GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A jury was seated in one day of selection to hear the federal case of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The men were in handcuffs as they were led into the courtroom in downtown Grand Rapids before jury selection began Tuesday morning. Two of the men, Daniel Harris and Barry Croft Jr., wore suits and ties.
Among the questions being posed to jurors: their thoughts on COVID-19 and on how Whitmer handled it.
“What about the politics of it all? Not just the governor; the mask mandate?” Judge Robert Jonker asked the jurors.
Some prospective jurors told the judge they weren’t fans of the governor or her handling of the pandemic.
“I feel like I’ve been tainted by the news media. I’m not a fan of the governor at all,” one prospective juror told the judge.
A jury of 12 jurors and six alternates was seated by shortly after 5 p.m. That was more quickly than initially expected but the judge was clearly determined to make it happen in a day. Opening statements were expected to begin Wednesday morning.
The judge said the trial could take four to six weeks, with proceedings running from about 8:30 a.m. to about 2 p.m. each day.
Security was tight after some fears that militia members might show up for the start of the trial but they were a no-show.
The suspects — Harris, Croft, Adam Fox and Brandon Caserta — were among six charged in federal court, allegedly angry enough about Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic that they wanted to kidnap her.
The trial has been a long time coming. The feds busted the plot in October 2020 — 17 months ago.
The feds say the men held firearm training sessions in Michigan and Wisconsin, headed to Whitmer’s vacation home near Elk Rapids to watch it and talked about blowing up a bridge to prevent police from following them after the kidnapping. The plan, the feds say, was to take Whitmer to Wisconsin, where they would try her for treason in a kangaroo court.
“The law enforcement let this planning and organizing and training and all the other steps go pretty much as far as they could. They went almost to the line because obviously, for a prosecutor, it’s easier, it’s sadder, but it’s easier to have a case after a crime has been committed and you’ve got the evidence of it,” Patrick Miles, the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, said. “Here, you’ve got to find that right line where you’ve got enough evidence to bring charges, but not enough where an actual harm took place.”
Caserta, Croft, Fox and Harris each face charges of kidnapping conspiracy. Croft, Fox and Harris are charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. Croft and Harris are also charged with possession of an unregistered destruction device and Harris faces an additional charge of possession of an unregistered short-barreled rifle.
“In this case, some might be more viewed as ringleaders or organizers,” Miles explained. “You could see perhaps the jury saying, oh, that charge, we don’t think there’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but on the other one, we do. So, you could see a splintering on that as well. You could see across the board convictions.”
The defendants will argue they were entrapped, saying that the FBI and its informants roped them into the plot. Federal prosecutors say the men were already predisposed to commit the crime, so they were not entrapped.
Prosecutors will not call three FBI agents heavily involved in the investigation as witnesses. They wanted to call two other agents who worked undercover and have them testify anonymously because they are working on other cases and because of safety concerns, but a federal judge last week ruled that if they take the stand, they must use their real names.
Two informants are expected to testify: One referred to as “Big Dan,” who will be called by the government, and another named Stephen Robeson, who the defense plans to call.
Two men arrested in connection to the plot have already pleaded guilty to federal charges. A number more face charges at the state level; all those cases are still working their way through the judicial system.
Miles expects the two who already pleaded will provide key testimony in the trial.
“We presume as part of their plea agreement that they’ve agreed to testify against their co-defendants, and so you’ll see that that testimony will be very powerful testimony because that gives inside knowledge about what was going on,” said Miles.
He added that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Western Michigan typically has a 95% and above conviction rate.
“The federal law enforcement know how to put a case together, they know how to investigate it, they know how to present it in the most favorable terms for the prosecution to bring a successful case,” he explained. “That’s not to say that defense won’t do its job well and that they’ll try to present the best case possible, but I think the evidence is going to be pretty, pretty heavy here.”