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March 30, 2012 0

Hutaree Militia Verdict Shows Sedition Charges Risky

In a rebuke to fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors, U.S. Dis­trict Judge Vic­to­ria Roberts on March 27 threw out sedi­tious con­spir­acy charges against seven Michi­gan mili­tia mem­bers whom the gov­ern­ment had accused in 2010 of plot­ting to start a war with the U.S. government.

Only weapons charges remained against two defendants–David Stone, Sr., the leader of the so-called Huta­ree Mili­tia, and his son, Joshua Stone—and they pleaded guilty the fol­low­ing day to pos­sess­ing a machine gun. Accord­ing to Roberts, though there was evi­dence to con­clude that “some­thing fishy” was going on, the gov­ern­ment did not present enough evi­dence to prove that defen­dants had “reached a con­crete agree­ment to forcibly oppose the United States government.”

The Huta­ree case illus­trated vividly how prob­lem­atic the very issue of sedition—currently defined in U.S. law as a con­spir­acy to over­throw or destroy the U.S. gov­ern­ment, to oppose by force its author­ity, or to delay by force the exe­cu­tion of U.S. laws—is in the United States. From the very first sedi­tion law, the Sedi­tion Act of 1798, such acts have been highly con­tro­ver­sial. One of the major prob­lems has always been dis­tin­guish­ing between speech and conduct—it is for this very rea­son that cur­rent sedi­tion law spec­i­fies “by force,” though it has not made attempts to imple­ment the law much easier.

In recent decades, another rea­son why sedi­tion tri­als are often prob­lem­atic is that increas­ingly jurors find it dif­fi­cult to believe that defen­dants could have pos­si­bly thought they could suc­cess­fully wage war against the gov­ern­ment. After the Huta­ree trial, one of the jurors told a reporter that “I was shocked by their effort to bring the defen­dants to trial…Do you think a group that small can go up against the mighty U.S. government?”

The mod­ern track record of sedi­tion cases in the United States has been rel­a­tively poor. In 1941, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment indicted 28 union activists and left-wing extrem­ists for vio­la­tions of the Sedi­tion Act and a related act, the Smith act, but the jury acquit­ted all of the defen­dants of the sedi­tion charge. In 1944, 30 right-wing extrem­ists and Nazi sym­pa­thiz­ers were accused of vio­lat­ing the same acts, but their lengthy trial ended in a mis­trial. In one of the few suc­cess­ful sedi­tion cases, a num­ber of rad­i­cal Puerto Rican lib­er­a­tion activists were con­victed of sedi­tious con­spir­acy in the mid-1980s for an exten­sive ter­ror­ist campaign.

How­ever, in 1987, 14 promi­nent white suprema­cists charged with sedi­tious con­spir­acy were acquit­ted in what came to be called the “Fort Smith Sedi­tion Trial.” In 1995, Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called “Blind Sheikh,” and nine other Mus­lim extrem­ists were con­victed of sedi­tious con­spir­acy for plans to com­mit a vari­ety of ter­ror­ist acts in the greater New York area, as well as other vio­lent acts actu­ally committed.

The his­tory of sedi­tion cases in the United States sug­gests that other types of con­spir­acy or other crim­i­nal charges might well be a bet­ter pros­e­cu­tion strat­egy when deal­ing with extremist-related plots and conspiracies.