Whitmer kidnap case jurors to be quizzed on bombs, masks, guns and insurrection
Prospective jurors in the federal case against five men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer likely will face questions about whether they like the governor, if they belong to a militia, ever detonated a bomb and if they have strong feelings about the Jan. 6 insurrection.
A 32-page proposed questionnaire filed Friday in federal court illustrates the challenge of seating a jury in a heavily politicized case in the age of COVID-19 involving a prominent politician and allegations of violent anti-government extremism amid fallout from lockdown orders aimed at stemming the pandemic.
“It was obvious as soon as this case dropped that it would touch on a lot of those really big flashpoints we saw in 2020,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “It makes a lot of sense that the government and defense would be interested in feeling the pulse of a lot of folks before they seat them."
The questionnaire contains several sections, including ones on firearms and explosives, COVID-19, media exposure, political concerns and hobbies.
"Do you have experience or training with explosive devices?" reads one question. "If so, please explain."
The questionnaire also reveals a disagreement between defense lawyers and federal prosecutors. Defense lawyers want to use the word “lockdown” while prosecutors favor the phrase a “restriction on activities.”
The five men are scheduled to stand trial Oct. 12 in federal court in Grand Rapids on various charges, including kidnapping and weapons of mass destruction conspiracies. The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. Eight others have been charged in state court with crimes related to the kidnapping plot and threats to overthrow the government.
The federal case alleges six men plotted to kidnap Whitmer and to use explosives to destroy a bridge near her cottage in Northern Michigan. One plotter, 25-year-old Hartland Township resident Ty Garbin, pleaded guilty and is expected to be the government's star witness.
Defense lawyers argue there was no plot and that a dozen informants and undercover FBI agents entrapped the men.
Accused plotter Kaleb Franks, 27, of Waterford Township tried in July to get the trial moved out of Michigan, citing pretrial publicity of a case that is one of the most closely watched cases nationwide involving violent extremism.
The request focused on challenges defense lawyers expect in picking a jury.
"Given the very personal way the media and the governor have couched the supposed 'threats' to women, individuals, and democracy here, one can easily presume prejudice," wrote Franks' lawyer, Scott Graham.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker refused to move the trial, saying media coverage has been balanced, appropriate and that there has not been a "rush to judgment or steamrolling over constitutional rights."
Defense lawyers and prosecutors want to know how prospective jurors consume news and asks them to identify preferred media outlets. The questionnaire asks prospective jurors about their exposure to news about the kidnapping case and knowledge of various extremist groups, including the Wolverine Watchmen militia group, the Boogaloo Bois and Three Percenters.
"Have you, any member of your family or household, or any close friend ever belonged to a militia?" one question asks.
The COVID-19 section probes whether prospective jurors' jobs were impacted by the pandemic, whether they have coronavirus concerns that would prevent them from serving as a juror and asks about the politicization of masks.
"Would a witness’s or attorney’s use of a mask affect your feelings about credibility?" one question asks. "Do you have any strong feelings about masks?"
Prosecutors and defense lawyers also want to assess prospective jurors' awareness of the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., and if they had strong feelings about the events.
“The general tone of the questions is something we see across a whole range of violent extremism cases. You see this in questionnaires for ISIS cases,” Lewis said. “It will be interesting as we start to get into, potentially, jury trials for a lot of the Capitol Hill defendants. I expect to see a lot of the same kinds of questions.”
The questionnaire asks prospective jurors to gauge their level of support for Whitmer, including whether they are satisfied with how she has handled the pandemic, and if they have strong feelings about her job performance.
"With regard to the state of Michigan’s government and Governor Whitmer’s leadership, do you have any strong feelings that could prevent you from serving as an impartial juror in this case related to an alleged conspiracy to kidnap the governor?" one question asks.