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Charged with terrorism, NATO protesters plead not guilty

Occupy Chicago protests Monday at the courthouse. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)
Updated July 2 at 3:58 p.m.

Three NATO protesters who face charges under Illinois’s terrorism statute pleaded not guilty Monday in a hearing that kicked off what could turn into months of pretrial wrangling over evidence discovery.

The defendants — Brian Church, 20, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Brent Betterly, 24, of Oakland Park, Fla.; and Jared Chase, 27, of Keene, N.H. — each face 11 felony counts ranging from material support for terrorism to arson conspiracy. Cook County prosecutors say they plotted to use crude firebombs known as Molotov cocktails during a NATO summit in Chicago.

On Monday the trio appeared in yellow jail jumpsuits and leg shackles before Criminal Court Judge Thaddeus L. Wilson.

After the pleas, Assistant State’s Attorney Matthew Thrun told Wilson that prosecutors had handed defense attorneys 372 pages of discovery materials. Thrun said those included documentation of secret recordings authorized by another Cook County judge May 4 — less than two weeks before the trio’s May 16 arrests during a police raid of an apartment in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood.

Thomas Durkin, a lawyer for Chase, complained to Wilson that the materials seemed to address evidence no earlier than May. The case’s indictment, Durkin pointed out, accuses the trio of committing the terrorism and arson offenses beginning “on or about October 01, 2011.”

Thrun responded that “discovery is not complete at this time.”

After the hearing, defense attorneys said their pretrial goals include learning more about the case’s informants. “There’s going to be a lot of fighting around the discovery of this case because we know that there were other law-enforcement agencies involved in the investigation and the provocateurs,” said Michael Deutsch, an attorney for Church. “And that’s the tension because we need to fight about all these things that we have a right to have in discovery yet, while we do that, our clients are going to be sitting in jail.”

Deutsch said defense attorneys would meet with prosecutors to see if they could reach an agreement to reduce $1.5 million bonds set for each defendant May 19.

At one point during Monday's hearing Betterly smiled and nodded to two dozen supporters in the courtroom gallery as they stood and raised their fists in the air — a gesture that ended seconds later when a sheriff’s deputy ordered everyone to sit down.

Later, a man who identified himself as an Occupy Chicago activist held up a handmade sign expressing support for the trio. A deputy quickly grabbed the activist and brought him to Wilson.

“I absolutely will not tolerate that,” Wilson warned. “Don’t bring any signs in my courtroom again.”

Another NATO protester — Sebastian Senakiewicz, 24, of Chicago — faces four counts of falsely making a terrorist threat. A fifth protester — Mark Neiweem, 28, of Chicago — faces two counts related to explosives or incendiary devices. Arraignments for Senakiewicz and Neiweem were scheduled for Monday but postponed.

All five defendants were arrested before the summit, a two-day gathering that ended May 21.

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