COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — The men known as the NATO 3 may be troublemakers capable of criminal acts, but they are not terrorists. So said jurors Friday when they cleared the now-infamous trio of plotting acts of terror when Chicago hosted the NATO summit in 2012.
After three weeks of court proceedings, a jury acquitted Brian Church, Jared Chase and Brent Betterly of terrorism charges brought against them in the wake of an undercover police investigation leading up to the NATO summit in 2012.
The three men were however found guilty of lesser offenses for mob action and possessing Molotov cocktails.
"There is a line in the sand, and this jury drew that line," defense attorney Molly Armour said. "This war on terror cannot go this far."
Smiles crept across the faces of NATO 3 supporters after the long list of verdicts was read at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse just after 4 p.m. Friday. When the crowd of supporters realized the NATO protesters were not guilty of terrorism charges, the supporters exchanged hugs and wept.
There was no immediate emotion from the defendants — who were hoping that the jury would clear them of all charges.
State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, on the other hand, became visibly angry following the verdict when challenged about whether the charges were "trumped up."
"Have we forgotten about Boston? Have we forgotten about homemade bombs in backpacks?" she said, raising her voice.
"So, everybody is criticizing me for bringing charges under a statute that was never used. Well why is that statute there? The statute was created for this very purpose," she said. "I would bring 'em again tomorrow with no apologies."
The lawyers asserted the rejection of the terrorism charges showed those charges amounted to an over-reach by prosecutors in a "political prosecution in every sense of the word."
Thomas Durkin, Chase's attorney, accused Alvarez of having political motivations to file the terrorism charges.
"I think (Alvarez) wanted to make Rahm Emanuel look good for spending the ridiculous amount of money he spent on the NATO 3," he said, adding that the war on terrorism needs to be "re-examined."
As for their supporters, many of whom have been trudging to the courthouse every few weeks for court hearing since the NATO arrests, feelings were mixed Friday.
Most refused to speak with reporters.
"The NATO 3 are still three individuals who are facing serious prison time," said Jude Ortiz, a 34-year-old member of the NATO 3 Defense Committee. "They are bearing the brunt for this victory; they are the fall guys."
Church, Betterly and Chase were convicted of two counts of mob action, a misdemeanor, and two felony counts for possessing the Molotov cocktails. They were acquitted on four terrorism-related changes.
The men could be sentenced to between four and 30 years for the Molotov cocktails. Sentencing could occur as soon as Feb. 28, which is their next court date.
Durkin called called the verdict a victory, despite the conviction on the lesser charges.
"(The NATO 3) are disappointed because they didn't want to get convicted of anything, but this is a tremendous victory. This is a huge, huge victory," he said.
"This is a big, big day for this city," he said. "It's also a big day for rule of law in this city, in this country, in this county. This is a huge victory. Don't fool yourself."
The three men came to Chicago to protest the NATO summit in May 2012, an event that drew world leaders and scores of protesters. Their arrests, in the days before the summit kicked off, brought the most serious charges leveled against any of those arrested as part of the NATO protests.
Jurors began deliberating Thursday night, and resumed Friday, deliberating for a total time of seven hours and 46 minutes before Judge Thaddeus Wilson announced a verdict had been reached.
Prosecutors alleged that the three came from Florida with plans to do more than protest peacefully while dignitaries and notables from around the world gathered at McCormick Place. Their plans allegedly included attacking President Barack Obama's re-election campaign headquarters in the Prudential Building near Millennium Park, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Ravenswood home and other targets.
Undercover police officers infiltrated the Bridgeport apartment where the three were staying. Their observations of the group, provided in testimony during the trial, described how they discussed firebombing Obama's headquarters and making Molotov cocktails.
The state's case hinged on secretly recorded conversations captured by the officers in the days leading up to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.
"Are you ready to see a police officer on fire?" Church asked, according to one recording made while his group is accused of putting the finishing touches on four Molotov cocktails.
But defense attorneys argued the three were little more than a band of misguided "goofs." They used the prosecution's recorded conversations to argue that the NATO 3 were all talk and no action.
The defense contended that Church, Chase and Betterly never would have gone as far as they did in their plans to disrupt NATO if not for the two undercover police officers egging them on.
"Cops get lit on fire all the ... time that's his attitude about the police," Assistant State's Attorney Thomas Biesty said, arguing Thursday that the statements made by the NATO 3 cannot be explained by "drunken bravado."
In closing statements Thursday, prosecutors pointed to portions of recorded conversations when the defendants talked about starting riots, attacking police stations, doing "recon" on Obama's campaign headquarters, blowing the windows out of a bank and making firebombs, acid bombs and napalm.
"They came to Chicago for NATO because NATO is the world's stage," Biesty said. "They came here to be on the world's stage and commit their acts of terrorism."
Church's attorney, Michael Deutsch, argued that the state's case against the NATO 3 "trivializes terrorism."
"In a way, it also disrespects real victims of terrorism," he said.
He said the Chicago Police Department and the two undercover officers who spent months "trying to find anarchists" needed to make the NATO 3 out to be terrorists.
"These undercover agents had invested a lot of time and a lot of energy in these guys," Deutsch said. "They said we are going to latch our wagon to these guys… But nothing happened. They got drunk and went to a party."
Brian Church, he said, is a misguided misfit who is probably guilty of mob action, or some lesser crimes, but certainly would not qualify as a terrorist.
"He was a wayward confused young man who wanted to appear macho and wanted somehow to impress these undercover agents," he said.