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2 men found not guilty of conspiring to kidnap Michigan governor

A jury on Friday acquitted two men of all charges in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but couldn't reach verdicts against the two alleged leaders.

Jury remained deadlocked on charges against 2 others

Daniel Harris, left, and Brandon Caserta were acquitted Friday of conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, motivated by fury at the Democrat's tough COVID-19 restrictions early in the pandemic. (Kent County Sheriff's Office/Reuters)

A jury on Friday acquitted two men of all charges in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but couldn't reach verdicts against the two alleged leaders, a stunning defeat for the government after a weeks-long trial that centred on a FBI sting operation just before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

The results were announced a few hours after the jury said it was struggling to find unanimity on all 10 charges. The judge on the fifth day of deliberations told the panel to keep working, but jurors emerged again after lunch to say they still were deadlocked on some counts.

Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were found not guilty of conspiracy. In addition, Harris was acquitted of charges related to explosives and a gun.

The jury could not reach verdicts for Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr., which means the government can put them on trial again.

"Obviously we're disappointed with the outcome. We have two defendants that are awaiting trial and we'll get back to work on that," U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge said, declining further comment.

Adam Fox, one of the defendants, is seen in federal court in Grand Rapids, Mich., in this courtroom drawing in October 2020. (Jerry Lemenu via AP)

Harris and Caserta embraced their lawyers when U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker said they were free after 18 months in jail awaiting trial. Family members moments earlier gasped and cried with joy when the verdicts were read.

Over 13 days of testimony, prosecutors offered evidence from undercover agents, a crucial informant and two men who pleaded guilty to the plot. Jurors also read and heard secretly recorded conversations, violent social media posts and chat messages.

Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty and is serving a six-year prison sentence, said the plan was to get Whitmer and cause enough chaos to trigger a civil war before the 2020 election, keeping Joe Biden from winning the presidency.

The six, including Garbin and Kaleb Franks who also pleaded guilty and testified for the government, were arrested in October 2020 amid talk of raising $4,000 for an explosive to blow up a bridge and stymie any police response to a kidnapping, according to trial testimony.

FBI sting

Prosecutors said the group was steeped in anti-government extremism and angry over Whitmer's COVID-19 restrictions. There was evidence of a "shoot house" erected in Luther, Mich., to practise going in and out of tight spaces at her vacation home.

But defence lawyers portrayed the men as credulous weekend warriors prone to big, wild talk and often stoned on marijuana. They said agents and informants tricked and cajoled the men into targeting the governor.

Harris was the only defendant to testify in his own defence, repeatedly telling jurors "absolutely not" when asked if he had targeted the governor.

In this courtroom drawing, Daniel Harris, right, listens with attorney Parker Douglas during a hearing in federal court in Grand Rapids in October 2020. (Jerry Lemenu via AP)

"I think what the FBI did is unconscionable," Caserta's attorney, Michael Hills, said outside court.

"And I think the jury just sent them a message loud and clear that these tactics — we're not going to condone what they've done here."

Fox's attorney, Christopher Gibbons, said the acquittals of Harris and Caserta demonstrated some serious shortcomings in the government's case.

"We'll be ready for another trial," Gibbons said.

"We'll eventually get what we wanted out of this, which is the truth and the justice I think Adam is entitled to."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is seen at the White House on March 9. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Deliberations resumed earlier Friday with a court employee handing over a large plastic bag containing pennies, known as exhibit 291. The pennies were requested before jurors went home Thursday.

Pennies taped to a commercial-grade firework were intended to act like shrapnel, investigators said.

According to evidence, a homemade explosive was detonated during training in September 2020, about a month before the men were arrested.

In this courtroom drawing, defendant Kaleb Franks listens to Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler during a hearing in federal court in Grand Rapids in October 2020. (Jerry Lemenu via AP)

In his closing argument on April 1, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said Croft wanted to test the explosive as a possible weapon to use against Whitmer's security team. He quoted him as saying the pennies would be so hot they could go "right through your skin."

The trial covered 20 days since March 8, including jury selection, evidence, final arguments and jury deliberations.

Croft is from Bear, Del., while the others are from Michigan.

Whitmer blames Trump for fomenting anger

Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the plot, though she referred to "surprises" during her term that seemed like "something out of fiction" when she filed for re-election on March 17.

She has blamed former president Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the case.

A jury of six women and six men heard the case, as well as four alternates. Little is known about them. Jonker ordered out of privacy concerns that they be only identified by numbers. Two jurors were dismissed during the trial because of illness.

Separately, seven other men linked to a paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen were charged in state court at the same time as the federal arrests. Those men are accused of planning to storm the Michigan Capitol and create a "civil war."

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