Editor’s note: On May 18, three Hutaree members were released from jail after prosecutors suddenly backed off an intense effort to keep the entire group behind bars. A fourth member was released the following day. Prosecutors have asked the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to keep the remaining five members behind bars while they await trial on Nov. 4, and prosecutors are appealing Judge Victoria Roberts’ order that all nine members be released. Earlier in the month, the 6th Circuit issued a temporary stay of Roberts’ order.
DETROIT — After harshly criticizing the government’s claim that nine members of a Michigan militia had conspired to overthrow the U.S. government, a federal judge yesterday ruled that they should be released from jail pending trial.
U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts, however, later delayed their release, giving prosecutors until 5 p.m. tomorrow to declare whether they would appeal her ruling. At that point, the judge will decide whether to further delay their release.
The nine members of the southern Michigan-based Hutaree group were charged in March with conspiracy to commit sedition, or rebellion, against the government and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.
Prosecutors claim they are too dangerous to be free until trial. The judge, however, disagreed yesterday and set several strict conditions for their release, including electronic monitoring.
The government “need not wait until people are killed before it arrests conspirators,” Roberts said yesterday. “But the defendants are also correct: Their right to engage in hate-filled, venomous speech is a right that deserves First Amendment protection.”
While Roberts ruled only whether to keep the eight men and one woman in jail until trial, her decision — reached after nearly 10 hours of hearings and detailed in 36 pages — offered an early look at her thoughts on the strength of the government’s case.
In court papers and testimony before Roberts, prosecutors and an FBI agent claimed the Hutaree were violent, anti-government zealots who plotted to kill police officers in an effort to spark an uprising that would take down the federal government.
Instead, the judge said the rambling, scornful recorded conversations offered as evidence didn’t prove the group posed an imminent threat.
“Discussions about killing local law enforcement officers — and even discussions about killing members of the judicial branch of government — do not translate to conspiring to overthrow, or levy war against, the United States government,” Roberts said.
The nine were to have been released today, but Roberts froze her ruling last night.
Prosecutors said they needed time to consult with the U.S. Justice Department about a possible appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
If an appeal is pursued, the judge wants prosecutors to explain why they think they will succeed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Waterstreet asked the judge to delay the Hutaree members’ release in part because authorities believe they had planned to attack a police officer’s funeral.
He cited the fatal shooting yesterday of a Detroit police officer in a drug house. The death had absolutely no connection to Hutaree, but investigators believe militia members planned to bomb a funeral to strike at law enforcement.
Defense attorney William Swor, who represents militia leader David Stone, called that argument “outrageous.”