|A defence lawyer said anti-government rants amounted to a 'God-given right to blow off steam' [Hutaree.com]
A federal judge in Michigan has thrown out most of a high profile case against a US Christian-based militia group, saying prosecutors failed to prove that members of the Hutaree were doing more than talking about their hatred of the government.
The seven defendants were accused of plotting to kill law enforcement officers as a way to incite a wider rebellion against the US government, but defence lawyers argued that their conversations were protected by free speech rights and were never put into action.
Judge Victoria Roberts granted the defence's motion to acquit the members on Tuesday, saying that while she was "aware that protected speech and mere words can be sufficient to show a conspiracy ... they do not rise to that level" in the case at hand.
The move is a rare occurence - judges do not normally acquit defendants during jury trials - and a major setback for the government, which has made it a priority to investigate such types of organisations.
David Stone, the leader of the militia, was secretly recorded by an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) saying he was willing to kill police officers and their families, and that he considered them part of an authoritarian global "brotherhood" that included federal law enforcers and UN troops.
The Hutaree conducted armed training exercises in the Michigan woods, but defence lawyers argued that the group was more of a "social club" whose leader was "exercising his God-given right to blow off steam".
In her ruling, Roberts dismissed the most serious charges, conspiring to commit sedition and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, which could have carried life prison sentences.
Other weapons charges tied to the conspiracies were also dismissed, but Stone and his son Joshua will still face comparatively minor gun charges.
Both have been imprisoned since their arrest in 2010, when Attorney General Eric Holder called the Hutaree a "dangerous group".
The jury trial, which began on February 13, resumes on Thursday.
'Vile and often hateful'
"The judge had a lot of guts,'" defence lawyer William Swor said. "It would have been very easy to say, 'The heck with it,' and hand it off to the jury. But the fact is she looked at the evidence, and she looked at it very carefully."
A judge dismissing charges in a jury trial happens "only a few times a year throughout the country," said Paul Henning, law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, and a former federal prosecutor, who has been watching the case closely.
Legal precedent makes it very unlikely that the government, which did not comment on Roberts' ruling, will appeal the decision. Previous judicial acquittals have been treated the same way as jury acquittals, which cannot be appealed.
Roberts described Stone's views as "vile and often hateful" but said that "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".
In addition to Stone and his son Joshua, those acquitted included Stone's wife Tina Mae Stone, another son David Brian Stone Junior, Michael Meeks, Thomas Piatek and Kristopher Sickles.
"It's a good day for the first and second amendments," said Michael Rataj, who represented Tina Stone, referring to amendments to the constitution granting free speech and the right to keep and bear arms.
Meeks and Piatek had also been behind bars, but were released on Tuesday after the ruling, defense lawyers said.
The remaining three defendants had already been released.
In her ruling, Judge Roberts chided the prosecution for saying at hearings in 2010 that they would prove "specific acts of violence" by the group but then failing to do so.
The seven were among nine people arrested in raids in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana that began March 27, 2010.
The trial against the Hutaree 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 that such groups posed an increasing threat to law enforcement.
As of late 2011, there were about 250 active militia groups in the US, according to the Anti-Defamation League.