COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — A trio of men known as the NATO 3, accused of plotting to wreak havoc at the 2012 summit in Chicago, were little more than "goofs" who talked tough, defense attorneys said Tuesday.
Brian Church, Jared Chase and Brent Betterly, dubbed the NATO 3 after their arrest in the days leading up to the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, are charged under a little-known state terrorism law for their alleged role in a plot to incite chaos by attacking strategic spots with homemade explosives.
Prosecutors allege that the three came from Florida with plans to do more than protest peacefully while dignitaries and notables from around the world gathered in Chicago.
The men allegedly made Molotov cocktails and talked about attacking President Barack Obama’s campaign nerve center in the Prudential Building near Millennium Park, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Ravenswood home and other targets, according to court records.
During opening statements Tuesday, Cook County State's Attorney Matthew Thrun said Church asked "Are you ready to see a police officer on fire?" when he and his friends were allegedly making Molotov cocktails to hurl at cops.
The NATO 3 drove 1,700 miles to "get on the frontlines and the front page" by "striking terror on the world's stage," Thrun said.
Defense attorneys representing Church, Betterly and Chase countered that the three never would have done anything besides talk if it weren't for two undercover cops egging them along.
Defense attorney Thomas Durkin told jurors that the three men did come to Chicago to "do damage." He said they planned to shoot a bow and arrow with a note affixed to it through Emanuel's window, for example.
"I'd call them goofs," said Durkin, who is representing Chase.
Defense attorneys described the young men as victims of circumstance and manipulation at the hands of the police.
"If these guys are terrorists, we can all sleep at night" and the war on terror was a waste of money, Durkin said.
The three men, who have spent more than a year behind bars, appeared clean-shaven Tuesday. Betterly, who wore dreadlocks past his shoulders at the time of his arrest, had his blond locks neatly tied in a ponytail at the nape of his neck.
Lilian McCarter, Betterly's attorney, assured jurors that when the state's attorney played to audio recordings secretly taken by the police, they would see that the defendants were more worried about when their "weed guy" would arrive and bad smelling bathrooms, than any nefarious plans.
Church, an avid woodsman and amateur survivalist, didn't bring a guitar case full of weapons — including a sword and knife according to the state — to Chicago to use them against the police as a member of the Black Block. They were his possessions, his attorney said.
He once cracked a smile during the trial while listening to his lawyer tell jurors about police manipulated him, plying him with alcohol.
Chase spoke briefly when court was in session to tell his attorney that he considers himself a "revolutionary constitutionalist" rather than an anarchist.
While portions of their opening statements poked fun at the state's case, defense attorneys also focused on broad implications for the NATO 3 trial.
"Terrorism is a word that strikes fear into our very hearts," said defense attorney Sarah Gelsomino of the People's Law Office, warning jurors not to let the word "lead to blind emotion."
Prosecutors called a star witness, undercover Chicago Police Officer Nadia Chikko, allegedly known to the three defendants as "Gloves."
She told jurors how she and her partner infiltrated Occupy Chicago ahead of the NATO summit by going to coffee shops, rallies, concerts and meetings to look and listen for plans of violence.
They met the NATO 3 by posing as protestors with the Black Bloc, a sometimes violent group of protestors who dress in black and cover their faces when demonstrating.
Church told her that "[Chicago] doesn't know what it's in for, and after NATO it will never be the same" and detailed plans to attack four police stations, Chikko told the jury Tuesday.
The start of the trial signals the first time the Cook County State's Attorney's Office has sought a conviction under the state Terrorism statute. And, many supporters of the NATO 3 have been asking why the federal authorities are not prosecuting the case.
The answer to that question — assuming there is one — remains unclear.
For the last year, a small contingent of activists has attended hearings at the criminal courthouse every couple of weeks in a show of support for the defendants. But many more came for the trial Tuesday.
The trial has been moved from a small, third-floor courtroom, where Wilson normally hears cases, to a much larger one with seating to better accommodate crowds.
It is expected to continue Wednesday at about 10:30 a.m.