(AP) — A jury acquitted three men Friday in the last trial connected to a plan to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a scheme that was portrayed as an example of homegrown terrorism on the eve of the 2020 presidential election.
William Null, twin brother Michael Null and Eric Molitor were found not guilty of providing support for a terrorist act and a weapon charge. They were the last of 14 men to face charges in state or federal court. Nine were convicted and now five have been cleared.
The Nulls and Molitor were accused of supporting leaders of the plan by participating in military-style drills and traveling to see Whitmer’s vacation home in northern Michigan. The key players, Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr., were convicted of a kidnapping conspiracy last year in federal court.
In the latest trial, the jury heard 14 days of testimony in Antrim County, the location of Whitmer’s lakeside property, 185 miles north of the state Capitol.
There were gasps in the courtroom as the jury foreperson announced the verdicts, first for each brother and then Molitor. Deliberations began Thursday morning and lasted a few more hours Friday. The men cried as they hugged their lawyers and supporters.
“You gentlemen are free to leave,” Judge Charles Hamlyn said.
Outside the courthouse, a juror approached Molitor and “said he was very sorry for all he had gone through,” defense attorney William Barnett told The Associated Press. “The man shook his hand and gave him a hug.”
Barnett said jurors privately told the judge the evidence simply did not add up to “material support” for a kidnapping plot, a key phrase in the charge.
“They went after three peoples’ lives and destroyed them for three years,” Barnett said of the attorney general’s office. “I’m just lost for words. This is an emotional moment.”
Authorities said an attack on Whitmer began to simmer at a regional summit of anti-government extremists in Dublin, Ohio, in summer 2020. Fox, Croft and William Null were in attendance while an FBI informant also inside the gathering secretly recorded profanity-laced tirades threatening violence against public officials.
The disgust was also fueled by government-imposed restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recordings, text messages and social media posts introduced as evidence at trial.
Jurors were repeatedly shown images of the Null brothers and Molitor bearing guns and “kitted up” in body armor at state Capitol protests and elsewhere in 2020, though there was nothing illegal about those actions.
Whitmer’s chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, said Friday’s verdicts were disappointing and would “further encourage and embolden radical extremists trying to sow discord and harm public officials or law enforcement.”
State Attorney General Dana Nessel, in a written statement, said the “verdicts are not what we hoped for.” Her spokesperson did not respond to a request for an interview with Nessel.
Molitor, 39, and William Null, 41, testified in their own defense, admitting they had attended gun drills and taken rides to see Whitmer’s property. Molitor was in a pickup truck with Fox and had recorded a brief video of the house.
But William Null said he and his brother broke away when talk turned to getting explosives. Molitor said Fox was “incredibly dumb” and wouldn’t pull off a kidnapping.
During closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutor William Rollstin urged jurors to not be swayed.
“If you help in whole or even in part you’ve satisfied that element” of the crime, he said. “Was he helping him to plan? Was he helping him prepare? The answer is absolutely.”
Michael Null, 41, did not testify and his lawyer took the unusual step of declining to question any witnesses during the trial. Tom Siver told jurors that Michael Null did nothing wrong.
“A stroke of genius,” Barnett said of Siver’s strategy of silence.
Informants and undercover FBI agents were inside the group for months before arrests were made in October 2020. Whitmer was not physically harmed.
Nine men were previously convicted in state or federal court, either through guilty pleas or at three other trials. Shawn Fix and Brian Higgins pleaded guilty in Antrim County and had agreed to cooperate but were never called as prosecution witnesses at the last trial.
Patrick Miles, a former U.S. attorney in western Michigan, said it was “mixed bag of results” for prosecutors with five acquittals in state or federal court.
“I still think that these were legitimate cases that needed to be brought,” Miles said. “It’s very dangerous for our democracy when there’s these kinds of threats with actual planning, training and scheming.”
After the plot was thwarted, Whitmer blamed then-President Donald Trump, saying he had given “comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.” Out of office, Trump called the kidnapping plan a “fake deal” in 2022.
Associated Press writer Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report.