Three found guilty of aiding plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer

Oct 26 (Reuters) - Three men accused of aiding a 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer were found guilty on Wednesday of taking part in a conspiracy that prosecutors ascribed to hostility over restrictions she imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A jury found Joseph Morrison, 28, his father-in-law Pete Musico, 44, and Paul Bellar, 23, guilty of gang membership, firearm violations and providing material support for terrorism.

They could each face up to 20 years in prison when sentenced on December 15.

The three were among more than a dozen men arrested in October 2020 and charged with state or federal crimes related to the conspiracy. The group planned to break into Whitmer's vacation home, kidnap her and take her at gunpoint to stand "trial" on treason charges, prosecutors said.

Seven of the accused, including Morrison, Musico and Bellar, have now been convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty to playing roles in the conspiracy.

After the verdicts, Whitmer, a Democrat who is up for re-election in November, said she was not disheartened by the evidence presented in the case, which highlighted the growth of U.S. political militancy in recent years.

"No threat, no plot, no rhetoric will break my belief in the goodness and decency of our people," she said in a tweet. "And these verdicts are further proof that violence and threats have no place in our politics."

The verdict, after two weeks of testimony in Jackson County Circuit Court, was a victory for state prosecutors who argued that the men on trial assisted two others who in August were found guilty in federal court of orchestrating the kidnapping conspiracy.

Defense attorneys argued their client did not know of a plan to kidnap the governor and that their actions were protected by the First and Second Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

After the verdict, the defense attorneys - all of them public defenders - said they were disappointed and had advised their clients to appeal.

Prosecutors did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the verdicts.

In the earlier trial, Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. were found guilty of plotting to abduct Whitmer from her vacation home. Their convictions followed a first trial earlier this year that ended in a hung jury, while two other defendants were acquitted during those proceedings.

The conspirators hoped that an abduction would lead to a violent uprising and instigate a civil war, prosecutors said.

Morrison and Musico were accused of hosting tactical training sessions on their property in a remote part of Michigan. Bellar was accused of providing plans for tactical maneuvers, coded language for covert communication and ammunition.

All three were members of a militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen, prosecutors said.

In September, a federal judge reduced the sentence of another accused conspirator, Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty to participating in the plot after his testimony helped convict Fox and Croft. read more

Kaleb Franks, who also pleaded guilty to playing a role in the scheme, was sentenced to four years in prison earlier this month after serving as a key witness in the case against Fox and Croft.

Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York and Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Alistair Bell, Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller

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