Trial begins in Chicago for 3 NATO protesters

CHICAGO – Prosecutors said Tuesday that three protesters charged with terrorism wanted to firebomb various locations during the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.

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 charges.

The targets that the anti-NATO protesters allegedly intended to attack included President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home and several police stations.

During his opening statements, Cook County prosecutor Matthew Thrun approached each of the three defendants while telling jurors the men had planned the firebombing attacks.

"That (fire) was going to be the iconic image," Thrun said.

But defense attorney Sarah Gelsomino told the jury that her clients don't represent a terrorism case.

"Not even close," she said, arguing that prosecutors have exaggerated the defendants' actions.

The case in Cook County Circuit Court focused scrutiny on the state's rarely used terrorism statutes, which critics say are unconstitutionally vague and open the door to politically motivated charges.

Illinois was among more than 30 states to adopt anti-terrorism laws in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks. The laws largely were seen as symbolic gestures, with most lawmakers at the time agreeing the terrorism fight was best left to the federal government.

The decision to bring charges under Illinois terrorism law surprised many legal experts, with some questioning whether federal authorities believed the evidence was too weak to pursue charges themselves.

States have attempted to prosecute terrorism charges no more than a few dozen times, according to New York's Center on National Security. Department of Justice data indicate hundreds have been convicted of terrorism in U.S. courts since 2001.

All three defendants have been held in jail since their arrests. Each was being held on $1.5 million bail. If convicted, each could be sentenced to decades in prison.

In an apparent bid to streamline their case, prosecutors last week dropped two weapons and two arson-related counts. Seven counts remain, including conspiracy to commit terrorism and providing material support for terrorism. If convicted, each defendant could be sentenced to decades in prison.

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