By Bernie Woodall and James B. Kelleher
DETROIT (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday acquitted seven members of a U.S. Midwestern militia group of all major sedition and conspiracy charges against them, two years after the FBI began arresting them following a long undercover surveillance operation.
The seven, members of a group known as the Hutaree, were accused of plotting to kill law enforcement officers as a way to incite a wider rebellion against the U.S. government.
Defense attorneys had argued their actions were protected by their First Amendment free speech rights.
In her ruling on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Victoria A. Roberts agreed, acquitting the defendants on all counts related to sedition, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, training in the use of explosives and using firearms in the commission of a felony.
"A conspiracy to murder law enforcement is a far cry from conspiracy to forcibly oppose the authority of the government of the United States," Judge Roberts wrote.
She described Hutaree leader David Brian Stone Sr.'s speech as "vile and often hateful" but said "his diatribes evince nothing more than his own hatred for - perhaps even desire to fight or kill - law enforcement; this is not the same as seditious conspiracy."
Also acquitted were Tina Mae Stone, the wife of David Brian Stone Sr.; their two sons, David Brian Stone Jr. and Joshua Matthew Stone, and Michael David Meeks, Thomas William Piatek and Kristopher Sickles.
Judge Roberts chided federal prosecutors for saying they would prove "specific acts of violence" by the group but then failing to do so before the jury, saying "much of the government's evidence against the defendants at trial was in the form of speeches," mainly by David Brian Stone Sr.
"This back and forth banter, like the other anti-government speech and statements evincing a desire - even a goal - to kill police, is simply insufficient to sustain the seditious conspiracy charge. It requires an agreement and plan of action, not mere advocacy or hateful speech," she wrote.
Relatively minor possession of illegal weapons charges remain in place against David Brian Stone Sr. and his son, Joshua Stone, who have been in prison for two years since they were arrested by the FBI.
"It's a good day for the United States. It's a good day for the first and second amendments," said attorney Michael Rataj, who represented Tina Stone.
William Swor, attorney for David Brian Stone Sr, called the verdict "wonderful" and said he and the other defense attorneys would file motions to have the jailed defendants released.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney said her office would not comment on the judge's ruling because of the remaining charges in the case.
Judge Roberts said that in order to be successful, the government needed to prove seditious conspiracy by "an agreement and a plan of action, not mere advocacy or hateful speech."
The seven were among nine people arrested in raids in the Midwestern U.S. states of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana that began March 27, 2010 and ended several days later.
The trial against the Hutaree, a Christian-based militia group, was the latest in a series of prosecutions aimed at what the government sees as a growing threat of violence from homegrown anti-government groups.
In early February, the FBI warned such groups posed an increasing threat to law enforcement.
(Reporting By Bernie Woodall and James B. Kelleher; editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham)