DETROIT — Nine members of a Michigan militia will be released on bail pending trial after a federal judge on Monday harshly criticized the government's claim that they had conspired to overthrow the U.S. government.
The decision is a significant defeat for federal authorities, who spoke in tough and triumphant terms after arresting members of a southern Michigan group called the Hutaree in March and charging them with conspiracy to commit sedition and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.
The government "need not wait until people are killed before it arrests conspirators," U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said. "But the defendants are also correct: Their right to engage in hate-filled, venomous speech is a right that deserves First Amendment protection."
While Roberts ruled only whether to keep the eight men and one woman in jail until trial, her decision — reached after nearly 10 hours of hearings and detailed in 36 pages — offers an early look at her thoughts on the strength of the government's case. In court papers and testimony before Roberts, prosecutors and an FBI agent said the Hutaree are violent, antigovernment zealots who plotted to kill police officers in an effort to spark an uprising that would take down the federal government. Instead, the judge said the rambling, scornful recorded conversations offered as evidence didn't prove the group poses an imminent threat.
She said the nine defendants in custody can be released until trial under strict conditions, including electronic monitoring. They won't actually be freed until they return to court for paperwork and other processing today.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Waterstreet asked the judge late Monday to freeze the release until the U.S. Justice Department could be consulted about an appeal, citing the fatal shooting Monday of a Detroit police officer in a drug house. That slaying had no connection to the Hutaree, but prosecutors have said the militia's plans included killing a police officer and then bombing the funeral to increase the death toll.
Defense attorney William Swor, who represents militia leader David Stone, called Waterstreet's argument "outrageous."
Observers cautioned that U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade and her team should be worried about Roberts' assessment of their case.
"The feds are in big trouble," said Lloyd Meyer of Chicago, a former terrorism prosecutor. "If they can't persuade the judge by clear and convincing evidence that the defendants are dangerous, how can they convince 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt? Her ruling looks like the feds are prosecuting U.S. citizens for jibber-jabber."