged to have discussed buying supplies to be used in the kidnapping and putting Whitmer's vacation home under surveillance, prosecutors say.
Fox ordered $4,000 worth of explosives from an undercover FBI agent posing as a co-conspirator, according to the indictment. The document also accused Fox and Harris of making payments for the explosives.
(Reporting by Tyler Clifford; Editing by Frank McGurty, Aurora Ellis and Mark Porter)