CHICAGO — A jury acquitted three NATO summit protesters Friday of breaking Illinois' rarely tested state terrorism law, a finding the defense said should dissuade Illinois or any other states from ever pressing such charges in a similar way against activists.
While jurors found them not guilty of the most ominous charges, Brian Church, Jared Chase and Brent Vincent Betterly were convicted on lesser counts of arson and mob action.
Prosecutors portrayed the activists as sinister and dangerous anarchists who plotted to throw Molotov cocktails at President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters during the 2012 summit.
Attorney Molly Armour, who represents Betterly, said jurors had showed they agreed prosecutors had been overzealous in characterizing the alleged crimes as terrorism.
"This is a line in the sand," she said. "The war on terror can't go this far."
But the Cook County state's attorney who brought the charges was defiant. Anita Alvarez raised her voice as she was asked if she accepted that her office had gone too far.
"Absolutely not!" she told reporters. "I would bring these charges (again) tomorrow morning — with no apologies." Without explaining further, she also raised the specter of the Boston Marathon attacks last year, saying, "Have we forgot about Boston?"
The defendants looked nervous Friday as the jury, which deliberated for more than seven hours, filed in. But the three — Church, 22, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Chase, 29, of Keene, N.H.; and Betterly, 25, of Oakland Park, Fla. — showed little emotion as the mixed verdicts were read.
Speaking to reporters outside court, Thomas Durkin, who represents Chase and is a well-known terrorism-case attorney in federal court, said the men were disappointed they didn't secure acquittals across the board. But he argued the outcome was still dramatic.
"This is a huge, huge victory," he said. "There aren't many cases the government ... the state ... hasn't won in this country." He said the charges illustrated what he called post-9/11 "hysteria."
A court official says jurors were asked if they wanted to speak with reporters after the verdicts were read, but all 12 declined.
In all, the activists could go to prison for up to 30 years under state sentencing guidelines, though they'll likely receive far less. One possibility for the protesters — who have been in jail awaiting trial for nearly two years — is that a judge releases them on time served. They could be sentenced as soon as Feb. 28, their next hearing date.
The question of when a planned protest becomes conspiracy to commit terrorism was the focus of much of the trial, which was seen as a major test of whether states should more often take the lead in trying terrorist suspects. Nearly all terrorism cases are filed in federal court. Dozens of states passed terrorism laws after 9/11 in what were seen as largely symbolic gestures.
Prosecutor Tom Biesty argued in court that two weeks of testimony from undercover police officers and secret recordings proved the 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?" he asked. "These men are terrorists."
In his closing, lead prosecutor Jack Blakey called Betterly "Professor Molotov," Chase "Captain Napalm," and Church "Mr. Cop on Fire."
But Durkin in his closing ridiculed the notion the three were terrorists. 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 mockingly, "A weapon of mass destruction. Tools of terrorism, for sure."
Defense attorneys say the officers posing as activists egged on the three, who were frequently too drunk or too high on marijuana to take any meaningful steps planning attacks.
Biesty rejected the portrayal of the defendants as naive and detached. He cited wiretap recordings in which Chase talked about dropping a firecracker into a bottle of gas and said, "If you put one of those in a bottle and throw ... you cover 'em in a ball of fire."
The activists were acquitted on all four terrorism charges in the case, including material support of terrorism and conspiracy to commit terrorism. Jurors also acquitted them of solicitation to commit arson.
But the panel did find them guilty of two arson counts. And, as they were given the option of doing, they switched out the terrorism counts to find the activists guilty of misdemeanor mob action.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm .