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COVID-19 dominates discussion as jury selected in kidnapping plot trial

A weapon seized from Barry Croft, one of the men on trial for the kidnapping plot.
U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan

There was no outbreak confirmed. No droplets of COVID-19 swirling in the air, so far as anyone knows. But the pandemic was at the center of everything that happened inside the federal courtroom in Grand Rapids Tuesday.

It was the “triggering event” that led to the charges against four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor. They were angered, prosecutors argue, by a series of orders made by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to stop the spread of the virus.

And the pandemic was on the minds and in the words of the potential jurors summoned to court on the first day of trial for the four men.

“COVID started everything, let’s just face it,” one potential juror told federal judge Robert Jonker while the juror was being questioned over his political views.

The man, who ultimately was excused from jury service, said he thought the government might label him a domestic terrorist for joining groups that opposed masking in schools.

Another potential juror, also excused from service, said he’d lost his brother to the disease. It was something he wouldn’t be able to let go if called to jury service, he told Jonker.

“It was really tough because he was only 46 years old,” the man said.

Another juror who was excused said he’d contracted COVID and spent five weeks in the hospital fighting the disease. Another was a nurse who’d been mandated to work extra hours at a short-staffed hospital throughout the pandemic. Another sobbed as she explained her husband had been laid off at the start of the pandemic, and hadn't been able to find work since. If she was called to jury duty and couldn't work, she told Jonker, her family would "lose everything."

Jonker, the chief judge for the U.S. Court for the Western District of Michigan, acknowledged that the pandemic was “the soil” out of which the alleged plot grew, and he didn’t expect jurors to have no feelings about the disease, or the political response to it.

“We’re not here to debate the rightness or wrongness of any policy response,” Jonker told the potential jurors, adding that people’s feelings about COVID-19 safety could also influence whether they even felt comfortable indoors for hours at a time in a courtroom with many people who are no longer wearing masks.

“These things are still fluid. They’re still going on in our lives,” Jonker told jurors.

By the end of the first day of the trial, more than 50 jurors had been excused from the jury pool, some for their experiences with COVID-19, some for admitting to Jonker they had political biases they wouldn’t be able to set aside, and many others because they said they already paid for Spring Break vacations, and were worried about committing to a trial that could last up to six weeks.

Prosecutors say the evidence they have against the four men — Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris — is voluminous. It includes more than a thousand hours of recorded audio conversations between the men, as well as screen shots and videos from encrypted chats in which they allegedly discussed their plans. Prosecutors have said in filings they expect to call up to 48 witnesses.

Defense attorneys say they plan to argue that the four men were entrapped. The whole scheme, they say, was cooked up by undercover FBI agents and informants eager to make arrests on a high-profile case.

After more than 8 hours of questioning potential jurors, Jonker and the attorneys in the case finally settled on a group of 18 jurors whom they could all agree on.

The eighteen jurors, including 6 to be assigned as alternates, were sworn in just before 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, clearing the way for opening arguments to begin Wednesday morning.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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