By Bernie Woodall and James B. Kelleher
DETROIT (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed conspiracy charges against seven members of a U.S. militia group known as the Hutaree, saying prosecutors failed to prove that they were doing more than talking about their hatred of the government.
The seven were accused of plotting to kill law enforcement officers as a way to incite a wider rebellion against the U.S. government.
Defense attorneys had argued that what the seven had done was protected by their free speech rights.
A judge dismissing charges in a jury trial happens "only a few times a year throughout the country," said Paul Henning, law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former federal prosecutor, who has been watching the case closely.
The ruling is a setback for the federal government, which has been warning of the growing threat of violence from such groups.
U.S. District Court Judge Victoria A. Roberts acquitted the militia members on all counts related to sedition, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, teaching the use of explosives and using firearms in the commission of a felony.
"A conspiracy to murder law enforcement is a far cry from conspiracy to forcibly oppose the authority of the Government of the United States," Judge Roberts wrote.
She described Hutaree leader David Brian Stone Sr.'s speech as "vile and often hateful" but said that "his diatribes evince nothing more than his own hatred for -- perhaps even desire to fight or kill -- law enforcement; this is not the same as seditious conspiracy."
Also acquitted were Tina Mae Stone, the wife of David Brian Stone Sr.; their two sons, David Brian Stone Jr. and Joshua Matthew Stone, and Michael David Meeks, Thomas William Piatek and Kristopher Sickles.
"It's a good day for the first and second amendments," said Michael Rataj, who represented Tina Stone, referring to amendments to the constitution granting free speech and the right to keep and bear arms.
Relatively minor possession of illegal weapons charges remain against David Brian Stone Sr. and Joshua Stone, who have been in prison for two years since they were arrested by the FBI.
Meeks and Piatek had also been behind bars, but were released on Tuesday after the ruling, defense attorneys said. The remaining three defendants had already been released.
In her ruling, Judge Roberts chided the prosecution for saying at hearings in 2010 that they would prove "specific acts of violence" by the group but then failing to do so.
David Brian Stone Sr. and Joshua will now face the weapons charges when the case resumes on Thursday.
William Swor, the attorney for David Brian Stone Sr., called the verdict "wonderful" and said he and the other defense attorneys would be filing motions to have the jailed defendants released.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney said her office would not comment on the judge's ruling because of the remaining charges in the case.
The seven were among nine people arrested in raids in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana that began March 27, 2010.
The trial against the Hutaree, a Christian-based militia group, was the latest in a series of prosecutions aimed at what the government sees as a growing threat of violence from homegrown anti-government groups.
In early February, the FBI warned that such groups posed an increasing threat to law enforcement.
As of late 2011, there were about 250 active militia groups in the United States, including the Hutaree, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
(Reporting by James Kelleher and Bernie Woodall; Writing by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)