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Jury selection to begin for 4 men accused in plot to kidnap Michigan's governor

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Michigan today, a federal trial begins for four men accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Prosecutors say the defendants didn't like the public health orders the governor issued to control the pandemic. From Michigan Radio, Tyler Scott reports.

TYLER SCOTT, BYLINE: Prosecutors say the four federal defendants planned to kidnap the governor from her lakeside vacation home in rural northern Michigan just a few weeks before the 2020 election. Three of the defendants are from Michigan - Adam Fox, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta. The other defendant is Barry Croft of Delaware. Two other Michigan men have already pleaded guilty in the case. And at least one is expected to be what prosecutors have called a star witness at trial. News of the alleged kidnapping plot came after the summer of 2020, when Michigan saw several armed protests at the state Capitol in reaction to COVID safety measures. Court documents charge that some of the defendants were members of self-styled militia groups. Some of them hoped to see the collapse of government and a second civil war. Governor Whitmer spoke out a day after their arrest in October 2020.

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GRETCHEN WHITMER: I knew this job would be hard, but I'll be honest - I never could have imagined anything like this.

SCOTT: She thanked the various agencies that investigated and responded to the alleged plot.

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WHITMER: I also want to thank Attorney General Nessel and the U.S. attorneys Birge and Schneider and their teams for pursuing criminal charges that, hopefully, will lead to convictions, bringing these sick and depraved men to justice.

SCOTT: In total, authorities charged 14 people with state or federal crimes. In the federal trial starting today, Fox, Harris and Croft are also charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. Prosecutors say they planned to blow up a highway bridge. There was also reportedly a nighttime reconnaissance mission that the government says occurred in September of 2020, when some of the men drove up to locate and scope out the vacation home. The FBI used confidential informants and undercover agents throughout its investigation. It's expected that attorneys for the defendants will argue that it was the FBI and the informants who orchestrated the whole so-called conspiracy. That's what defendant Barry Croft said in January when interviewed on a YouTube channel.

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BARRY CROFT: Nobody really conspired to do this thing they're accusing us of. It was more the informants who conspired amongst each other to set this up.

SCOTT: The government has to prove to the jury that the defendants agreed to kidnap Whitmer, that they knowingly joined a conspiracy and that there were, quote, "overt acts" taken to plan it out. Barbara McQuade is a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Michigan who now teaches at University of Michigan Law School. She notes that while we're in an era where public servants are increasingly facing harassment and threats, those cases can be hard to prosecute.

BARBARA MCQUADE: One of the - I guess I'll say lucky aspects for prosecutors is that they were conspiring to commit a crime that I think most Americans are familiar with - kidnapping. So I think the clarity of their plot will make it much easier for prosecutors to obtain a conviction here than it might be in other contexts.

SCOTT: McQuade says entrapment is a commonly used defense in cases where informants gathered lots of evidence, but it's seldom successful. She says the prosecution has to focus not on the objectionable words of the defendants but on the actions they took to plan out a kidnapping, actions like the alleged nighttime surveillance of Gretchen Whitmer's property. For NPR News, I'm Tyler Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA GIRLS SONG, "DAISY DAISY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.