Jurors in Chicago on Thursday evening were sent to answer the question of when a planned protest becomes conspiracy to commit terrorism in a trial viewed as test case for Illinois terrorism laws.
Known as the "NATO 3," Brian Church, 22, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Jared Chase, 29, of Keane, N.H.; and Brent Vincent Betterly, 25, of Oakland Park, Fla., are accused of plotting to attack President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home and police stations with Molotov cocktails during the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago summit.
The defendants have all pleaded not guilty to terrorist and other charges. If convicted, each could face decades in prison.
"Were they bumbling fools or were they cold, calculating terrorists? ... That is the question you have to answer," prosecutor Tom Biesty told jurors during closing arguments earlier in the day. "There is one verdict: guilty. These men are terrorists."
Prosecutors said the proof of the trio's intentions comes from undercover police officers who infiltrated the group. The officers testified that the men discussed making acid bombs one of the defendants described as, "Put it in a bottle, shake it up and toss it, pressure builds and bam! Acid shoots everywhere," Biesty said in court.
But in the first of three defense closings, Church's attorney Michael Deutsch told the jury that the state "has not proved their case. He said the three men were just "talking to impress the undercover police officers."
Deutsch says the officers pushed the men to do something, when they never intended to actually do anything.
"This is not a case of terrorism. They are far from terrorists," Deutsch said.
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.
State terrorism laws rarely are invoked. Nationwide, federal prosecutors try most terrorism cases. There was one other case of someone charged under Illinois' terrorism statute.
Southern Illinois University campus police found a note in a man's abandoned 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; few of the states' statutes have ever been used, according to New York's Center on National Security. Federal prosecutors try the vast majority of terrorism cases nationwide.
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."