By James B. Kelleher
DETROIT (Reuters) - Two days after a federal judge dismissed a massive conspiracy case charging seven members of a Midwest militia group with plotting to wage war against the U.S. government, the group's leader and one of his sons pleaded guilty Thursday to one weapons charge each. David Brian Stone Sr., the leader of the group called the Hutaree, and his son Joshua Stone each pleaded guilty before Judge Victoria Roberts in federal court in Detroit to possession of a machine gun.
The seven were arrested two years ago this week following a long undercover operation by the FBI and charged with plotting a violent revolt against the U.S. government using weapons of mass destruction.
On Tuesday, Roberts took the unusual step of dismissing all major charges against the seven before the defense case was heard.
Prosecutors alleged that as part of their plan, the Hutaree plotted to kill law enforcement officers as a way to incite a wider rebellion against the U.S. government.
Much of the evidence against the six men and one woman consisted of audio and video recordings made by an undercover agent and a paid informant who infiltrated the group.
In the recordings, David Stone Sr. repeatedly made statements describing law enforcement as the enemy, discussed the killing of police officers and argued for the need to go to war against the government.
Defense attorneys had argued that what the seven had engaged in was protected by their free speech rights. Roberts agreed and after weeks of trial, she abruptly intervened, dismissing all the major charges, saying federal prosecutors had failed to prove their case.
It is unusual for a judge to take the case out of the hands of the jury and dismiss the charges and Judge Roberts' ruling is a setback for the federal government, which has been warning of the growing threat of violence from such groups.
On Thursday, after David and Joshua Stone entered their guilty pleas, the jury was brought back into courtroom and advised of the dramatic developments that had occurred during the week they were away.
"The court looks very different from when you were last here last Thursday," Judge Roberts said before going on to explain why she had acquitted the seven defendants.
"There's nothing for you to do and you are discharged from jury service."
But before the jurors left the room, Judge Roberts complimented the attorneys involved in the case.
"It has been an honor for the court to preside over this case," she said. "The attorneys represented their clients with the passion and zeal they were supposed to exercise."
The Hutaree trial was the latest example of the U.S. government prosecuting what it views as a growing threat of violence from home-grown militias.
Until the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington carried out by al Qaeda, the largest such attack on American soil was the 1995 bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City by anti-government zealot Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 people.
The FBI warned in early February that anti-government extremists posed a growing threat to local law enforcement officers.
As of late 2011, there were about 250 active militia groups in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The Hutaree is classified as a militia, the league said.
In all, nine members of the Hutaree were arrested two years in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana in the raids in late March 2010.
Tina Mae Stone, David Stone Jr., Michael David Meeks, Thomas William Piatek and Kristopher Sickles all had faced trial on conspiracy charges. When Judge Roberts ruled earlier this week, she dismissed all the charges against them.
An eighth member of the group, Joshua John Clough, pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in December, and the ninth member, Jacob Ward, was found not competent to face trial.
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Additional reporting by Rachelle Damico; Editing by Paul Thomasch)