October 29, 2022

When a jury earlier this year acquitted two of the 14 men charged in the bizarre plot by a group of far-right militiamen to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, there was immediate concern that we might be seeing a repeat of the disastrous failed prosecutions of other right-wing extremists. However, the subsequent convictions in August of the two ringleaders in the retrial of the same federal case alleviated some of those fears.

The state prosecutions of some of their cohorts on lesser charges lagged behind that federal case, and did not begin until earlier this month. On Wednesday, the results came in for the first of those trials, and this time around the verdict was clear: All three men were convicted on all charges, and relatively swiftly.

Joe Morrison, 28; his father-in-law, Pete Musico, 44; and Paul Bellar, 24, were all found guilty of providing “material support” for a terrorist act as part of their activities with the “Wolverine Watchmen” paramilitary group. They were also convicted of a felony gun crime and membership in a gang, based on evidence that their militia was a criminal enterprise.

The jury spent only about five hours deliberating before returning with the verdict. Judge Thomas Wilson ordered all three to remain behind bars to await sentencing, which is scheduled for Dec. 15.

Each of the men faces as many as 42 years in prison: The providing material support and gang membership conviction carry sentences of up to 20 years apiece, and they can run consecutively; while the felony gun conviction carries an additional two years.

As in the federal prosecutions, jurors in Jackson, Michigan, heard evidence demonstrating that the men had considered Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions “tyrannical,” and had first participated in armed protests in Lansing in the spring and summer of 2020 during which they had first formed a plan to attack the Capitol and kidnap state officials. The men had ranted extensively about the “Boogaloo,” their hoped-for civil war, and hard participated in some of the paramilitary preparations for the kidnapping attempt.

"They promoted terrorism, they sought out terrorists and when they found them, they trained them," Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani said during closing arguments. She described how Bellar provided medical and firearms training, how Musico had provided facilities and personnel, and how Morrison provided facilities, personnel and advice to ringleader Adam Fox, convicted in the federal trial. Morrison, she said, taught Fox about a number of facets of running a militia—operational security, how to vet recruits, and how to lead firearms training sessions—despite knowing that Fox was planning violence.

"These three defendants had been pushing toward violence for months," Doddamani said. "Even if they weren’t going to do an act of terrorism themselves, they were more than happy and willing to help someone else."

“The facts drip out slowly,” state Assistant Attorney General Bill Rollstin had told the jurors in closing arguments, “and you begin to see — wow — there were things that happened that people knew about. ... When you see how close Adam Fox got to the governor, you can see how a very bad event was thwarted.”

Afterwards, defense attorneys told reporters they were surprised that the jury returned their verdict in relatively short time. Leonard Ballard, Morrison's attorney, called the trial "fair but disappointing."

"It’s hard to know what the jury is going to latch onto," Ballard said. "Walking out yesterday I thought a not guilty verdict was coming back."

"Instead of only reacting to known threats, it is imperative that law enforcement be proactive in order to save lives," Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement. "This office will not sit idly by and watch while armed terrorists plan acts of civil unrest with the intent of causing mayhem and murder. These are not merely acts of ‘harmless chatter’ and 'wishful thinking.' These are criminal conspiracies to conduct dangerous acts, and it is incumbent upon law enforcement to treat this activity as such. Make no mistake, the quick actions of law enforcement saved lives. We are pleased the jury clearly understood that."

"Those who seek to sow discord by pursuing violent plots will be held accountable under the law," Whitmer commented in a statement. "This trial is another stark reminder that we must take an honest look at the state of our politics. Politically motivated plots, threats, and violence are increasingly common against public officials as well as everyday citizens. They are the logical, disturbing extension of radicalization, hatred, and conspiratorial thinking that festers in America, threatening the foundation of our republic.”

She later noted on Twitter that the verdicts were cause for optimism: “No threat, no plot, no rhetoric will break my belief in the goodness and decency of our people. And these verdicts are further proof that violence and threats have no place in our politics.”

Crossposted with permission from Daily Kos.

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