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Closing arguments delivered in governor kidnap scheme trial

A trio of defendants say they were railroaded into joining a plot to kidnap Michigan's governor by an FBI informant.

JACKSON, Mich. (CN) — A Jackson County jury heard closing arguments Monday in the trial of three Michigan men accused of assisting the leaders of a plot to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor, with deliberations expected to begin Tuesday. 

Attorneys for Joe Morrison, his father-in-law Pete Musico and their onetime fellow militia member Paul Bellar argued that prosecutors and the FBI had tried hard – and failed – to keep their clients in touch with chief conspirators Adam Fox and Barry Croft, and raised questions as to the credibility of major FBI witnesses.  

Prosecutors will have time to rebut the trio’s arguments before jury instructions are issued Tuesday. On Monday, they started proceedings by laying out their case. 

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani began with an overview of the memes and ideologies the three Wolverine Watchmen leaders shared with each other and with Fox. That included admiration of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who cited both anti-government and white supremacist beliefs in justifying his bombing of a federal building that killed 168 people in 1995. McVeigh visited with a group also known as the Wolverine Watchmen before carrying out his bombing, though it’s unclear whether the modern Watchmen have any relationship to that one. 

Doddamani then moved toward the training the Watchmen allegedly engaged in and provided to Fox. Claims that their trainings were “defensive,” she said, should not be taken seriously. 

“The Wolverine Watchmen were willing to walk up to the edge of violence over, and over and over again, and were more than willing to help those two out,” she said, name-checking Fox and Croft. “These three defendants had been pushing towards violence for months. They had stepped up at the [Michigan State] Capitol doors, they had provoked law enforcement… Even if they weren’t going to go and actually do an act of terrorism themselves, they were more and willing and happy to help someone else to.” 

She also objected to the defense attorneys’ interactions with confidential FBI informant Dan Chappel, who has received criticism from all three defendants’ counsel for receiving money from the FBI, appearing to encourage the group’s connection to Fox and providing at least part of the firearms training the group received. Bellar’s attorney Andrew Kirkpatrick also accused Chappel of stealing valor at one point in the case, questioning his contention that he received a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq. 

“What was Dan’s reward for his service to the FBI in this case? Endless amounts of testimony," Doddamani said. "Sitting in the witness stand, defense attorneys implying that he’s stealing valor for his time in combat– that’s the reward that he got. And perhaps you have noticed the tone in the courtroom…. Disrespect, sarcasm, yelling– that’s what you do, ladies and gentlemen, when you don’t have the facts on your side.” 

Morrison’s attorney Leonard Ballard took a few minutes of his turn at the bench to explain moments when he raised his voice. He was angry, he said, in part because of question-dodging from the state’s witnesses and because the three Watchmen had not committed any crimes.

“We have taken the Constitution in this case and basically shredded it,” Ballard said. 

On Musico’s behalf, attorney Kareem Johnson said that the use of memes and chat logs to boost the government’s case was a façade to disguise a lack of criminal activity.

”They have spent hours showing you First Amendment-protected speech – speech that you may not agree with,” he said, in an effort to make jurors dislike the Watchmen. “In this country, you are allowed to talk the talk, but you only get convicted if you walk the walk.” 

Johnson also took issue with the government’s focus on the men’s participation in protests after the murder of George Floyd. Talk of defending people from police, he said, was legal and in line with the Black Lives Matter message.

"What if one person would have stopped that officer?” he said of Floyd’s death under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. "That's what they're talking about when they talk about defending people."

Kirkpatrick returned to his argument that Bellar was out of state and out of the group by the time Fox began his mission to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Chappel, he said, “was the only common denominator” in the case. 

The trial was put on hold for much of last week after Kirkpatrick contracted Covid-19. On Monday, the attorney reassured jurors that he had consistently tested negative, but both Morrison and Musico observed proceedings remotely, having both tested positive. 

Bellar, Morrison and Musico could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on charges of providing material support for a terrorist act, unlawful possession of firearms and committing those acts for the benefit of a gang. 

Fox and Croft have both been convicted in federal court, and several other people connected with the plot have taken plea deals.

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