A Michigan militia leader and his son pleaded guilty Thursday to possessing a machine gun, giving prosecutors their only gain in a domestic terror trial that was upended when the judge dismissed charges of plotting war against the government.
Hutaree leader David Stone rocked in a chair at the defense table after pleading guilty and told reporters he was a "stand-up true American patriot" whose anti-government comments and bravado about wanting to kill police were not a call to attack the United States.
He and six militia members were cleared Tuesday of conspiracy charges, which he called a "victory for everyone" who cherishes the First Amendment.
"It's amazing how someone can take a comment out of context and make it to whatever they want it to be," Stone, 51, said.
Gun charges were all that remained for Stone and Joshua Stone, 23, both from Lenawee County, Mich., after U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said prosecutors in six weeks had failed to present evidence of a specific plan to go to war against law enforcement and federal authorities.
Jurors heard hours of secretly recorded conversations between David Stone and an FBI informant and agent. He talked about killing police, building bombs and engaging an international coalition of freedom-hating law enforcers dubbed the "brotherhood."
"The government's case is built largely of circumstantial evidence," the judge said Tuesday. "While this evidence could certainly lead a rational fact-finder to conclude that 'something fishy' was going on, it does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendants reached a concrete agreement to forcibly oppose the United States government."
Defense lawyers said David Stone is a Christian who was preparing to do battle with the armies of the Antichrist, not the U.S. government.
A juror, Rickey Randall, 58, said the judge made the right call.
"I heard talk, talk, talk, but no action," Randall said. "I was shocked by their effort to bring the defendants to trial. ... Do you think a group that small can go up against the mighty U.S. government?"
In her first remarks since the case was gutted, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said she wouldn't have handled the case differently and "strongly" disagrees with the judge's interpretation of federal conspiracy law.
"If you have a suggestion, let me know," she told The Associated Press during an interview in her office.
"I take the view that you stop 'em when you can if you've got evidence," McQuade said. "We have an obligation to protect the public. The jury and the judge don't have that obligation. ... There were many plans to oppose by force the authority of the United States."
David Stone was released on bond after two years in custody. He could face another year in prison when he's sentenced for the gun crime on Aug. 8 but hopes the judge will consider the past two years as enough punishment. Joshua Stone, too, has been jailed for two years and could face more time behind bars.
The elder Stone said the trial's outcome likely will stir anxieties about the government among other militias.
"Now they know their paranoia is true," he said, referring to the FBI's tactics.
David Stone's wife, Tina Stone, and another son, David Stone Jr., were among the militia members cleared of all charges this week. The four Stones walked away from the courthouse together Thursday. Tina Stone earlier said her husband's Hutaree days are over, although she said the group never was the violent threat the government had claimed.
"They couldn't overthrow F Troop," she said, referring to a 1960s TV satire about soldiers in the Old West after the Civil War.
Militia members are finding that resuming their lives isn't easy. Despite his acquittal, Michael Meeks of Manchester, Mich., said he can't open a bank account yet because the bank told him he's still on a terror watch list. Told of the troubles, McQuade didn't seem moved.
"It's the consequences of their actions," the prosecutor told the AP.