By Tresa Baldas and David Ashenfelter, Detroit Free Press –
DETROIT — When the FBI prepared to arrest nine Hutaree militia members two years ago in a homegrown terrorism case, the lead agent made one point clear.
“We haven’t worked a year and a half on this investigation and risked (an undercover agent’s) life to walk away from this with 3 arrests,” the agent wrote in an email that surfaced during trial.
In the end, that’s exactly what the FBI got.
In a sharp rebuke, a federal judge on Tuesday acquitted the remaining Hutaree members of plotting a violent revolt against the U.S. government with weapons of mass destruction — crimes that could have landed them in prison for life. Just two are left standing in the case on a handful of weapons violations. One previously pleaded guilty, and one was found incompetent to stand trial. U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts concluded that federal prosecutors, who rested their case last week, failed in five weeks of trial to prove the Hutaree members had a specific plan to kill a police officer and attack law enforcement personnel.
“The government’s case is built largely of circumstantial evidence. While this evidence could certainly lead a rational fact finder to conclude that ‘something fishy’ was going on, it does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendants reached a concrete agreement to forcibly oppose the U.S. government,” Roberts wrote in her 28-page ruling.
The ruling was hailed by defense lawyers as a major victory for free speech. They had long argued the defendants never had any real plans to harm anyone and were merely engaged in tough talk, a protected First Amendment right.
“Judge Roberts understood that you just don’t charge individuals with doing certain things, then lump a lot of bad, scary evidence against them and expect a jury to convict,” said defense attorney Mark Satawa, whose client Michael Meeks was jailed for two years until Tuesday. “Her opinion shows exactly what we as lawyers have been saying all along: They did nothing wrong.”
The FBI arrested nine Hutaree members after a paid confidential informant and undercover agent infiltrated the group for months and secretly recorded conversations and videotaped various trainings.
Satawa also lambasted the government for charging the defendants in the first place and jailing his client.
“My client got locked up for two years but never gets that time back … The U.S. Attorney’s office, the FBI and the U.S. government should be ashamed of themselves,” Satawa said.
The U.S. Attorney’s office declined comment, pending the outcome of the trial against the remaining two defendants.
In court documents filed last week, prosecutors defended the charges and said they had proof a violent plan was in the works, and the government stopped it before it took effect.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sheldon Light and Christopher Graveline wrote: “The evidence supports the conclusion that there was a plan, an agreement, among these defendants and others to join in opposing by force the government of the United States when the time came.”
Meeks left the courthouse a free man Tuesday, along with his co-defendant Thomas Piatek.
“I’m happy not to be in jail for the rest of my life,” said Meeks, adding that he is looking forward to two things: “I want to get something decent to eat and meet my nephew.”
Meeks, a Marine, also defended the Hutaree, saying the militia group wasn’t anti-government, but disagreed with some of the things that the government did. Meeks said he believes his ordeal should serve as a warning to the public.
“Watch what you say. Even the most innocent of statements can be used against you,” Meeks said.
Attorney William Swor, who is representing accused ringleader David Stone Sr., applauded Roberts for concluding there was no crime.
“The fact is, you pull back the curtain, and there’s nothing there,” Swor said. “She paid attention to the evidence. She wasn’t swayed by emotion … And she said that even taking the evidence in a light most favorable to the government, there was no evidence of a crime.”
Swor, who visited Stone Sr. at the Wayne County Jail Tuesday, said his client was grateful the most serious charges against him were dropped.
“He was quiet.He thanked God. He thanked the defense attorneys. And he shed a tear,” Swor said.
Stone Sr., 47, of Clayton, and his son Joshua Stone, 24, of Clayton, remain jailed on charges of possession of a machine gun and unregistered firearm. They face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The trial resumes Thursday.
For weeks, Roberts has listened to scores of recorded conversations in which Stone Sr. talked of going to war with the government, killing police officers and having no qualms about killing their wives and children. On the recordings, he is heard calling one of his guns a “cop killer” and talking about how explosives could take out a convoy.
“While vile, all of this speech is protected by the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote.
The decision leaves federal prosecutors with what legal experts describe as a run-of-the-mill illegal firearms case.
Roberts’ decision resulted in total acquittals for five other defendants: Tina Stone, 46, the wife of Stone Sr.; David Stone Jr., 22, of Adrian; Meeks, 42, of Manchester; Piatek, 48, of Whiting; and Christopher Sickles, 29, of Sandusky, Ohio. Roberts threw out charges of seditious conspiracy and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Legal experts said prosecutors can’t appeal Roberts’ decision, which is the same as a jury acquittal.
“She stepped in and took the role of a jury,” said Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s as if the jury acquitted them, and there can be no appeal of a jury acquittal.”
Henning said prosecutors could have appealed if Roberts acquitted them before or after trial.
Still, Henning said, “The move to break up this group was not improper.”
Henning said the Michigan Attorney General’s office could still charge Stone Sr. and Joshua Stone with conspiring to kill a police officer. The Attorney General’s office declined to comment.
Initially, nine defendants were arrested in separate raids in March 2010. One of the defendants, Joshua Clough, pleaded guilty to a weapons charge and faces up to five years in prison when he’s sentenced in April. His lawyer declined comment.
The other, Jacob Ward, was declared incompetent to stand trial.