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3 more suspects face trial for a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Three years ago, authorities foiled a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Prosecutors charged 14 men they describe as anti-government extremists. Several were tried and convicted. Now a final trial is underway. Now, this morning in Michigan, attorneys will present opening statements against the last three defendants. Michael Livingston of Interlochen Public Radio is covering this story. Michael, what was the plot?

MICHAEL LIVINGSTON, BYLINE: Sure. This all kind of started at the height of the pandemic, when Governor Whitmer put restrictions in place - closing down schools, businesses, that sort of thing. And she got a lot of scorn because of it - not too different to what we saw from leaders in other states. And as this anti-government attitude was sort of growing in Michigan, Whitmer came under target by a group of what the government calls extremists. And we all got word that this growing plot to kidnap and maybe even kill her was squashed in October 2020 because the FBI was able to infiltrate the group with informants. And when the court records were unsealed, that's when we learned just how mobilized they actually were. They had purchased weapons, did stakeouts and held meetings. Javed Ali, a professor at University of Michigan who specializes in national security, says it was all shocking.

JAVED ALI: We haven't really seen anything like that from a pure domestic terrorism perspective in this country in a long, long time.

LIVINGSTON: And, of course, today, a jury will start heading - hearing the state's case against these men.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Nine people already been convicted. What can you tell us about these three and the case against them?

LIVINGSTON: Right. So we're looking at Eric Molitor and twin brothers Michael and William Null. They are the last group of defendants of that original 14 that were accused, and they're each charged with providing material support for terrorist acts and possessing a firearm while committing a felony. Prosecutors are trying to convince the jury that these men, you know, did cause harm. They're expected to bring in undercover FBI agents, police officers, other officials to try to make that point. And the defense is in an interesting position because while some of the other defendants in the past who've gone to trial have argued that the FBI pushed them to act, the judge in this case has already ruled the defense can't talk about entrapment. So we'll have to wait to hear what new arguments they could bring up.

MARTÍNEZ: Are any of the people who were tried earlier expected to testify?

LIVINGSTON: Not really. There were two other men that were supposed to go to trial in Antrim County, but they pled guilty in recent months. And even though it was part of their agreement to testify, they weren't actually on the AG's witness list. There was also talk earlier this summer that the ringleader of the plot, Adam Fox, could be brought in to testify. He's serving time in Colorado, a 16-year sentence. But he said he'd plead the Fifth if he was brought in. There are two of the supposed co-conspirators on the witness list, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who were both convicted in 2020. Prosecutors say they may call them in, depending on circumstances. But it's been clear from previous convictions that these undercover FBI agents have been the most valuable witnesses for prosecutors.

MARTÍNEZ: Has Governor Whitmer said anything about these cases, reacted at all?

LIVINGSTON: She's not commented on this particular case, but she has given a victim impact statement during sentencing in other - in another case related to the plot. And back in 2020, she put out a statement and called out then-President Donald Trump, saying he had given, quote, "comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division."

MARTÍNEZ: And briefly, out of curiosity, how closely are people in Michigan following this?

LIVINGSTON: You know, these court proceedings have been going on for three years now. And while this is an important verdict that we'll get at the end of this, people aren't exactly on the edge of their seats in Michigan. It'll be interesting to see, you know, how Michigan moves on from this.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Michael Livingston with Interlochen Public Radio in Michigan. Michael, thanks.

LIVINGSTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michael Livingston