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Testimony wraps in trial of trio charged in governor kidnapping plot  

The judge denied two motions for a jury-free verdict and said he hoped for deliberations to begin Monday after closing arguments.

JACKSON, Mich. (CN) — Wrapping up early in anticipation of upcoming closing arguments, Friday saw the end of testimony in the trial of three Michigan men accused of abetting a plot to kidnap the state's governor.

Pete Musico, Paul Morrison and Paul Bellar, founding members of the militia group the Wolverine Watchmen, all face charges of providing material support for a terrorist act, unlawful possession of firearms and committing those acts for the benefit of a gang. 

A Covid-19 scare kept the trial on hold for most of the week. Bellar’s attorney Andrew Kirkpatrick reassured jurors near the beginning of proceedings that he was symptom-free and had tested negative, but that he would be wearing a mask throughout trial.

Prosecutors brought just three new witnesses Friday: the state trooper who led Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s security team at the time; an undercover FBI agent who was present at one of the first meetings where convicted conspirator Adam Fox told the Watchmen about his plans to kidnap Whitmer; and a convenience store clerk who worked in Morrison and Musico's area. He said the pair frequently came into his store and talked about various conspiracy theories and their dislike for the Democratic governor, and at one point told him about plans to kidnap Whitmer and blow up a bridge. 

Morrison and Bellar’s attorneys both filed motions for directed verdicts – a ruling made if a judge finds the evidence brought by prosecutors insufficient to prove guilt – before bringing their own witnesses. Jackson County Judge Thomas Wilson denied both motions.

Kirkpatrick argued that Bellar had left the state to live with his father in North Carolina before any plot was in place, and that when Fox brought up the idea of kidnapping Whitmer, his client was still talking about convincing a judge or sheriff to issue an arrest warrant for the governor. 

“On July 27, [2020], when my client said goodbye, he had not been arrested for anything, he had broken no laws, he had left the state of Michigan for good,” Kirkpatrick said.

Members of Bellar’s splinter group of Watchmen who went on to join Fox’s crew, the attorney said, were hand-selected by FBI informant Dan Chappel, per Chappel’s testimony.

“Who set it up? Dan, the informant,” Kirkpatrick said. “Paul didn’t send these individuals to Adam Fox. Dan made that happen.”

Prosecutors argued the issues Kirkpatrick raised “or rather, yelled about,” were either issues of fact for the jury, an entrapment theory already barred by an order from Wilson, or based on a mischaracterization of their case.

“The act of terrorism that we are alleging is not simply a plot to kidnap the governor of the state of Michigan,” Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani said. “It’s rather to kill police officers, kill politicians, and do harm to the governor.” 

“We believe that the crime was committed, and finished, by June 28,” Doddamani added. 

For Morrison, attorney Leonard Ballard took issue with that characterization and added that the group never had consistent enough membership to constitute a gang.

“Eventually, Joe’s going ‘there’s nothing here but crickets!'” Ballard said. Rather than the five members required to constitute a gang for the purposes of the trio’s gang charges, he said, “at best there’s two.” 

For Morrison and Bellar both, Doddamani argued, providing training and a place to train were more than enough to qualify as “material support” for terrorism. As for the gang, she said, continuous communication wasn’t necessary.

“The five or more people in continuous contact– that gang has to be in contact… at the time the crime is committed, not afterwards or for their entire lives," the prosecutor said. Being in contact during the trainings, therefore, was enough, she argued. 

Following those arguments, the day was short. Attorneys for Morrison and his father-in-law Musico called just two witnesses, a state trooper who arrested Morrison for a weapons violation in 2019 and Henrik Impola, the FBI special agent who led the investigation into the trio. Impola testified extensively early on in the prosecution's case, laying out a timeline of his investigation and of Chappel’s involvement. 

Wilson sent jurors home before noon, saying that he wanted all four parties to make their closing arguments on the same day, set for Monday. After a short discussion of jury instructions, the defendants and attorneys followed, with promises from both sides to keep closings brief. 

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