What began as a major domestic terrorism trial involving nine members of the Michigan-based Hutaree militia has ended with just two men pleading guilty to weapons charges.
The nine Hutaree militia members were arrested almost exactly two years ago.
The federal government initially accused them of plotting to “levy war against the United States,” among other charges.
They allegedly plotted to kill a police officer, then attack the subsequent funeral, sparking a larger uprising against the government.
But the government’s case rested largely on evidence from an FBI informant who had infiltrated the group.
Hutaree defense lawyers argued their clients just liked to talk a big game about armed insurrection—but that’s constitutionally-protected speech. And they maintained that all talk of specific plots was spurred on by the FBI informant.
The government’s case eventually unraveled to the point that on Tuesday, Detroit federal judge Victoria Roberts acquitted five of seven remaining defendants of all charges.
The two remaining members, alleged ringleader David Stone and his son Joshua, have pleaded guilty only to possessing machine guns. They've been released pending sentencing in August.
Stone told reporters after his plea deal that the Hutaree members' ordeal justifies the mindset of anti-government militia groups, and will only lead to more mistrust.
This outcome throws into question whether FBI tactics used to infiltrate suspected fringe groups can yield convictions in court.
According to Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning, it also raises fundamental questions about the balance between national security and free speech.
"So many of these groups are built around anti-government rhetoric, which is protected speech under the First Amendment. So Judge Roberts' opinion signals that extra care will be taken to determine that there is evidence apart from speech -- however offensive it might be -- to show that there is a true conspiracy," Henning said.
The collapse of the Hutaree case also deals a blow to the FBI and US Attorney's offices in Detroit.
"The court’s order dismissing the more serious charges in this case was disappointing, but it does not
shake our commitment to dismantling groups who would harm our citizens and law enforcement officers, and these efforts will continue," said Detroit US Attorney Barbara McQuade in a statement.
"While we disagree with the court's decision, we respect its role and we recognize that reasonable minds can disagree on where legal lines are drawn."