DETROIT (Reuters) - The extremist militia group members accused of plotting to kill police and wage war on the U.S. government should be freed pending trial because the case against them centres on political, not criminal issues, defence lawyers argued on Thursday.
Lawyers defending eight of the people charged in the case asked a judge during a hearing in Detroit to grant bail to the militia members, arguing that merely possessing weapons and voicing opposition to the government is not illegal.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Falvey told U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Scheer the defendants, members of a group called the Hutaree, had “dark hearts and evil intent.” Falvey said they broke the law by conspiring to oppose the U.S. government by using violence and weapons, and should be denied bail.
The seven men and one woman on Wednesday pleaded not guilty or remained silent and had not guilty pleas entered for them.
An indictment unsealed on Monday accused them of planning to kill a police officer in Michigan and then ambush the funeral with improvised explosive devices to kill more police. The defendants were preparing to fight authorities from fortified and booby-trapped positions, the indictment said.
Members of the Hutaree believed the attacks would “serve as a catalyst for a more widespread uprising” against the U.S. government, the indictment said.
Michael Rataj, the lawyer representing the wife of the group’s leader, said the government was “prosecuting people who have only exercised their First and Second Amendments rights” under the U.S. Constitution to engage in free speech and own guns, and had not violated the law.
Other defence lawyers made similar points. Prosecutors and defence lawyers argued over the threat the suspects might pose if released on bond and the likelihood that they would show up for trial. The judge said he would rule by the end of the day on Friday on whether or not to release them on bond.
Authorities said they recovered dozens of handguns and rifles, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, and explosives and bomb components in raids on the suspects’ homes last weekend.
The federal grand jury indictment charged the defendants with seditious conspiracy, attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence.
A ninth defendant was arraigned in Indiana on Wednesday, also entering a plea of not guilty. A judge ordered him held without bail and transferred to Michigan to face charges.
The group’s website says the term Hutaree means “Christian warrior” and says the group was “preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive.” But the lead prosecutor downplayed the religious element of the group.
The group was infiltrated by at least one government undercover agent who posed as a bomb maker, prosecutors said.
If found guilty, they face a minimum of between 30 years and life in prison under U.S. sentencing guidelines, prosecutors said.
Editing by Will Dunham