Judge in Whitmer kidnap case to shield juror IDs from public to protect their privacy

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Identities of jurors in next month’s trial of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will not be publicly revealed, a federal judge said Friday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker revealed the approach to protect the privacy of jurors during a closely watched case involving political extremism, militia members and threats of violence.

“But because of the publicity I want to have jurors identified in court only by number to give them some greater confidence that they are not going to have their privacy unduly invaded in the process,” Jonker said.

Jonker is following a plan used in various high-profile federal trials in Michigan in recent years. Jurors were not identified publicly in the racketeering conspiracy case against former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the terrorism case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The so-called "Underwear Bomber" was convicted of trying to detonate a homemade bomb aboard a Detroit-bound airplane on Christmas Day 2009.

The judge's plan emerged during a final hearing before the March 8 trial in federal court in Grand Rapids that also revealed Whitmer is not expected to attend or participate in the trial. The case has shed light on political extremism in Michigan fueled by anger over the governor's COVID-19 restrictions and raised questions about FBI agent misconduct and the use of informants.

Members of an alleged conspiracy to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer including Daniel Harris, far left, Kaleb Franks, fourth from left, appear with their attorneys before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens in federal court in Grand Rapids for a detention hearing on Tuesday, October 13, 2020. (courtroom sketch)

Four people are scheduled to stand trial and face up to life in prison if convicted of the kidnapping charge. They are accused ringleaders Adam Fox, 38, of Potterville and Delaware resident Barry Croft, 46; Lake Orion resident Daniel Harris, 24, and Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton Township.

Two convicted plotters, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, will testify for the government

Fox, Croft and Harris are accused of conspiring to use explosives as part of a plot motivated by anger over COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the governor. Defense lawyers have argued there was no plot and that FBI agents and informants entrapped the men.

The trial is projected to last four or five weeks.

FBI agents and informants spent months directing and commanding the defendants, Fox’s lawyer, Christopher Gibbons, wrote in a court filing Thursday.

“Like music producers seeking out young, talented, musicians that can be combined into a money-making act, each of these defendants was selected and groomed by the government’s agents and informants for their role as (a) member of this ‘conspiracy,’” Gibbons wrote.

Prosecutors are concerned about outside influence and have singled out supporters of Croft. He appeared as a guest on a recent podcast during which one of the hosts talked about influencing jurors.

“My thinking was to have the militia at the courthouse, and do a big recruitment, and do it right there at the courthouse," the host said, according to a government court filing Thursday. "For the juries. Jury nullification! Jury nullification! Jury nullification!”

Jonker plans to call as many as 100 prospective jurors during the first day of selection next month, an unusually large number. Jonker signaled he would likely excuse a prospective juror who has spring break plans since the trial is expected to overlap with previously scheduled school closings in the Grand Rapids area.

"And I plan to be fairly easy when it comes to excuses, whether they can’t be here for five weeks or spring break or if there is a problem with COVID or a problem with the politics of the case or publicity or whatever," Jonker said.

During the hearing, Jonker asked if prosecutors expected Whitmer to attend the trial.

“I don’t think she plans to come,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said.


Twitter: @robertsnellnews