CHICAGO — The jury in the first terrorism case brought by Cook County prosecutors was sent home about 11 p.m. Thursday after being unable to reach a verdict after several hours of deliberations. The discussions are scheduled to resume Friday.
The issue before a 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?
It's the question both sides agreed that jurors must settle as they began deliberating Thursday night after sitting through nearly three weeks of testimony and about five hours of closing arguments on Thursday.
Both the prosecutors and the attorneys for the so-called NATO 3 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 Brent Betterly, asked jurors.
Betterly, 25, Jared Chase, 29, and Brian 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 that 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.
Much of the arguments from both sides focused on intent — jurors must find that the three acted with the intent to “coerce or intimidate a significant portion of the population,” attorneys said.
Jurors are also being asked to decipher a single sound effect made by Church on an undercover recording.
Transcripts provided to jurors described it as a “blasting sound,” but defense attorneys said the sound was closer to that of shattering glass.
Church made the sound while talking with with undercover officers Mehmet Uygun, who posed as “Turk” and “Mo,” and Nadia Chikko, known as “Gloves,” about attacking Obama's campaign headquarters. Church asked the two if they could locate some metal pipes because “we don't have any (blasting sound) type (expletive).”
For the first time at trial, Uygun maintained that he took the remark to mean that Church wanted to build pipe bombs. In closing aguments, prosecutors said the statement meant that the three intended to plant explosives.
They showed jurors a handwritten set of instructions for making a pipe bomb that was recovered in the Bridgeport apartment where the three were staying. However, the instructions weren't written in the handwriting of any of the men and was not tested for their fingerprints.
Blakey said the men were on a “mission of hate” and wanted to send a “wake-up call for their twisted, anarchist revolution. A violent one.”
But to defense attorneys, the sound Church made in the recording was just as clearly referring to shattering glass and that the rest of the conversation, which included talk of using marbles and a slingshot to break windows, made clear that the men were indeed talking about breaking glass.
The three wanted the metal pipes to swing at the windows, not to build pipe bombs, the defense contended.
Defense attorneys also attacked Uygun's credibility, arguing that if he had never mentioned pipe bombs in any report he couldn't be trusted. And they argued that if the meaning of the statement was unclear, jurors should side with the defense interpretation because reasonable doubt existed.
“He was not a terrorist,” Deutsch said of Church. “He was a wayward, confused young man who wanted to appear macho. The undercovers were running it.”
There was so much debate about the meaning of what was said on the undercover recordings that Thursday's closing arguments at times seemed like a graduate-school discussion on the meaning of language.
Contested phrases included “front lines” — interpreted by prosecutors in a military fashion while defense attorneys said it simply meant they wanted to be directly involved in the Occupy protests. Prosecutors also interpreted a Facebook post by Betterly in the months before NATO as evidence of a plot to throw Molotovs in Chicago, but defense attorneys said the context of the entire conversation made it clear it was a joke about how a friend of Betterly's could never take part in a riot.
“The state wants you to put this evidence together in the most untenable way,” said Armour, Betterly's attorney.
Prosecutors made much of the testimony of Chicago police bomb technician Yvens Augustin, who said the Molotov cocktails were functional incendiary devices capable of killing and maiming.
Defense attorneys hope jurors will take note of the bumbling nature of some of the conversations captured on the recordings.
The three discussed everything from potato launchers to acid bombs but didn't build anything besides the Molotovs and a plywood shield with the words “Austerity ain't gonna happen” painted on the front.
Prosecutors alleged the shield was a weapon, but according to testimony, the screws protruding from the front secured the handles.