A jury on Friday acquitted two men of all charges in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer but couldn’t reach verdicts against the two alleged leaders, a stunning defeat for the government after a weekslong trial that centered on a remarkable FBI sting operation just before the 2020 election.
Whitmer did not immediately comment on the outcome, though her chief of staff was critical, saying Americans are “living through the normalization of political violence.”
The result was announced on the fifth day of deliberations, a few hours after the jury said it had been struggling to find unanimity on charges in the 10-count indictment. The judge told the panel to keep working, but jurors emerged again after lunch to say they still were deadlocked on some counts.
Daniel Harris, 24, and Brandon Caserta, 33, 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, 38, and Barry Croft Jr., 46, which means the government can put them on trial again for two conspiracy charges. Croft also faces a separate explosives charge. They’ll remain in custody.
No juror spoke publicly about the mixed result.
“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.
Harris and Caserta embraced their lawyers when U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker said they were free after 18 months in jail awaiting trial.
In a Grand Rapids courtroom, during 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 election in order to keep Joe Biden from winning the presidency.
Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who also pleaded guilty and testified for the government, were among the six who 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.
Prosecutors said the group was steeped in anti-government extremism and furious over Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions. There was evidence of a crudely built house to practice going in and out of her vacation home, and a night ride by Croft, Fox and covert operatives to check the property.
But defense lawyers portrayed the men as credulous weekend warriors, often stoned on marijuana and prone to big, wild talk. They said FBI agents and informants tricked and cajoled the men into targeting the governor.
During closing arguments a week ago, Fox’s attorney, Christopher Gibbons, said the plan was “utter nonsense,” and he pleaded with jurors to be the “firewall” against the government.
Gibbons said the acquittals of Harris and Caserta demonstrated serious shortcomings in the government’s case.
Meanwhile, Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said the “outcome is disappointing.” Whitmer’s office released a tough reaction from the governor’s chief of staff, JoAnne Huls.
“The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country,” Huls said. “There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”
Whitmer, a Democrat, wasn’t a trial witness and didn’t attend.