GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After weeks of testimony, a jury is deciding whether four men are guilty of federal charges of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Attorneys on Friday presented their closing arguments, with the prosecution pointing to specific comments to indicate Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr, Adam Fox and Daniel Harris were in a conspiracy and the defense trying to show entrapment and that their clients’ comments were nonspecific.
Below, see updates from federal court on April 1, 2022:
4:15 p.m.: The jury decides it would like to go home for the weekend and return Monday to begin deliberating in earnest.
“That’s the first good decision the jury made, because I’m exhausted and I know you are, too,” Judge Robert Jonker says.
A foreperson has been selected, the judge indicates.
The judge stresses that the jury should not discuss the case with anyone over the weekend.
3:53 p.m.: Judge Robert Jonker sends the jury into the jury room to choose a foreperson. He asks them to consider how long they would like to deliberate tonight, including whether they have any intention to stay late tonight to try to make additional progress.
3:47 p.m.: Judge Jonker gives the jury additional instructions about what they need to do, including selecting a foreperson, how they can ask the court questions and get answers, how they are allowed to decide whether someone is guilty or not guilty, how the verdict forms should be used, etc.
Each verdict for each person for each count must be unanimous, the judge says.
3:40 p.m.: Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler tells the jury it doesn’t matter that there wasn’t final agreement on how the kidnapping might have been carried out, but only there was agreement that it would happen.
Kessler said the defense painted Barry Croft as someone who wanted to “fix the government.” But Kessler said Croft talked about violent acts.
“That doesn’t fix anything,” he said.
3:36 p.m.: In rebuttal of defense attorneys’ closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler works against the defense’s presentation of the evidence as not serious or incomplete. The prosecution notes that the defense showed its own evidence.
“You’ve got to decide this case based on evidence that everyone gave you,” the prosecutor says.
The prosecutor also points out specific comments that the defendants made indicating they were interested in kidnapping the governor, particularly referring to Whitmer as an “asset,” which Kessler says means they were referring to her as a target.
The prosecutor acknowledges Brandon Caserta was not a leader of the organization and paints him as a “soldier” in the organization.
“It is not unimportant that when Brandon Caserta was talking to these guys, he said, ‘If I get hemmed up, I’ll do my time,'” the prosecutor says. “What would he be getting hemmed up for if he wasn’t doing something wrong?”
Kessler again references a comment by a defense attorney that there were more messages the jury was not shown and says the defense could have admitted that as evidence.
“If somebody’s hiding the truth from you, ask who that is,” he said.
He said the evidence presented in court shows the men had specific plans to kidnap the governor, including a recording in which Barry Croft said, “We need to grab Whitmer,” saying there’s no way that was taken out of context.
3:17 p.m. Barry Croft Jr.’s attorney, Joshua Blanchard, wraps up by telling the jury: “I am ashamed of the behavior of the leading law enforcement agency in the United States. Their duty is to protect and serve. The truth is every person involved in this case put their own interest ahead of the public. They were willing to put these guys away for their own career enhancement.”
“You have the power to make this right. You have the power to tell the FBI that this type of behavior stops here. The only way for them to hear that it stops here is by returning an verdict of not guilty.”
3:10 p.m. Croft’s attorney argues the government created and set up the plan, citing the use of criminal informants like Stephen Robeson, of Wisconsin.
He says the feds referred to Croft as “bonehead.”
“The people who say he was the mastermind of one of the largest domestic terrorism cases in the country think he’s a bonehead?” he asks the jury.
He calls it a case of “smoke and mirrors.”
Blanchard argues the FBI grew desperate in September 2020, when there was still no plan, so the orchestrated the night-time recon mission to the governor’s cottage in Elk Rapids.
“There’s no doubt the FBI planned that drive very carefully,” he says, reminding jurors that on the trip to Elk Rapids, Croft was the only one in the car who wasn’t a federal agent.
“There’s no no question Barry said some things he shouldn’t have said, and Barry said some crazy things,” Blanchard said.
Croft, he says, talked about shooting down air ships, cutting down trees at the Ohio border, backing a semi-tractor trailer into the lake with a boat on the back with 20 riflemen.
“It’s just more stoned, crazy talk,” he said. “No doubt, Barry said some offensive things. What I found more offensive, is the way the FBI behaved.”
He questioned why the feds didn’t call any of the FBI case agents to the witness stand.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Blanchard said.
2:40 p.m.: After a break, court is back in session, with Barry Croft Jr.’s attorney, Joshua Blanchard, giving his closing argument.
1:59 p.m. Brandon Caserta’s attorney, Michael Hills, ends his closing argument after an hour.
Hills criticized the feds for suggesting that books and anarchy flag they found at Caserta’s apartment helped prove he was part of the conspiracy. “The last thing I knew, your political views are your political views.”
He told the jury not to judge Caserta based on how he looks, including his tattoos.
“That’s why they wanted him. He looked the part. He’s the cover of the book, but when you look inside there’s nothing about kidnapping the governor.”
1:30 p.m. Brandon Caserta’s attorney, Michael Hills, is talking about secretly recorded audio clips the government played for the jury, that they were taken out of context.
Hills points out one clip from Caserta: “I’ll voluntarily consent and I’ll do my time.” But nowhere in there does it say he’s talking about kidnapping the governor, Hills says.
Attorneys have argued that the government cherry-picked audio clips that helped build their case.
Hills talks about how his client wanted to “shed the blood of tyrants.” He acknowledges it’s something Caserta would say.
“It didn’t come out of his mouth in context of an agreement to kidnap the governor or kill the governor,” he says.
Hills apologizes to the jury that the closing arguments were taking so long. “But there’s a lot on the line for everyone.”
12:59 p.m. Michael Hills, the attorney for Brandon Caserta, is arguing that his client wasn’t part of a conspiracy. “What we are here to do is to determine if Mr. Caserta, Brandon Caserta, by his words or action agreed with a conspiracy to kidnap the governor of the state of Michigan.”
“My client is no shrinking violet,” he says. “If if he’s got an opinion, he’s going to let you know.”
He lists the events, trainings and meetings that Caserta didn’t attend. He says one of the men who pleaded guilty and testified lied to the jury when he said Caserta was at a meeting in August 2020. The man testified that Caserta was nodding his head as he agreed with talk about kidnapping plans. Caserta, he says, wasn’t there. “He lied.”
12:58 p.m.: Julia Kelly, attorney for Daniel Harris, wraps up closing after 37 minutes, arguing he may have chosen his words poorly, but that he wasn’t part of a conspiracy.
12:21 p.m. Julia Kelly, attorney for Daniel Harris, begins her closing argument.
11:52 a.m. Christopher Gibbons, attorney for Adam Fox, wraps up closing after 1 hour and 27 minutes. “I’m asking you to draw a line. I’m asking you to find Adam Fox not guilty on both counts, because he is, in fact, not guilty.”
11:10 a.m: Christopher Gibbons, Adam Fox’s attorney: “It’s the federal government inviting citizens they think who are susceptible to a theater where they are giving false senses of who and what they are. Somebody rattles the keys, somebody beats the drum and gets them all worked up. That’s unacceptable in America. That’s not how it works. We don’t make terrorists so we can arrest them.”
10:50 a.m.: Christopher Gibbons, Adam Fox’s attorney: “Adam Fox was the least of all these men. He didn’t have the skills, he didn’t have the equipment, but you know what he had they didn’t have? He had Dan Chappel’s love and affection.
“The greatest threat to the governor of the state of Michigan was not my client, not Brandon Caserta, it’s (FBI agent) Jayson Chambers and his weapon, Dan Chappel.”
“Who’s running the show? Who’s running the show?”
10:24 a.m.: Christopher Gibbons, attorney for Adam Fox, is giving his closing argument. “The plans alleged in Count 1 are not Adam Fox’s plans. The evidence shows clearly those plans belong to the government.”
“Dan Chappel (informant Big Dan) makes everything happen,” he tells the jury.
10:21 a.m. Closing argument of Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler lasted 55 minutes. He talked about how it’s legal in America to criticize the government, to protest. “That’s what makes this country great.”
“What we can’t do is kidnap them, kill them, or blow them up. That’s what also makes America great or different from other places.”
9:10 a.m. Judge wraps up jury instructions after 40 minutes. After a break, closing arguments. They’ll begin with the government, followed by defense lawyers, then wrap up with government rebuttal. The federal prosecutor and defense attorneys have said their closings would last about 40 minutes, though one defense attorney said he could take an hour. After closings, the case goes to the 12-member jury.
9 a.m.: The judge is giving instructions on entrapment. “The crucial question is whether the government persuaded the defendant who was not already willing to commit a crime to go ahead and commit it.” If the defendant was already willing, it’s not entrapment if the government, through informants or undercover agents, participated or made it easier.
8:55 a.m.: Barry Croft Jr., Adam Fox, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta are charged with conspiracy to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Croft, Fox and Harris also are charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. Croft and Harris also are charged with possessing an unregistered destructive device. Harris faces an additional charge of possession of a short-barreled rifle.
8:45 a.m.: To prove a conspiracy to commit kidnapping, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that two or people conspired. It doesn’t require proof that everyone agreed on all the details, but they must prove that there was a mutual understanding, spoken or unspoken, to cooperate with each other to commit the crime of kidnapping. A key element: the jury cannot count an undercover agent or an informant as one of the two or more conspirators.
8:30 a.m.: Chief U.S. District Judge Robert J. Jonker is reading jury instructions, which will include the entrapment defense.
The defense rested its case Thursday in the trial after Wolverine Watchmen militia member Daniel Harris, one of the men on trial, testified.
Harris said FBI informant Dan Chappel, also known as “Big Dan,” was the leader. Harris also trash-talked the accused co-leaders, Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr., calling Croft “a stoner-pirate kind of whack nut,” though he said he kind of liked him. Croft often wore a three-point hat.
Brandon Caserta, Croft, Fox and Harris all face charges in the trial.
Proceedings are expected to run from 8:30 a.m. to around 5 p.m.
Stay with us for the latest throughout the trial.