A day after seven members of a Michigan-based Christian militia were acquitted after some spent two years in jail on charges of trying to overthrow the government, people who watched their trial said the federal case against them was flawed.
Jack Kay, a professor of communication at Eastern Michigan University who has studied militia groups for decades, said it was unusual for the judge to acquit militia leaders before the case ever went to a jury, but he was not surprised because “the evidence just didn’t come together.”
“Trying to prove sedition is a very tough thing to do,” said Mr. Kay, who was in the Detroit courtroom for much of the federal trial proceedings against members of the Hutaree Militia, a Lenawee, Mich., group whose name means “Christian warriors.”
“I think this case will make the government think very carefully about using that charge in the future because it’s so complex, and it’s hard to get a jury to fully understand that you have to make all the links - to get from just talk about it, to planning, to action,” he said.
“There was a lot of anti-government talk and a lot of pretty ugly talk, but they just did not seem to completely put together the type of overthrow of the government that was being called for” by federal prosecutors, Mr. Kay added. “In a sense, [the defendants] came across as more bumbling and unprepared than dangerous for a true conspiracy charge to overthrow the government by force.”
The Hutaree Militia was raided in 2010 by federal agents who had infiltrated the group, accusing the defendants of conspiracy in trying to kill police officers as part of their beef against the federal government. Nine members initially were arrested in raids in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
In a 28-page decision, the federal judge in the case, Victoria A. Roberts, noted that the assertion that the militia members had a specific plan for public destruction and chaos was an overreach. She called the government’s case “built largely of circumstantial evidence.”
“What the government has shown, instead of a concrete argument and plan to forcibly oppose the authority of the government, is that most - if not all - of these defendants held strong anti-government sentiments. But the court must not guess about what defendants intended to do with their animosity,” Judge Roberts wrote.
Defense attorney at trial claimed the militia members’ anti-government speech was protected by the First Amendment, describing the group’s gun and survivalist training exercises in the woods as not dangerous but more like activities of a social club.
“They had no case to begin with,” Tina Stone, the wife of the militia’s leader David Brian Stone Sr., told the Associated Press in a video interview. All charges against her and four other Hutaree members were dismissed.
But Mrs. Stone said there was a price to pay for the raid. She said her family had lost everything including their home, after her husband and son were taken into custody and jailed for two years as they awaited a trail.
The most serious of charges - conspiring to commit sedition and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction - were against group founder Mr. Stone and his son Joshua Stone. They were dropped by the judge due to lack of evidence. The two men, who were freed temporarily Thursday, still face sentencing after pleading guilty to less-serious weapons charges.
“We never wanted to take over the federal government,” Mrs. Stone told the AP. “We never wanted to kill a police officer. Everything was taken out of context.”
She told reporters: “We weren’t dangerous. We couldn’t overthrow F-Troop.”
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, speaking to reporters after Thursday’s hearing, said that the Hutaree acquittals won’t stop her prosecutors for taking on cases of home-grown terrorism, citing Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as precedent for action.
“We had information they were planning an attack in April 2010 so we made the decision to take them down,” Ms. McQuade said of the Hutaree Militia raid. “I think it was the right decision then and it was the right decision now. If you wait too long, you may risk lives.”
Mr. Kay, who has studied the growth of the militia movement in the United States, said it is tough to put a figure on their numbers today, but he says there are far fewer and they are far less dangerous than in the early 1990s.
“I would not be in fear of them at all. They seem to be everyday sorts of people who go into the woods and use guns to shoot things. Most enjoy guns, and hopefully see themselves mainly as being prepared to defend their families,” he said.