The question of when a planned protest becomes conspiracy to commit terrorism was the focus of closing arguments Thursday in the trial of three men accused of hatching a plan to throw Molotov cocktails at President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters and other Chicago sites before the 2012 NATO summit.
Prosecutor Tom Biesty argued two weeks of testimony from undercover police officers and wire recordings proved the three out-of-state activists conspired to attack the campaign office in Obama's hometown, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home and police stations.
"Were they bumbling fools or were they cold, calculating terrorists? ... That is the question you have to answer," he told jurors, who were expected to get the case later Thursday. Added the prosecutor, "There is one verdict -- guilty. These men are terrorists."
Brian Church, 22, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Jared Chase, 29, of Keene, N.H.; and Brent Vincent Betterly, 25, of Oakland Park, Fla., have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit terrorism and other more standard charges, like arson. If convicted of the terrorism charges, each defendant could face decades in prison.
But defense attorney Thomas Durkin later ridiculed the notion that what they were talking about could possibly be compared to the acts of al Qaida or other known terrorist groups.
Reaching into an exhibit box, Durkin lifted a slingshot that was among the items the activists brought to Chicago. Holding it up to jurors, he said, "A weapon of mass destruction. Tools of terrorism, for sure."
Durkin also noted that he had called his client, Chase, and the other defendants "goofs" in his opening, and he told jurors he stood by that assessment. He also held up a gas mask they brought to Chicago, but one that lacked any filtering mechanism.
"Talk about how stupid they are -- to reinforce my goof theory. They brought a gas mask and didn't bring the filter," he said.
The outcome of the Illinois trial is being closely watched, said Durkin, precisely because many share his belief prosecutors were overzealous in slapping the label `terrorism' on the protestors' alleged crimes.
"This case is a big deal, don't kid yourself about that," he told jurors. "If these people can be labeled terrorists, we are all in trouble."
Molly Armour, Betterly's lawyer later echoed that, asking, "Is this what the war on terror has come to?"
Prosecutors paint the suspects as sinister, revolution-minded anarchists who were bent on setting parts of the nation's third largest city ablaze. They eagerly sought to work with undercover agents as they created Molotov cocktails out of beer bottles with gasoline, the state attorney said.
Defense attorneys say the officers posing as activists egged on the three, who were, they argued, frequently too drunk or too high on marijuana to take any meaningful steps planning attacks.
Michael Deutch, Church's attorney, did conceded to jurors that his client had brought a bow and arrow and throwing star with him to Chicago. But he said there was a simple explanation.
"He has a fetish ... He thinks he's a ninja warrior," he said.
Biesty rejected the portrayal of the defendants as naive and detached.
He cited wiretap recordings in which Chase is heard talking about throwing a firecracker into a bottle of gas and saying, "If you put one of those in a bottle and throw... You cover `em in a ball of fire."
"Not drunken bravado -- cool and calculating," the prosecutor said. He added, "To intimidate the city of Chicago. That was their plan," he said.
Terrorism cases are almost always filed in federal court, and Illinois prosecutors haven't said why they chose to charge the men under the state's statute, which has only been invoked once before.
But defense attorney Deutsch said prosecutors brought the ominous-sounding terrorism charges to make a splash in the media. In so doing, he said, they had "trivialized" the menace of actual terrorism.
There was one other case of someone charged under Illinois' terrorism statute.
Southern Illinois University campus police found a note in his abandoned and then impounded car that they believed was a written threat of an attack on the school. He said they were rap lyrics. He was convicted in 2011 of trying to make a terroristic threat and sentenced to five years in prison. The conviction was later overturned.
Illinois and 35 other states passed terrorism laws after the 9/11 attacks in what were seen as largely symbolic gestures; the state statutes have rarely been invoked, according to New York's Center on National Security. Federal prosecutors try the vast majority of terrorism cases.
The center's director, Karen Greenberg, said that makes the NATO protesters' trial in Chicago of interest even beyond Illinois.
"Will state authorities begin bringing these cases with more regularity?" Greenberg said in an interview from New York. "How this case is decided may have everything to do with the answer."