Not one Whitman "kidnapper" is convicted

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

I’ll confess to having been fascinated with the entire Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping trial from the beginning. Not because I’m a fan of kidnapping, of course, but it was just such a bizarre story right from the beginning, sounding more like the script for a Steven Soderbergh film than something that would unfold in real life. Unfortunately for the prosecutors, however, the case presented to the jury apparently sounded more like it really was a work of fiction than something that was based in reality. The jurists deliberated for quite a while, but they eventually acquitted two of the four men who were charged and failed to reach a decision on the other two, leading Judge Robert Jonker to finally declare a mistrial. The suspects were facing the potential of life in prison if they had been convicted. (National Review)

A jury acquitted two men accused by the FBI of conspiring to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and could not reach verdicts on two other men involved in the alleged plot.

Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were found not guilty on the charge of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. Harris was also found not guilty of other weapons charges pertaining to the case.

The jury said they could not agree on verdicts for Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr., who were also charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping in the alleged plot. As a result, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker declared a mistrial for Fox and Croft.

Harris and Caserta were released after the not-guilty verdicts were confirmed. Fox and Croft were kept in custody until prosecutors decide whether to try to take them to trial again. That may not be an easy decision. A conspiracy, by definition, generally requires the group of people in question to all be conspiring together. When half of them are flatly acquitted, it lets some of the air out of the conspiracy balloon. And the prosecutors will have egg on their faces if they take a second bite at this apple and wind up with another hung jury.

The backstory on this case is lengthy, but the defense definitely seemed to have a strong card to play. The FBI informants and agents clearly played far more than a passive role in this plot. In fact, the messages and emails that were revealed as a result of the investigation suggested that at least some of the non-FBI men never would have met each other in person if one of the informants hadn’t brought them together and suggested some of the more radical elements of the plot. It also probably didn’t help when one of their informants wound up being indicted on a weapons charge.

There are two elements of his case I wanted to highlight here. First, what the men were actually charged with was conspiring to kidnap the Governor. She was never kidnapped nor was the government able to suggest that an attempt was even made, though the group did conduct some “practice runs.” Being unable to prove that any of the men would have actually gone through with it means that this was always a charge of conspiracy rather than actual kidnapping. But conspiracy can still be charged, as it was here.

To play devil’s advocate here on behalf of the prosecution, saying that the four men were “tricked or goaded” into participating by the FBI is a murky legal area. But even if you assume that the men never would have done it without the Bureau fanning the flames, nobody made them go along with the planning. If they really rejected the idea of an attack on the Governor, they could always have walked away and perhaps even notified law enforcement of the plot. But at the same time, groupthink can be a powerful force.

It strikes me that the men involved in the plotting were probably guilty of something, but since the plan never came to fruition, a life sentence seems a bit extreme. It’s possible that both the FBI and the prosecution overplayed their hands here. The Bureau’s agents and informants should have been passive participants and “followers” at most while gathering information for the government. They shouldn’t have been molding the plot and steering the discussion. And the prosecution could have come up with some less serious charges for the jurors to consider. For now, though, we’ll just have to wait and see whether they try again with Fox and Croft.