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Militia members acquitted of plotting to overthrow government

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DETROIT — In a sharp rebuke, a federal judge Tuesday acquitted seven members of a Michigan militia of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government with weapons of mass destruction — crimes that could have landed them in prison for life.

The ruling is an embarrassment for the government, which secretly planted a paid informant and an FBI agent inside the Hutaree militia four years ago and contended that members were armed for war in rural southern Michigan. Nine members were arrested in 2010. One previously pleaded guilty, and one was found incompetent to stand trial.

U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said federal prosecutors, who rested their case last week, failed in five weeks of trial to prove that the Hutaree had a specific plan to kill a police officer and attack law enforcement personnel who showed up for the funeral.

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Although testimony showed that Hutaree leader David Stone Sr. “may have wanted to engage in a war with the federal government … it is totally devoid of any agreement to do so between Stone and the other defendants,” Roberts wrote in a 28-page decision.

“This plan is utterly short on specifics,” the judge said, adding that “it is a stretch to infer that other members of the Hutaree knew of this plan, and agreed to further it.”

Defense lawyers say highly offensive remarks about police and the government were wrongly turned into a high-profile criminal case that drew public praise from U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., who called the Hutaree a “dangerous organization.”

Roberts’ decision leaves federal prosecutors with what legal experts described as a “run of the mill” illegal firearms case against Stone, 47, and his son Joshua Stone, 24. They still face charges of possession of a machine gun and an unregistered firearm, which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The judge acquitted the five other defendants, including another son, David Stone Jr.

All defendants were acquitted of the most serious charges: seditious conspiracy, which carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The judge also acquitted them of five lesser counts.

Attorney William Swor, who is representing Stone Sr. and visited him in the Wayne County Jail, said his client was grateful.

“He was quiet. He thanked God. He thanked the defense attorneys,” Swor told the Detroit Free Press. “And he shed a tear.”

Legal experts said prosecutors can’t appeal Roberts’ decision, which is equivalent to a jury’s acquittal.

“She stepped in and took the role of a jury,” said Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s as if the jury acquitted them, and there can be no appeal of a jury acquittal.”

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment, pending the outcome of the trial against the remaining two defendants. The trial resumes Thursday.


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