NATO summit trial winds down with focus on question: when do protest plans become terrorism?

The Associated Press

FILE - This combo made of undated file photos provided by the Chicago Police Department shows from left, Brent Vincent Betterly, of Oakland Park, Fla., Jared Chase, of Keene, N.H., and Brian Church, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. On Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, closing are scheduled at Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago for the three men who are charged under Illinois terrorism statutes with plotting Molotov cocktail attacks during the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. (AP Photo/Chicago Police Department, File)

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By MICHAEL TARM, Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — 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.