By Kim Palmer
AKRON, Ohio (Reuters) - A self-described anarchist who could face life in prison if convicted in a failed plot to blow up a four-lane highway bridge near Cleveland told a jury on Tuesday that he had no ill intent.
Joshua Stafford, 24, is the only one of five defendants to go on trial in the alleged failed plot to destroy the bridge, which is located 30 miles south of Cleveland and runs through Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
"I did not have malicious intent to cause destruction," Stafford, who is representing himself and plans to testify on his own behalf, told the jury in opening statements.
Stafford, who has been charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction among other charges and who has a history of severe mental problems, faces a maximum of life in prison if convicted.
The four other defendants charged in the case pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from six years to more than 10 years in prison, along with lifetime probation.
All five men were arrested after they left two tool boxes at the base of the bridge that contained inert C-4 explosives bought from an undercover FBI agent, then drove to a restaurant and tried to set off the fake bomb using a cellphone.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman told jurors the bridge is crossed by 14,000 vehicles on any given day and that Stafford was a willing participant in the plot. Herdman said Stafford tried four times to use the cellphone to set off what he thought were explosives.
The FBI has said the public was never in danger and the men had no ties to foreign militant groups.
The only witness to take the stand Wednesday was criminal informant Shaquille Azir, 40, who told jurors Stafford and other men accused in the alleged plot discussed plans to "send a message to government and corporate America" and to commit "acts of violence to stop commerce."
Azir testified that he was asked by an FBI agent to attend an October 2011 anti-Wall Street Occupy Cleveland rally and look for people who were "out of place" and for anything "related to criminal activity."
Azir identified a group of men, some with covered faces, who appeared to be trying to "rile people up." He said he began meeting with members of the group to discuss plans that in the beginning included setting off smoke bombs and defacing bank signs, but evolved to using explosives.
"Every discussion revolved around plans and targets to use explosions on," Azir told jurors in his five hours on the stand.
He confirmed he had an extensive criminal past and said he has been paid upward to $6,000 for information over two years.
After some trouble following rules on how to make objections, Stafford told U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. that he had not been sleeping and wanted to delay proceedings on Wednesday so he could "get some sleep."
"I didn't sleep well when I tried a case either," Dowd responded, telling Stafford the proceedings would continue with or without him if he elected not to return to court on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Gevirtz and Andre Grenon)