Jury pool warned of rough talk in trial tied to Whitmer plot
JACKSON, Mich. (AP) — Questions about guns, secretly recorded “repugnant” talk and even the Jan. 6 Capitol riot dominated jury selection Monday in the third trial connected to a 2020 anti-government plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Dozens of potential jurors packed the courtroom, even sitting on heating vents in a nearly century-old courthouse in Jackson, Michigan. Many were dismissed by the end of the day because of personal conflicts or other reasons, while others were told to return Tuesday for the final leg of the process.
Joe Morrison, Pete Musico and Paul Bellar are charged with three crimes, including providing material support for a terrorist act. All were members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a paramilitary group that trained in the Jackson area, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) west of Detroit.
The trio is not charged with directly participating in the kidnapping scheme, which was broken up by the FBI in October 2020. That prosecution, which was handled in federal court, produced four convictions and two acquittals.
Morrison, Musico and Bellar are accused of assisting the others. The charges were filed in state court by the Michigan attorney general.
Lawyers and Judge Thomas Wilson asked questions to try to weed out biases in the jury pool.
“Let’s talk about Jan. 6 at the United States Capitol. ... A rather uncivilized event,” Assistant Attorney General Bill Rollstin said.
“Hurtful,” a woman replied.
Rollstin mentioned the riot because there will be evidence that Morrison, Musico and Bellar were heavily armed — legally — when they attended a protest inside the Michigan Capitol in 2020.
“You have any strong feelings about AR-15s?” asked Musico’s attorney, Kareem Johnson.
The all-day hearing allowed lawyers to repeatedly signal what’s to come. Johnson said the men are not charged with making threats but that some evidence will seem “repugnant,” a reference to provocative remarks about harming law enforcement.
“You’re going to hear comments you’re not going to like,” said Bellar’s attorney, Andrew Kirkpatrick.
Investigators secretly recorded hate-filled conversations about Whitmer and other public officials who were denounced as tyrants, especially during the pandemic when businesses were shut down, people were ordered to stay home and schools were closed.
Morrison’s lawyer urged the jury pool to keep context in mind.
“We’re talking about events that occurred two years ago in this highly tumultuous, highly emotional time,” Leonard Ballard said.
Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks pleaded guilty to conspiracy in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The alleged leaders, Barry Croft and Adam Fox, were convicted at trial in August.
Defense lawyers say Morrison, Musico and Bellar cut ties with Fox before the kidnapping plot accelerated in summer 2020. The men also claim they were entrapped by an undercover informant and his FBI handlers.
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