CHICAGO — The so-called NATO 3 were convicted Friday of two counts of mob action, but not the more serious charges of terrorism.
They were also convicted of one count each of possessing an incendiary device to commit arson, a charge that carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison. But all three were acquitted of three other counts of possessing Molotov cocktails as well as an additional arson count.
The five-woman, seven-man jury deliberated almost eight hours over two days before reaching its verdict for Brent Betterly, 25, Jared Chase, 29, and Brian Church, 22.
Lawyers for the three called the verdict a major victory.
Attorney Thomas Anthony Durkin, who represents Chase, said he believes Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez brought the terrorism charges “to make (Mayor) Rahm Emanuel look good” for spending millions of dollars on security for the NATO summit.
“This was a political prosecution in every sense of the word,” he told reporters following the verdict.
Durkin said the three defendants were held in tighter security than most accused murderers during their nearly two years in custody since their arrests.
“That’s the slippery slope we start sliding down with charges like this,” he said.
The lawyers said their clients were disappointed at their convictions on an arson count that carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.
Alvarez denied her office had overreached to prosecute the first case ever brought in Cook County under the state’s terrorism law.
“You know what, I would bring these charges again because you know what we did, we saved people from being hurt,” she told reporters at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. “Do we have to wait for a Chicago police officer to be set on fire? I don’t think so … Have we forgotten about Boston here? Have we forgotten about homemade bombs in backpacks?”
The issue before the jury has rarely been so divergent: Did three out-of-state men who came to Chicago in the days before the NATO summit in 2012 want to violently bring about an anarchist revolution or were they just loud-mouthed simpletons who liked to brag?
Both the prosecutors and defense attorneys told jurors that their verdict would be a reflection on American society and that they would help define the line between terrorism and violence.
“When your hatred boils over into plots of violence, you’ve crossed the line — the line that protects us all,” said Assistant State’s Attorney John Blakey, who got the last word with jurors.
“Is this what the war on terror has come to?” attorney Molly Armour, who represents Betterly, asked jurors.
Betterly, 25, Chase, 29, and Church, 22, were arrested in May 2012 after assembling four Molotov cocktails using empty beer bottles, gasoline and an undercover Chicago police officer’s cut-up bandanna.
Recordings secretly made by two undercover cops who joined the group while posing as activists buttress the prosecution case. But throughout the trial, attorneys for the three Florida men contended those recordings show their clients had no intention of acting on their boasts.
The defense maintained that prosecutors had badly overreached by bringing terrorism charges created in the aftermath of the devastating Sept. 11 attacks that had never been used before in Cook County. But prosecutors held steadfast that they had acted against a real danger.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors repeatedly played up the most damaging statements by the defendants caught on the undercover recordings — most prominently Church’s question to an undercover officer as the Molotovs were being built — “Ready to see a police officer on fire?” At another point, he also said that “the city doesn’t know what it’s in for and after NATO it will never be the same.”
In closing rebuttal to jurors after the defense lawyers had spoken, Blakey gave each defendant a nickname — calling Church “Mr. Cop-on-Fire,” Chase “Captain Napalm” and Betterly “Professor Molotov” — and accused them of trying to conceal their violent plans “behind the legacy of nonviolent protest.”
“Martin Luther King? Ghandi? Mother Teresa? I don’t see them in court,” he told jurors.
Saying that “the First Amendment was alive and well,” Blakey said the three crossed the line to terrorism when they went from discussing their unhappiness with society to plotting violence. He repeatedly told jurors that the three weren’t just joking.
But defense attorneys said the undercover recordings showed that the three were too stoned, drunk or just plain stupid to be terrorists and were goaded into building the Molotov cocktails by inexperienced officers desperate to find a “bogeyman” after months of searching for criminal activity among activist groups.
Church’s attorney, Michael Deutsch, said the decision by prosecutors to charge the case as a terrorism “denigrated” both the “real” terrorist-fighting work done by authorities and also “real victims” of terrorist attacks.
“To me it trivializes terrorism — the most serious type of case,” Deutsch said. “You think of al-Qaida or the people who blew up Oklahoma City. This is not a case of terrorism.”
At times Chase’s attorney, Thomas Anthony Durkin, took an openly mocking tone in his closing argument, drawing laughter in the courtroom when he held up the slingshot Chase planned to use to fling marbles at the windows of the Prudential Building, then home to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign headquarters.
Durkin sarcastically referred to the slingshot as the “tools of the terrorism trade for sure” and called the wacky plot the “coup de grace” of the state’s terrorism case.