GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A jury was selected Tuesday for the trial of four men charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, extraordinary allegations of violence planned against an elected official that led the presiding judge to advise: “This isn’t your average criminal case.”
Opening statements were scheduled for Wednesday in the federal court in Grand Rapids. Prosecutors have said the men were angry about pandemic restrictions the Democratic governor imposed, and that they will present secret recordings and other evidence against the men, including of a trip to check Whitmer’s vacation home and training with weapons and explosives.
Defense attorneys say the men deny any conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer, and have signaled an entrapment defense, criticizing the government’s use of undercover FBI agents and confidential informants.
Eleven women and seven men were selected to serve as jurors, with 12 who will decide the case and six alternates, though the court did not make clear Tuesday which jurors are alternates. Before they left the courtroom, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker told the jury to stay off social media and not discuss the case with family.
“Put them on pause,” he said.
Earlier Tuesday, Jonker told prospective jurors they must put aside any personal feelings about politics, Whitmer and her administration’s response to COVID-19, to fairly hear the case. Several said they weren’t sure they could be impartial.
Some potential jurors were dismissed after the judge’s questions revealed that they dislike Whitmer, with one man saying, “I would probably be pretty biased.” A woman who said she is an enthusiastic supporter of the governor also was let go, as was a man who told the court, “I don’t really trust the government right now.” Another man was dismissed after saying he has followed news coverage of the case closely and “I think they’re guilty.”
Others were dismissed because of job or home conflicts with the trial, which could take more than a month.
In 2020, Whitmer was trading taunts with then-President Donald Trump over his administration’s response to COVID-19. Her critics, meanwhile, were regularly protesting at the Michigan Capitol, clogging streets around the statehouse and legally carrying semi-automatic rifles into the building.
During that turbulent time, when stay-home orders were in place and the economy was restricted, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris were coming up with a plot to snatch Whitmer, prosecutors say.
They’re accused of taking critical steps over several months, including secret messaging, gun drills in the woods and a night drive to northern Michigan to scout her second home and figure out how to blow up a bridge.
The FBI, which had infiltrated the group, said it thwarted the plan with the arrests of six men in October 2020. Two of them, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, have pleaded guilty and will appear as crucial witnesses for the government, giving jurors an inside view of what was planned.
Garbin said Fox, the alleged ringleader, wanted the men to chip in for a $4,000 explosive large enough to destroy a bridge near Whitmer’s home and distract police during a kidnapping.
“The blood of tyrants needs to be shed,” Garbin quoted Caserta as saying during a meeting.
Garbin and Franks insist no one in the group acted because of excessive influence by agents or undercover informants.
“It is not the end of the case for the defense, but it’s a big obstacle to overcome,” John Smietanka, a former federal prosecutor, said of the pair’s cooperation. “It’s going to come down to the credibility of witnesses plus the effect of any extrinsic evidence, like tapes.”
On Tuesday, marshals escorted the defendants in and out in of the court in handcuffs and leg restraints. During the morning proceedings the four men and their attorneys sat at separate conference tables along one wall of the courtroom. Harris and Croft were dressed in suits and ties, while Caserta and Fox wore dress shirts and pants. All four men stood and turned toward potential jurors as they filed in. Their handcuffs were removed and bunting hanging from the tables obscured potential jurors’ view of the leg restraints.
The pool of prospective jurors was drawn from a 22-county slice of western and northern Michigan, extending from just below the Grand Rapids metro area to the tip of the Lower Peninsula. The region is largely rural and leans Republican, although Democrats recently have gained in Grand Rapids — the state’s second-largest city — and surrounding Kent County, which backed Whitmer in 2018. She carried only two of the other counties.
Whitmer, who is seeking reelection this year, rarely talks publicly about the case and isn’t expected to attend the trial. She has blamed Trump for stoking mistrust and fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn hate groups and right-wing extremists like those charged in the plot. She has said he was also complicit in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Separately, authorities in state court are prosecuting eight men who are accused of aiding the group.