By Meghana Keshavan
DETROIT (Reuters) - Seven members of a Midwestern militia group accused of plotting to kill police were preparing for war against the United States government, prosecutors told jurors on Monday at the start of a federal trial in Detroit.
Defense attorneys responded that the six men and one woman were part of a social club called the Hutaree who sought to defend themselves and did not view the government as an enemy.
The trial is the latest example of the U.S. government prosecuting what it views as a growing threat of violence from home-grown zealots opposed to the government -- the most dramatic case of which was the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City government building that killed 168 people.
Until the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington carried out by Al-Qaeda, the Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest act of terror on U.S. soil, and the key instigator, Timothy McVeigh, was executed in 2001.
Prosecutors at the Hutaree trial laid out an array of weapons including assault rifles, military style helmets and bullet-resistant vests seized in the investigation and played video and audio recordings for jurors in their opening statement.
"David Stone Sr. wanted a war," Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Graveline said of the group's leader, who is on trial with three members of his family and three others.
In one video excerpt shown to jurors, Stone Sr. could be seen saying, "This war will come whether we are ready or not" and "We have to strike and take our nation back from tyranny."
The group opposes government regulation of firearms and explosives. The seven defendants are accused of conspiring to kill a police officer and then ambush a funeral procession using homemade explosive devices to spark a wider war against the U.S. government.
"The Hutaree believed there was a brotherhood of local, state and federal officers that was secretly run by global elitists who wanted to start a new world order," Graveline said.
Defense attorneys have argued the group was merely engaging in angry expressions of free speech in conversations that were secretly recorded and did not demonstrate real intent to carry out acts of domestic terrorism. No attacks were carried out.
The group members were training to defend themselves and did not see the U.S. government as an enemy, Stone Sr.'s attorney, William Swor, told jurors.
'A MERCENARY, A REAL FLAKE'
Swor described a government informant who had infiltrated the group as "more of a mercenary, a real flake."
"One thing is clear -- no conspiracy. No plan. No action," Swor said.
Todd Shanker, who represents Stone's son, David Brian Stone Jr., said Hutaree members were "not dark-hearted individuals."
"It's not against the law to defend your family, or your community," he said. "The Hutaree is more of a social club."
Nine women and seven men were selected as jurors or alternates for the trial. U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts ordered the jury to remain anonymous to the defendants and public, an unusual measure to protect their safety.
Jurors are being asked to determine whether the Hutaree members were merely expressing their rights to free speech and to bear arms, or were training for an act of home-grown terror.
The FBI warned in early February, one day before final jury selection began in Detroit, that anti-government extremists posed a growing threat to local law enforcement officers.
The warning did not reference the Hutaree, but focused on the killing of two Arkansas police officers in May 2010 by a "sovereign citizen" after a traffic stop.
There are about 200 militia groups with 6,000 members in the United States ranging across geographies and with varied focuses from anti-tax, anti-government or pro-arms to white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Prosecutors contend the group had met regularly since 2008 to conduct military style training and were preparing for an upcoming attack when authorities executed search warrants and swept them up in raids in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
Federal agents seized machine guns, unregistered short-barrel guns, ammunition, explosive devices and materials that could be used to make explosives, according to court documents.
Under a federal indictment unsealed in March 2010, the charges against all seven include sedition, the attempted use of weapons of mass destruction and firearms offenses. Nine members of the group were indicted, one pleaded guilty and trial has been delayed for another suspect.
On trial are accused group leader David Brian Stone Sr.; his wife, Tina Mae Stone; and their two sons, David Brian Stone Jr. and Joshua Matthew Stone. Michael David Meeks, Thomas William Piatek and Kristopher Sickles also face trial.
Opening statements were expected to continue on Tuesday. The trial is expected to last up to eight weeks.
The trial is being held in the same courthouse where a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was set to be sentenced Thursday for trying to take down a U.S. airliner with a bomb hidden in his underwear as the airplane neared Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.
(Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Daniel Trotta)