The acquittals and mistrials of four men charged with attempting to kidnap Michigan’s governor are raising questions about counterterrorism cases against white defendants, post-9/11.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Violent white and antigovernment extremists are increasingly drawing the scrutiny of federal authorities. But the recent mistrials and acquittals in a high-profile case may have far-reaching implications. The case involved four men charged with plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan back in 2020. And to talk more about it, we’re joined now by NPR’s Odette Yousef, who covers domestic extremism. Hey, Odette.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: OK. So I remember back in October of 2020 when these arrests happened. Can you just remind us, like, what led up to this case?
YOUSEF: Sure. The investigation started when a man found a group called The Wolverine Watchmen on Facebook, apparently talking about killing law enforcement officers, and he notified local police. Well, he became an FBI informant. And ultimately, 14 men were charged at the state or federal levels for allegedly conspiring to kidnap Governor Whitmer, supposedly because they were upset about the anti-COVID lockdowns in the state. Four of those, Ailsa, stood trial in federal court these last two months, and the jury could not come to a decision about two of them. But what’s really remarkable is that they acquitted the other two, and that’s notable for those who studied this so-called entrapment defense.
CHANG: Right. Entrapment is a defense that rarely works, but it worked in this case. Can you just explain what these defendants were arguing when they say they were entrapped?
YOUSEF: They argued that the government essentially drove the plot that they were accused of through its use of undercover agents and paid informants. You know, the FBI often uses sting operations in counterterrorism cases. But, you know, as you said, defendants don’t always invoke the entrapment defense because it’s a pretty narrow legal standard. I spoke with Jesse Norris about this. He’s a professor at SUNY Fredonia. He says the entrapment defense has been used hundreds of times since 9/11. But by his count, this is the first time it succeeded in winning acquittals.
JESSE NORRIS: Critics have been arguing that the FBI is engaging in entrapment in terrorism cases for many years. And one of the FBI’s stock responses to that argument is that, well, they’ve raised the entrapment defense before, and it’s always failed. But I think now that argument’s gone.
YOUSEF: And the government’s level of involvement in this case, Ailsa, was something that the defense really focused on. You know, some informants were paid tens of thousands of dollars. And there were allegedly more than a dozen informants and several undercover FBI agents, which would altogether have been more than the number of people that were ultimately charged in the alleged plot.
CHANG: OK. So why did the entrapment defense actually work here? Like, what was different about this case?
YOUSEF: Yeah, I put that question to Ramzi Kassem. He’s a law professor at the City University of New York, where he directs something called the CLEAR project. He says the only real difference he saw was in the identity of the defendants and how the case was presented to the public.
RAMZI KASSEM: This was a case involving white male defendants. It was presented as a so-called domestic terrorism case, whereas in the run of post-9/11 cases, those cases have involved Black and/or brown but, in any event, Muslim-identified defendants. And the majority of those cases were presented as international terrorism. Because they were otherized in a number of ways, I think the fact-finders in those cases were far less likely to be receptive of the entrapment defense.
CHANG: That is so interesting and kind of disturbing. I mean, this loss for the government on this case, what do you think it means moving forward?
YOUSEF: Well, Ailsa, we’re in a climate now where more Americans hold antigovernment views or at least a mistrust of the government. And so as we consider that more counterterrorism cases will have white defendants who espouse those views, we have to acknowledge that more jurors may identify with them to some extent. So prosecutors really will need to convince jurors that the targets were being investigated for criminal activity rather than their political beliefs. There’s also this risk that government losses in a case like this can inspire future violent extremism.
CHANG: That is NPR’s Odette Yousef. Thank you, Odette.
YOUSEF: Thank you.
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