Judge Evokes Dystopian Scene of Terror, Declines to Acquit ‘NATO 3’ of Terrorism Charges
The prosecution rested and the defense decided it would not call witnesses and put on a case in the trial of the “NATO 3.” Immediately, defense attorneys moved for a directed verdict on multiple terrorism and arson charges, which the defendants face.
Brian Jacob Church, Brent Betterly and Jared Chase traveled from Florida to Chicago for protests that were planned against the NATO summit in May 2012. They had previously organized with Occupy groups in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Two undercover cops from the Chicago police department’s intelligence unit, Officer Nadia Chikko and Officer Mehmet Uygun, became protesters and infiltrated the activist community that was preparing for demonstrations around the summit, particularly a large demonstration on May 18.
The state alleges the three young men took beer bottles and filled them with each with gasoline, a quarter of the way, and filled them with cloths to make Molotov cocktails to throw at police. However, according to Uygun’s testimony, Betterly sat on the steps and never said anything while they were being made on the porch of a Chicago apartment. Church was on the other side of the porch and not involved in the making of the Molotov cocktails. Chase was pouring gas and went to purchase gasoline at a station with Uygun.
There is more evidence that Chikko and Uygun were involved in making Molotov cocktails that could be thrown at police than there is evidence that the “NATO 3” ever planned to make and throw these explosives during NATO protests.
The judge denied the motions for a directed verdict, which means they asked the judge to instruct the jury to find the three men “not guilty” of certain counts.
Michael Deutsch, a defense attorney for Church, informed the court they were challenging the “providing material support for terrorism” charge, the “conspiracy to commit terrorism” charge, and the two “possession of an incendiary device” charges, which separately allege the three men intended to use an “incendiary device” and “knew another intended to use” an “incendiary device.”
He read the part of Illinois’ state terrorism statute relevant to the case. “A person commits the offense of terrorism when, with the intent to intimidate or coerce a significant portion of a civilian population,” he said. Deutsch maintained that no evidence that they had an intent to coerce “a significant portion of the population.”
“Who is it they were trying to coerce?” he asked Judge Thaddeus Wilson.
Molly Armour, a defense attorney representing Betterly, argued there was no evidence introduced that Betterly agreed to commit an attack. He had “barely” been seen by undercover. He made no statements to them. She said there was no evidence introduced that he had conversations with Chase or Church about plans for attacks. He happened to be present on May 16 and prosecutors allege he “provided instructions” on how to make Molotov cocktails “prior to the making of Molotovs,” but, she added, there is “scant evidence” for such an argument and moved the court to find a directed verdict on all the counts.
Directed verdicts are very hard to win. Even in this case, when the evidence of crime is largely limited to the narrative state prosecutors conjured for the initial criminal complaint, it still was not likely that the judge would acquit and not let the jury decide.
None of this was said in front of the jury. That does not change the fact that how he declared his decision probably involved one of the more authoritarian and superfluous expressions about terrorism uttered in a courtroom since the September 11th attacks.
With dramatic effect, Judge Wilson said, “Chicago will never be the same. Chicago will never be the same. The court has that as a backdrop for all this. Chicago will never be the same.”
The line, “Chicago will never be the same,” was apparently said by Church to Chikko and Uygun when he was allegedly leading them around the city and talking about alleged attacks he wanted to perpetrate on places like the Chase Bank tower. Except, there is no real evidence to confirm what he said because Chikko and Uygun heard this statement when they were not wearing a wire device.
“Chicago is not an empty city or vessel. It is full of thousands, millions of people, citizens, visitors. That’s Chicago,” Wilson said. “Why won’t Chicago ever be the same?” He added the court had to look at that testimony along with evidence regarding Molotov cocktails, gas, fire, police, and “mayhem in the streets.”
There are a collection of legally possessed weapons, which Church owns. He brought them with him to Chicago. “The court has to look at the collection of weapons. While in isolation, perhaps, we don’t think much of them,” but, “when you put them together with Molotovs,” he said, they might become more significant.
He said it must be taken into consideration the event and “all the attention the event had garnered.” Additional people were coming. The court must consider “if the police were out in the streets trying to do, in effect, law and order or even if those police officers were in the streets perpetrating police misconduct,” he said, “Seeing police officers on TV or walking out on street” or seeing “police on fire or almost on fire or an object of fire raining down on them even if they are extinguished upon contact.”
“First line of defense for citizens or visitors” are police. Judge Wilson added, “If that happens, that’s terrorism.” He paused. “I don’t need to look in a dictionary to see what someone’s response would be.” He paused again. “That’s terrorism.”
It did not matter what a “usual day at the Colosseum” in Greece was like (yes, the judge incorrectly said the Colosseum was in Greece, not Italy). “This is America and that would be terror.” America is not a country where bus bombings, police targeting and other similar violence are regular occurrences. “Here that’s terror.”
There was not any point in the trial when defense attorneys made such a wild argument—that if violence is normal it diminishes the fact that certain acts are terrorism. Thomas Durkin, a defense attorney for Chase, called attention to the fact that in Greece protesters have thrown Molotov cocktails at police only to have them thrown back at protesters. They did not break when thrown and the police could hurl them back so they did not get hurt.
“Fear, apprehension, intimidation, coercion,” Judge Wilson added. “How do you go about doing your regular duties?” How does one go from work or shop when police “who are protecting are being attacked”? A “significant portion of visitors in our city” would be in fear, be intimidated and feel coerced.
He suggested, even if it were just police, seeing “fellow officers being attacked with Molotov cocktails, throwing stars, swords,” or “large shields from which they can hide behind” to “push officers down,” would be frightening. It would be a “scene that would resemble some civil war movie, hand-to-hand combat, free for all.”
All of the dystopian violence described above and detached from any meaningful context relevant to actual events in this case would be a ghastly horror. There is no evidence presented by prosecutors that even comes close to suggesting that the defendants intended to massively terrorize the city on the scale evoked by the judge. Yet, this is how he believed he had to think about the allegations put forward by the state prosecutors.
Judge Wilson admitted in this same ruling that the court was concerned about some of the proof (or lack thereof) in this case. It was concerned about whether Betterly’s comments about creating Molotovs were just comments. He wondered if this “evidence” of instruction, given the paucity of other evidence, was “sufficient” to “prove he was a part of a conspiracy to commit terrorism rather than a conspiracy to be a rally protester.”
As for Church, he was concerned about whether his actions on the porch while Molotovs were being made, despite other evidence that he was part of a “conspiracy,” actually indicated he was “withdrawing from the conspiracy.”
The problem, however, is there is no proof at all of conspiracy.
This is what prosecutor Yvette Loizon claimed to the judge: Betterly “instructed the two co-defendants.” One of the defendants “poured gas,” and Betterly “participated in the construction by providing input.” If a Molotov was thrown at a police officer, it would “cause significant harm.” On Facebook and in conversations, there was “repeated talk” about the NATO summit, such as the “Chicago police department is going to be out in full force.” The National Guard will be out. Tens of thousands of people will be in the streets. They would be on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times.
The three did not simply talk about breaking windows but also “napalm” and “pipe bombs.” They talked about acid eating through police clothing. They talked about doing this for the NATO summit. They hoped, on Facebook, the police would not “behave as well” so there’d be “escalation” and they could “send a message when everybody” was watching.
Anybody who saw a police officer would be intimidated. That would certainly be a “significant portion of the population.” Defendants “supported each other in an endeavor to commit terrorism,” Loizon argued.
Betterly had a “food stamp card.” One defendant had a Western Union transfer he was waiting for but it never came. “They were supporting one another. They traveled from Florida, shared food, and funded gas for the trip together. “Gas jugging” and being dependent on public assistance for food were “elements” of “material support for terrorism.”
It was the “NATO 3” that “tried to recruit two undercover police officers” and not the other way around.
Here is the issue at hand. Closing arguments will take place on Thursday morning. The jury will then deliberate and decide a verdict. If the jury convicts these three young men of terrorism, the case will become a precedent as one of the first cases under a state terrorism law. It will essentially ensure that state prosecutors always have a low burden to prove someone is a terrorist and sentence them to prison.
A lawyer for Chase, Joshua Herman, explained to the judge that “material support for terrorism” charges are “designed for people not part of the conspiracy.” They are “not designed for the principal terrorist conspirators.” They are for the guy who sends $10,000 to some organization that can be linked to a terrorist organization.
What is the terrorist organization these men provided “material support”? How can they be both material supporters and main conspirators in the alleged plot?
This is the farce that Illinois state prosecutors have engineered through their hysterical belief that either of these men ever posed a threat to Chicago and their zealous and callous disdain for the lives of the three men they have stalled. They have no regard for the family of these men, who have cried and become emotional in court when met with the realization that the “NATO 3” are not who the authorities have publicly claimed.
“It is dangerous from a civil liberties standpoint to let case this weak go to jury,” Durkin declared to the judge. It is important “as a matter of principle that you stop this right now because this is not a terrorism case.”
Terrorism is exceedingly rare and highly improbable in the state of Illinois. The judge apparently does not see the danger of what he is permitting. He does not understand how the prosecutors are making a mockery of a state terrorism law that could possibly have some value to society if applied appropriately to actual terrorists.
Whether these men are terrorists or not will be decided by the jury.
Photo by Eric Allix Rogers, used under Creative Commons license