A judge overseeing the trial of seven members of a Michigan militia signaled Monday that she's struggling with claims by prosecutors that secretly recorded chats about killing police and making bombs add up to a conspiracy to wage war against the government.
U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts heard a full day of arguments from defense lawyers who want key charges dismissed and prosecutors who urged her to keep the trial going and let jurors decide the case. The jury will stay home again Tuesday while she works on a decision.
A request for acquittal is standard procedure when prosecutors finish their side of a case. But with seven defendants and six weeks of testimony to consider, the judge is giving the matter a thorough look.
"They're entitled to oppose the government with their words," Roberts said. "It's still unclear to me after hearing all these arguments how that speech crossed the line into becoming illegal, and how I get there without building inferences upon inferences."
Defense attorney Mark Satawa said prosecutors took a "grab bag" and "mishmash" of offensive statements and certain acts that were secretly recorded by an undercover FBI agent and rolled them into a rare charge of conspiracy to commit sedition, or rebellion, against the United States.
"Saying stupid things ... is not illegal," Satawa said. "Running around in the woods in tiger fatigues is not illegal. Carrying around a rifle while running around the woods in tiger fatigues is not illegal."
Another attorney, Michael Rataj, pleaded with the judge to "put a stop to this nonsense." He said members of Hutaree were preparing for "doomsday ... the end of time," not a violent strike against the government.
"These people are nothing more than political prisoners," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sheldon Light conceded there's no proof of a "specific plan" to attack the government. But he said there's much evidence to show the Hutaree wanted to draw in federal law enforcement by killing local authorities.
"I would not agree that there had to be a plan for a widespread uprising to constitute the conspiracy charge," Light said.
The judge sharply questioned Light about defendant Tina Stone, the wife of Hutaree leader David Stone. There is no dispute she was present and sometimes spoke during hours of recorded conversations, but she doesn't appear to be a consistent participant.
Roberts said prosecutors seem to believe that someone can be charged with conspiracy unless they actively disagree with the plot. Light didn't back off, even saying at one point that a facial expression by defendant Thomas Piatek "speaks volumes" on a secretly made video of a speech by David Stone, who talked about a "new revolution."
"So much of this case is about people being present. ... Many things the defendants said are quite offensive. But so what?" the judge said.
Near the end of the day, Light said a free-speech defense doesn't fit.
"Words have consequences, and words can constitute ... the basis for an agreement to conduct criminal activities," he said.