A federal jury convened in Grand Rapids, Mich. voted Monday to acquit two of the four men who conspired to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020. After weeks of testimony, the jury found Michigan residents Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris were not guilty of all charges against them. No verdicts were reached for the charges against Delaware resident Barry Croft and Michigan resident Adam Fox, and the judge declared a mistrial on those counts — meaning Croft and Fox could be retried in the future.
A federal criminal complaint was filed with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in October 2020 accusing the four men — along with Michigan residents Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who plead guilty before the trial — of conspiring to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home in Northern Michigan. All except Caserta were also charged with conspiring to use mass weapons of destruction, with Harris found in possession of an unregistered destructive device and a semi-automatic assault rifle. The six men were arrested by the FBI and Michigan State Police at the same time the complaint was filed.
Though Whitmer did not testify in the trial nor appear in court, the governor’s office released a statement obtained by The Michigan Daily following the ruling, calling for accountability in instances of violence and and threats to democracy.
“Today, Michiganders and Americans — especially our children — are living through the normalization of political violence,” the statement reads. “The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmer faced heavy criticism from conservative lawmakers and right-wing groups after issuing emergency executive orders. Upon declaring a state of emergency on March 10, 2020, Whitmer enacted a stay-at-home order that shut down K-12 public schools and businesses until the end of April 2020 — the order was later extended to June 12, 2020.
Multiple demonstrations were also held at the State Capitol in Lansing during April 2020 in protest of Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. Primarily organized by Republican Michiganders, the protestors called for Whitmer to be recalled and demanded that the state open back up. Former U.S. President Donald Trump also spoke out against Whitmer’s COVID-19 response on Twitter and indicated support for the protestors, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in April 2020.
The subsequent conspiracy against Whitmer attracted national attention, with political scholars comparing the plot to other attacks spurred by far-right militia activity, including the January 2021 insurrection at the site of the U.S. Capitol building. Over 500 people, who were mainly Trump supporters and members of right-wing extremist groups, were federally charged for the insurrection, which scholars say highlights the continued prevalence of anti-government ideologies.
In a statement from Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II obtained by The Daily, Gilchrist wrote that he was disappointed by the outcome in the trial. He emphasized the importance of using peaceful protest to advocate for one’s political beliefs rather than resorting to extremist violence.
“Our differences must be settled at the ballot box, not through violence,” Gilchrist wrote. “We need to be honest and clear about what causes violence by extremists and do all we can to address the root cause of it. Elected officials, parents, teachers, faith leaders, all of us have a duty to stand up to these hateful actions and teach our kids that there is a better way.”
Daily News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Managing News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at email@example.com.