A federal judge in Detroit today dismissed charges against seven members of the Hutaree militia who have been on trial for allegedly plotting to kill police officers in hopes of igniting a revolution against the government.
“The government’s case is built largely of circumstantial evidence,” U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said in a 28-page order dismissing the charges before the case was sent to a jury.
“While this evidence could certainly lead a rational fact finder to conclude that ‘something fishy’ was going on, it does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendants reached a concrete agreement to forcibly oppose the United States Government,” the judge wrote.
Illegal firearms charges remain against two defendants, accused ringleader David Stone Sr., 44, and his son, Joshua Stone.
The defendants acquitted on all charges were: David Stone Jr., 22; Tina Stone, 46, both of Adrian, Mich.; Michael Meeks, 42, of Manchester, Mich.; Thomas Piatek, 48, of Whiting, Ind.; and Kristopher Sickles, 29, of Sandusky, Ohio.
“We’re just grateful to Judge Roberts for having the courage to do the right thing,” defense attorney Michael Rataj told the Detroit Free Press. “There was no case, no conspiracy.”
Rataj claimed the case was the result of “overzealous federal agents.”
When the trial began on Feb. 13, it was clear the case centered on whether the heavily armed Christian militia group was embarking on an armed confrontation with the federal government or merely living in a fantasy world of “recreation” and protected free speech.
The judge’s surprise ruling came after defense attorneys argued for dismissal at the end of the prosecution’s case. The panel now will deliberate only on the firearms charges against Stone and his son.
In her written opinion, the judge said the elements of a conspiracy may be proven entirely by circumstantial evidence, but that each element of the offense must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
“This is one of those times,” the judge said, adding that the court “is limited by what inferences reason will allow it to draw.”
“It stands to reason that most, if not all, of these Defendants had a strong dislike – perhaps hatred – of the Federal Government and law enforcement at every level,” the judge wrote. One could also reason that certain defendants wanted to harm or kill law enforcement agents. The evidence certainly suggests that (David) Stone Sr. strongly believed in the idea of a need to go to war with certain enemies.”
But, the judge concluded, the court “would need to engage in conjecture and surmise to find sufficient evidence that defendants shared a unity of purpose, the intent to achieve a common goal and an agreement to work together toward the goal,” as case law requires.
The judge said a guilty verdict on the conspiracy charge couldn’t be sustained because the specific goal alleged in the indictment – a “massive uprising against federal law enforcement after a funeral procession had been attacked” – was “referenced and only vaguely by one defendant, Stone Sr.
Referring to the trial testimony of the lead federal investigator, the judge noted the agent “admitted on the stand that over the course of his investigation of the Hutaree, the group never had a date, time, target or plan for any attack.”
“Vague antigovernment hate speech simply does not amount to an agreement as a matter of law,” the judge said. “The court would need to infer and speculate not only that the other defendants were aware of Stone’s desire to spark a war with the federal government, but that an agreement to do so in the manner alleged in the indictment was reached. Reason will not allow such an incredible inference on this record.”
Gina Balaya, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the prosecutor’s office would not comment until the trial concludes, the Detroit newspaper reported.
In court documents filed last week, prosecutors defended the charges, saying they had proof that a plan to commit violence was under way before it was stopped with arrests of the defendants in March 2010.