Whitmer kidnap trial pushed to early 2022 amid evidence concerns
A federal judge on Friday delayed next month's trial of five men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer until early 2022 after defense lawyers argued they need more time to prepare and investigate the conduct of FBI agents.
Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker said he was eyeing a new trial date in late February or early March after defense lawyers requested a delay due to a large amount of evidence and questions about whether FBI agents and as many as 12 informants drove the conspiracy and entrapped the defendants. Defense lawyers also have raised questions about whether another FBI agent had an undisclosed financial incentive.
Jonker said he was reluctant to delay the trial date but agreed after hearing from defense lawyers and requiring each defendant to confirm he would agree to a trial delay considering they are detained without bond.
“It’s coming out of their hide…,” Jonker said. “They are sitting in jumpsuits...until we start this thing.”
Prosecutors have not objected to the delay.
The judge was reluctant to reschedule the trial until January due to winter weather conditions that can make travel treacherous in west Michigan, particularly with lake effect snow off Lake Michigan. A firm date for what could be a trial lasting three weeks or longer is expected in coming days.
The hearing in federal court in Grand Rapids came four weeks before the Oct. 12 trial date in one of the most closely watched cases involving alleged violent extremism in the country. Prosecutors say the accused plotters were driven by anger over state restrictions on travel and business during the COVID-19 pandemic, though defense lawyers have said there was no plot.
The five men face a range of charges, including kidnapping and weapons of mass destruction conspiracies, and face up to life in prison if convicted. Another eight people have been charged in state court with crimes related to the kidnapping plot and threats to overthrow the government.
According to the request, defense lawyers need more time to investigate recent developments involving the conduct of FBI agents assigned to the case and to probe the government's use of at least 12 confidential informants and undercover investigators. The lawyers say trial preparation has been complicated by voluminous evidence, including 2 terabytes of information provided by the government in late August.
The defense teams also need time to hire an expert on military tactics quit Aug. 30, citing pretrial publicity.
“We came to the realization that in the interest of our clients, we cannot be ready for trial with the amount of discovery we have, with the preparations we have and with investigators out running down witnesses,” said lawyer Michael Hills, who represents accused plotter Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton Township.
Defense lawyers needed more time to compile transcripts of approximately 1,000 hours of secretly recorded audio amassed during the investigation. And prosecutors only recently provided the contents of accused plotter Daniel Harris's cell phone, which needs to be analyzed by his lawyer Julia Anne Kelly.
“It’s not anybody’s fault,” the judge said, noting it is not unusual for investigators to spend months trying to unlock encrypted phones seized during a probe.
Kelly questioned Harris about whether he agreed to rescheduling the trial.
“Yes, ma'am,” Harris said.