GRAND RAPIDS, Mich (AP) - A lawyer for one of the men charged with planning to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday he was a hapless, pot-smoking "misfit" who was influenced by an FBI informant whom he met at a protest, not a mastermind of the 2020 plot as prosecutors allege.
Defense attorney Christopher Gibbons told jurors Adam Fox was practically homeless while living in the basement of a vacuum shop and brushing his teeth next door in a restaurant restroom.
"Adam Fox did not commit a crime in this case," Gibbons said during opening statements in a federal courtroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Four men face trial: Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris. Prosecutors say the men came up with the plan to snatch the Democratic governor because they were angry about pandemic restrictions she imposed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth said during his opening statement that the men recruited a militia and planned to break into the Whitmer’s home, tie her up and take her away.
The men also planned to blow up a bridge to stop police from quickly responding, he said. He told jurors they would see social media posts and hear secretly recorded conversations full of angry, vulgar and sexist language about violence and plans to take down a "tyrant."
Roth described Fox and Croft as masterminds of the plot. He said the four wanted to create a "war zone here in Michigan," and urged jurors to set aside the defendants’ political views and their desire for a "civil war," and Whitmer’s job or their thoughts about her.
"What you have is that defendants agreed, planned, trained and were ready to break into a woman’s home as she slept with her family in the middle of the night and with violence and at gunpoint they would tie her up and take her from that home," Roth said. "And to accomplish that they would shoot, blow up and kill anybody who got in their way."
As Roth began his opening, he turned away from jurors and pointed an accusatory finger at each defendant, saying they didn’t just talk but took active steps to implement their plot. The courtroom lights dimmed as he spoke and prosecutors projected photos of the defendants at different stages of the alleged plot on a giant screen on a wall above defense tables.
Roth pointed again at Croft, wearing a gray suit and tie at a far table, telling jurors that he may cut the figure of a "harmless ... middle school teacher" now. As he said that, a picture of Croft clutching a rifle in camouflage clothing appeared on the screen.
"He looked quite a bit different then," the prosecutor said.
Defense attorneys have signaled an entrapment defense, criticizing the government’s use of undercover FBI agents and confidential informants.
Eleven women and seven men were selected Tuesday to serve as jurors, with 12 who will decide the case and six alternates, though the court did not make clear which jurors are alternates.
Conference tables along one wall of the wood-paneled courtroom, crowded with different teams of defense lawyers and aides, indicate the complexity of the case. The strategies of the different defense teams are not perfectly coordinated, and defense lawyers could make different objections or motions, or ask questions during cross-examination seeking to score points with jurors.
In 2020, Whitmer was trading taunts with then-President Donald Trump over his administration’s response to COVID-19. Her critics, meanwhile, were regularly protesting at the Michigan Capitol, clogging streets around the statehouse and legally carrying semi-automatic rifles into the building.
The FBI said it thwarted the kidnapping plot with the arrests of six men in October 2020. Two of them, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, have pleaded guilty and will appear as crucial witnesses for the government, giving jurors an inside view of what was planned.
Garbin said Fox, the alleged ringleader, wanted the men to chip in for a $4,000 explosive large enough to destroy a bridge near Whitmer’s home and distract police during a kidnapping.
Garbin and Franks insist no one in the group acted because of excessive influence by agents or undercover informants.
Whitmer, who is seeking reelection this year, rarely talks publicly about the case and isn’t expected to attend the trial. She has blamed Trump for stoking mistrust and fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn hate groups and right-wing extremists like those charged in the plot. She has said he was also complicit in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Separately, authorities in state court are prosecuting eight men who are accused of aiding the group.