Seven members of a Michigan militia were acquitted Tuesday of all major charges – including sedition and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction – after a federal judge said the prosecution failed to show the group posed a credible threat to the US government.
"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 … (the militia members) … reached a concrete agreement to forcibly oppose" the government, wrote US District Judge Victoria Roberts.
The case against the Hutaree is just of several cases around the nation involving allegations that radicalized sovereign citizens have armed, organized and committed themselves to violent resistence against state and federal governments.
One of the more high profile among these cases hails from Fairbanks, where a charismatic young militia leader named Schaeffer Cox and a handful of his associates are accused of plotting to kill state and federal judges and other government employees. Like the Hutaree, Cox and two codefendants also face serious weapons charges.
However, it would be premature to use the Michigan case as foretelling the fate of the federal case against Cox and his Alaska Peacemakers Militia. Unlike the Hutaree, Cox is not charged specifically with an attempt to overthrow the government, and is not accused with seeking or intending to use weapons of mass destruction.
Cox and his associates are scheduled to go to trial in May. Defense attorneys for the men have all along suggested that the case is nothing more than a government attempt to quash speech it finds offensive. The government insists its case is built on much more -- the sustained and methodical planning of violent anti-government resistance and harm to government employees. As with the Hutaree, a judge and jury will have the opportunity to decide on whose side the evidence falls.
Tuesday's acquittals arrive almost two years after nine members of the Hutaree militia were arrested in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. FBI intelligence suggested the group was planning to kill a local police officer, then to attack the subsequent funeral procession to spark a wider militia uprising against the government.
In their raids, the agency confiscated machine guns, assault rifles, and explosive devices. An informant recorded David Stone Sr., the group's leader, talking of plans to "go to war" against police officers and their families.
Judge Roberts said that the prosecution could not adequately determine the specifics of the group's plans, and that it was never proven that the plot was real and not just idle talk. "The evidence of the necessary next step – a retreat to rally points from where the larger uprising would occur – is wholly lacking," she wrote.
"The message to the FBI is, when you talk about potentially political speech, you better make sure it moved well outside of that realm and much closer to criminal conduct," Henning said.
The trial will continue against David Stone and Joshua Stone, his son, based on lesser weapons charges.
Henning says it would be misguided for groups with more sinister goals than the Hutaree to see this as a legal victory. Instead, he says, the acquittal results from the Michigan group's clear disorganization to follow up their words with a precise plan of action.
"Certainly the fringe groups or the militia groups are going to claim that this is some type of immunity, but that's reading too much into this," he says. "This was almost a gang that couldn't shoot straight."
Prosecutors can't appeal Roberts's decision because she ordered the acquittals despite the presence of a jury, which creates a double jeopardy situation that protects the defendants from the possibility of a second trial. However, the state of Michigan has the option to press separate charges.
Alaska Dispatch reporter Jill Burke contributed to this report.