CHICAGO — A jury acquitted three NATO summit protesters Friday of breaking Illinois’ rarely tested state terrorism law, but convicted them on lesser arson counts.
Prosecutors described the men — Brian Church, Jared Chase and Brent Vincent Betterly — as dangerous anarchists who were plotting to throw Molotov cocktails at President Obama’s campaign headquarters and other Chicago sites during the 2012 summit. Undercover officers infiltrated the group, and the men were arrested before the summit began.
Defense lawyers scoffed at the portrayal of their clients as terrorists. They described them as drunken goofs who were goaded into the Molotov cocktail plot by the officers.
The defendants seemed to be nervous Friday as the jury, which deliberated for more than seven hours, filed in. But the three showed little emotion as the mixed verdicts were read. Church, 22, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Chase, 29, of Keene, N.H.; and Betterly, 25, of Oakland Park, Fla., had pleaded not guilty to material support for terrorism, conspiracy to commit terrorism and other nonterrorism charges, including arson.
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Defense attorneys said their clients were disappointed they didn’t win acquittals across the board, but they hailed the not-guilty verdicts on the terrorism counts.
“This is a huge, huge victory,” said Thomas Durkin, who represents Chase and is a well-known terrorism-case attorney in federal court. “(And) it’s a huge loss for the government. There aren’t many cases the government … the state hasn’t won in this country.”
Attorney Molly Armour, who represents Betterly, added: “This is a line in the sand. The war on terror can’t go this far.”
The still-serious convictions could send the men to jail for years. A sentencing date has been set for Feb. 28.
The question of when a planned protest becomes conspiracy to commit terrorism was the focus of much of the trial, which was seen as a major test of whether states should more often take the lead in trying terrorism suspects.
Nearly all terrorism cases are filed in federal court. Many states passed terrorism laws after 9/11 in what were seen as largely symbolic gestures.
Illinois prosecutors haven’t said why they chose to charge the men under the state statute, but defense attorney Michael Deutsch said prosecutors brought the ominous-sounding terrorism charges to make a splash in the media.
Prosecutor Tom Biesty argued in court that two weeks of testimony from undercover police officers and secret recordings proved the out-of-state activists conspired to attack the campaign office in Obama’s hometown, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home and police stations.
“Were they bumbling fools or were they cold, calculating terrorists?” he asked. “These men are terrorists.”
In his closing, lead prosecutor Jack Blakey called Betterly “Professor Molotov,” Chase “Captain Napalm,” and Church “Mr. Cop on Fire.”
But Durkin in his closing ridiculed the notion the three were terrorists. Reaching into an exhibit box, Durkin lifted a slingshot that was among the items the activists brought to Chicago. Holding it up to jurors, he said mockingly: “A weapon of mass destruction. Tools of terrorism, for sure.”
Defense attorneys say the officers posing as activists egged on the three, who were frequently too drunk or too high on marijuana to take any meaningful steps planning attacks.
Biesty rejected the portrayal of the defendants as naive and detached. He cited wiretap recordings in which Chase talked about dropping a firecracker into a bottle of gas and said, “If you put one of those in a bottle and throw … you cover ’em in a ball of fire.”