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Editorial: Prosecutors failed in Whitmer plot trial, not jury

Don't blame the jurors in the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plot trial for returning not guilty verdicts against two of the defendants and deadlocking on the other two.

They acted on the evidence they were presented in the 20-day trial, and their decision reflects the deep flaws in the government's case against the accused plotters.

And yet Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel criticized the jurors, implying they don't care about the safety of public officials or about violent extremism in this country.

"The message is, you can plan to do all kinds of things to the governor of our state and I guess as long as you're stopped before you actually commit the crime that, you know, you can get away with it," Nessel said. "I think it's a terrible message." 

That's not the message at all, and Nessel's reckless remarks risk undermining confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system.

Both she and Whitmer are lawyers. They should understand the responsibility of a jury is to render a judgment based on the evidence presented in court, and not on public sentiment. 

There's nothing to suggest this federal court jury of six women and six men seated in Grand Rapids was derelict in that duty. 

They deliberated for 38 hours over five days. In the end, they were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt the defendants were guilty of plotting the governor's kidnapping, or of the other offenses with which they were charged. 

It was the prosecution's obligation to convince them, and it failed to do so. 

The governor's office issued a statement suggesting the jury's decision leaves public officials vulnerable. But again, that wasn't its job. The jurors' only task was to decide whether the evidence presented in court supported the charges.

Public safety is the responsibility of law enforcement.

Whitmer's office also declared, "There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened."

But there was accountability here. No defendant gets a "go directly to jail" card when they're arrested. They get a due process card.

These defendants were investigated, charged and brought to trial. That's what accountability looks like.

When they got to court, the serious issues that dogged this case from the beginning could not be overcome. 

The FBI used a dozen informants to infiltrate the extremist group. Many of the government's operatives had questionable backgrounds themselves. And one of the lead federal agents in the operation was arrested for domestic violence.

The defense claimed the FBI used the informants to entrap the defendants, leading them to hatch a plot they otherwise had no notion of carrying out. Attorneys for the defendants argued the outline of the plot was drawn up by the FBI operatives, who manipulated and entrapped them and plied them with marijuana.

The outcome doesn't necessarily suggest, as Nessel accused, that jurors felt Whitmer was never in danger. That's not the question they were asked to decide. 

Rather, it seems to indicate the jury didn't believe the accused plotters would have come up with the scheme on their own or that they had taken overt action toward the kidnapping.

Prosecutors were not able to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendants' guilt.

If there's criticism due here, it's of the government's overzealous tactics in investigating the defendants.