In a trial that is being closely watched as one of the most significant recent domestic terrorism cases, the defense in the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer federal kidnapping case is calling for it to be thrown out on the grounds of entrapment, accusing investigators of “egregious overreaching” and manipulation of the defendants.
On March 8, five men charged with conspiring to abduct the Democratic governor from her vacation home in 2020 over her COVID-19 lockdown measures will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Mich., according to the New York Times.
Of the six facing a federal kidnapping conspiracy charge, one pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against the rest.
In September 2020, four of the men who went on a nighttime surveillance mission were either undercover FBI agents or government informants, including the prosecution’s star witness “Big Dan,” court documents show.
Both the prosecution and the defense have built their cases around the more than 1,000 hours of secret recordings made by informants or undercover agents. While the defense wants the case thrown out on entrapment grounds, prosecutors will attempt to prove that the suspects were leaning toward violence from the beginning.
Federal law on entrapment comes down to two issues: whether the suspect was induced to commit the crime, and to what extent he was predisposed toward it. Legal experts say predisposition is a gray area, as prosecutors can use almost any conversation referencing violence as proof.
The entrapment defense has been common in terrorism cases after 9/11, but is not one that has swayed juries.
“It is a really hard defense,” Jesse J. Norris, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Fredonia said. “You are saying my client did it, but you should not punish him anyway because it wasn’t fair, somebody manipulated him into it.”
Prosecutors have also made the unusual decision not to call as witnesses three FBI agents with high-profile roles in the investigation. One agent was fired last summer after being charged with domestic violence and another tried to build a private security consulting firm based on some of his work for the bureau.
According to court documents, the informant known as “Big Dan,” an Iraq war veteran in his mid-30s, was working at the post office around March 2020, searching online for ways to practice his military skills, when the Wolverine Watchmen’s Facebook page popped up.
All of the defendants in the case were members of the Wolverine Watchmen or other armed, paramilitary groups.
Alarmed by their discussions about targeting law enforcement, “Dan” reported them to local police and eventually agreed to become an FBI informant, he said in state court. He was paid about $54,000 over the course of the roughly six-month investigation.
Using the same evidence material, the defense lawyers have built a completely different scenario of what happened. They portray the accused as reluctant puppets entrapped by the FBI agents and informants, whom they say came up with the kidnapping plot.
The defense lawyers in the case either declined or ignored requests for comment, while a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Western Michigan said the office would not discuss pending criminal matters. The FBI referred questions to the U.S. attorney.
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