Second trial opens for men accused of plot to kidnap Michigan governor

Adam Fox, one of thirteen men arrested on October 7, 2020 on charges of conspiring to kidnap the Michigan governor, attack the state legislature and threaten law enforcement, is seen in a Kent County Sheriff's Office police mugshot. Kent County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

Aug 10 (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors in Michigan on Wednesday began laying out their case against two men accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, saying that conversations about their plan went beyond just idle talk.

Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. face kidnapping and weapons conspiracy charges for the second time after a federal judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan declared a mistrial last April.

The men - alleged members of the Three Percenters, a self-styled militia group - are accused of plotting to abduct Whitmer from her vacation home and stage a "trial" for her for treason. Two other defendants were found not guilty in the men's first trial.

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The mistrial was a setback for federal prosecutors in one of the highest-profile cases in years involving militias. The second trial will give them a another opportunity.

In his opening statement on Wednesday, a prosecutor said the men determined where the governor, performed reconnaissance on her summer cottage and gathered the equipment they needed, such as body armor and ammunition, to carry out their plan, according to a local TV station.

"This wasn’t just talk. You will see these defendants and others took specific steps, planning and training," Chris O'Connor, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, told the jury, local Fox affiliate WXMI reported.

Attorneys for Fox and Croft revived their arguments from the first trial saying that there was no conspiracy.

Christopher Gibbons, who represents Fox, described the accused as "big talkers" whose comments should not be taken seriously, according to NBC-affiliate WOOD-TV.

If convicted on the conspiracy charges, the men face the possibility of life in prison.

Croft is also charged with possession of an explosive device, which prosecutors say the alleged conspirators planned to use during the plot.

Fox, accused of being the ringleader of the alleged plot was inspired by fierce opposition to the state of Michigan's pandemic-related restrictions, prosecutors say. The defendants had hoped to force an end to Whitmer's pandemic mandates, while pushing the country - highly polarized ahead of the 2020 elections - into a second American civil war, they say.

The two men on trial are among 13 men who were arrested in October 2020 and charged with state or federal crimes in the alleged kidnapping conspiracy. Seven of them are facing charges in state court.

In April, a federal jury cleared Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris of kidnapping conspiracy and other charges, despite key testimony from two other alleged co-conspirators who struck plea deals with prosecutors after being charged.

But a second trial also creates a new slate of challenges for prosecutors to prove their case after revealing their strategy in the first trial, legal experts say.

Equipped with prior testimony, defense attorneys can employ transcripts to undermine witness credibility, according to former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade.

"A skilled lawyer can look at those transcripts and find even minor discrepancies about irrelevant matters," said McQuade, now a law professor at University of Michigan.

As the first trial showed, prosecutors face the difficult task of managing public opinion in face of criticism over the government's use of informants and the role of the FBI in the case, she added.

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Reporting by Tyler Clifford Editing by Alistair Bell

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