Defense attorneys quickly rested their case Thursday after one of four men charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer repeatedly said “absolutely not” when asked if he had agreed to abduct her before the 2020 election.
Daniel Harris was the only defendant to speak to jurors on the 14th day of trial. It was a risky, dramatic shift following days of testimony from undercover FBI agents, a gutsy informant and two men who have pleaded guilty and pointed fingers at the rest.
Closing arguments were planned for Friday.
Harris, Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., and Brandon Caserta are accused of conspiring to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan because of their disgust with government and her tough COVID-19 restrictions.
Only Harris' lawyer offered a few witnesses Wednesday after prosecutors finished presenting their evidence that same day.
Harris, 24, a former Marine, said he wanted to maintain his infantry skills when he joined a militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, not snatch Whitmer or blow up a nearby bridge.
But after friendly questions from a defense lawyer, the atmosphere in court turned tense as a prosecutor confronted Harris with his chat messages about posing as a pizza deliveryman and killing Whitmer at the door. He also reminded Harris that he worked with explosives while training with the group.
Harris and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth sometimes talked over each other. At one point, Harris snapped, “Next question.”
“Everyone can take it down a notch,” U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker said later.
Soon after swearing to tell the truth, Harris repeatedly rejected claims that he was involved in crimes. He said “America was on fire” in 2020 over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, protests over police treatment of Black people and a pandemic that shut down parts of the economy.
A key part of the government’s case is a firearms training weekend at Luther, Michigan, in September 2020 with a “shoot house” that was intended to replicate Whitmer’s second home. Harris admitted that he brought materials but said he didn’t build it with her house in mind.
“Did you agree to kidnap the governor of Michigan?” defense attorney Julia Kelly asked many times.
“Absolutely not,” Harris replied.
He didn't participate in an evening ride to Elk Rapids, Michigan, to scout Whitmer’s second home and a bridge during that same training weekend. Harris said he had purchased $200 of cheap beer and cigarettes so he could return to the camp and “get wasted” with others.
“I had assumed they went to a strip club or a bar,” Harris said of Fox and Croft.
The men were arrested in October 2020 amid talk of raising $4,000 for an explosive that could blow up a bridge and hold back police from responding to a kidnapping, according to trial testimony.
Defense attorneys claim the men simply were engaged in a lot of wild talk fueled by agents and informants but no conspiracy.
The prosecutor covered much ground during Harris' cross-examination, often referring to recordings or text messages to challenge testimony. Roth noted that Harris had said the Founding Fathers would have approved of killing certain officials.
“Tyrants,” Harris told Roth.
“Was Gov. Whitmer a tyrant?” the prosecutor asked.
“Not really. She was just a governor to me,” Harris said, adding that she performed “poorly.”
Prosecutors played a conversation of Croft talking about militias overthrowing governments in various states and “breaking a few eggs.”
“When this man talks to you at a diner about killing people, you don't stand up and walk out, do you sir?" Roth asked. "You don't say, ‘This group is not for me,’ do you sir?”
“No,” Harris answered.
Two more men, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, pleaded guilty and cooperated with investigators. Garbin last week said the group acted willingly and hoped to strike before the election, cause national chaos and prevent Joe Biden from winning the presidency.
Michael Rataj, a Detroit-area defense lawyer not involved in the case, said sometimes bringing in a pack of witnesses for the defense doesn't always fit. He said attorneys for the four men will peck away at the government's evidence during closing arguments — “the textbook way to do it.”
As for Harris testifying, Rataj said it can be dicey.
“The FBI has recorded them, and for him to say anything different than what’s recorded makes it look like he’s lying,” Rataj said. “It’s foolishness.”
Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the kidnapping plot, though she referred to “surprises” during her term that seemed like “something out of fiction” when she filed for reelection on March 17.
She has blamed former President Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the case. Whitmer has said Trump was complicit in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Find AP’s full coverage of the Whitmer kidnap plot trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial
White reported from Detroit. AP reporter Michael Tarm contributed from Chicago.