A jury acquitted three NATO summit protesters Friday of breaking Illinois' rarely tested state terrorism law, but did convict them on lesser arson counts.
Prosecutors described the men — Brian Church, Jared Chase and Brent Vincent Betterly — as dangerous anarchists who were plotting to throw Molotov cocktails at President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters and other Chicago sites during the 2012 summit. Undercover officers infiltrated the group and the men were arrested before the summit began.
Defense lawyers scoffed at the portrayal of their clients as terrorists. They described them as drunken goofs who were goaded into the Molotov cocktail plot by the officers.
The defendants seemed to be nervous Friday as the jury, which deliberated for more than seven hours, filed in. But the three showed little emotion as the mixed verdicts were read. Church, 22, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Chase, 29, of Keene, N.H.; and Betterly, 25, of Oakland Park, Fla., had pleaded not guilty to material support for terrorism, conspiracy to commit terrorism and other several non-terrorism charges, such as arson.
The question of when a planned protest becomes conspiracy to commit terrorism was the focus of much of the trial, which was seen as a major test whether states should more often take the lead in trying terrorist suspects. Nearly all terrorism cases are filed in federal court. Many states passed terrorism laws after 9/11 in what were seen as largely symbolic gestures.
Prosecutor Tom Biesty argued that two weeks of testimony from undercover police officers and secret recordings proved the out-of-state activists conspired to attack the campaign office in Obama's hometown, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home and police stations.
"Were they bumbling fools or were they cold, calculating terrorists?" he asked. "These men are terrorists."
Lead prosecutor Jack Blakey in his closing gave the three menacing nicknames according to their alleged crimes. He called Betterly "Professor Molotov," Chase "Captain Napalm," and Church "Mr. Cop on Fire."
In his closing Thursday, defense attorney Thomas Durkin ridiculed the notion the three were terrorists.
Reaching into an exhibit box, Durkin lifted a slingshot that was among the items the activists brought to Chicago. Holding it up to jurors, he said mockingly, "A weapon of mass destruction. Tools of terrorism, for sure."
The outcome of the trial would be closely watched, Durkin said, precisely because many share his belief that prosecutors were overzealous in slapping the label 'terrorism' on the alleged crimes.
"This case is a big deal, don't kid yourself about that," he told jurors. "If these people can be labeled terrorists, we are all in trouble."
Defense attorneys say the officers posing as activists egged on the three, who were frequently too drunk or too high on marijuana to take any meaningful steps planning attacks.
Biesty rejected the portrayal of the defendants as naive and detached. He cited wiretap recordings in which Chase is heard talking about dropping a firecracker into a bottle of gas and saying, "If you put one of those in a bottle and throw ... You cover 'em in a ball of fire."
"Not drunken bravado — cool and calculating," the prosecutor said.
Terrorism cases are almost always filed in federal court, and Illinois prosecutors haven't said why they chose to charge the men under the state's statute. Defense attorney Michael Deutsch said prosecutors brought the ominous-sounding terrorism charges to make a splash in the media. In so doing, he said, they had "trivialized" the menace of actual terrorism.
Illinois and 35 other states passed terrorism laws after the 9/11 attacks in what were seen as largely symbolic gestures; few of the states' statutes have ever been used, according to New York's Center on National Security.