By Rachelle Damico and Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - Lawyers for members of a Midwest militia group expect a deal to be finalized on Thursday to end their trial after a judge dismissed conspiracy charges and rebuked prosecutors for failing to prove they were intent on carrying out attacks against the government.
Judge Victoria Roberts took the unusual step on Tuesday of dismissing all major charges against the militia members even before the defense case was heard, and only two of the seven defendants remain behind bars.
David Stone Sr. and his son Joshua Stone, now face only a handful of illegal weapons charges.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys met with Judge Roberts behind closed doors on Wednesday but no plea deal was announced and the trial was ordered to continue Thursday.
Todd Shanker, an attorney for David Stone Jr., one of the defendants acquitted of all charges this week, said the meetings with Judge Roberts were an effort "to try to work out something so that the jury doesn't have to come back."
"For them, this is pretty close to a disaster," Shanker said of the case presented by government prosecutors.
The U.S. Attorney's office did not respond to request for comment on Wednesday.
The seven members of the group known as the Hutaree were arrested two years ago this week after an undercover operation by the FBI and charged with plotting a violent revolt against the U.S. government using weapons of mass destruction.
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, the Hutaree leader, 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.
Former federal prosecutor Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the dismissal of charges underscored the difficulty the government faces in proving these types of cases, especially when they pit free speech against national security.
"So many of these groups are built around anti-government rhetoric, which is protected speech under the First Amendment. So Judge Roberts' opinion signals that extra care will be taken to determine that there is evidence apart from speech -- however offensive it might be -- to show that there is a true conspiracy," Henning said.
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 an Oklahoma City government building 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.
(Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune)