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Chicago jury acquits 3 NATO summit protesters of terrorism, convicts on lesser arson counts

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 Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, a jury in Chicago acquitted the three NATO summit protesters of breaking Illinois' rarely tested state terrorism law, but did convict them on lesser arson counts. (AP Photo/Chicago Police Department, File)

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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 Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, a jury in Chicago acquitted the three NATO summit protesters of breaking Illinois' rarely tested state terrorism law, but did convict them on lesser arson counts. (AP Photo/Chicago Police Department, File)

CHICAGO - A jury acquitted three NATO summit protesters Friday of breaking Illinois' rarely tested state terrorism law, but did convict them on lesser arson counts.

Prosecutors described the men — Brian Church, Jared Chase and Brent Vincent Betterly — as dangerous anarchists who were plotting to throw Molotov cocktails at President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters and other Chicago sites during the 2012 summit. Undercover officers infiltrated the group and the men were arrested before the summit began.

Defence lawyers scoffed at the portrayal of their clients as terrorists. They described them as drunken goofs who were goaded into the Molotov cocktail plot by the officers.

Nearly all terrorism cases are filed in federal court. Many states passed terrorism laws after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in what were seen as largely symbolic gestures.

The question of when a planned protest becomes conspiracy to commit terrorism was the focus of much of the trial, which is seen as a major test of whether states should more often take the lead in trying terrorist suspects. Federal prosecutors try the vast majority of terrorism cases in America.

Prosecutor Tom Biesty argued that two weeks of testimony from undercover police officers and secret recordings proved the 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."

Lead prosecutor Jack Blakey in his closing gave the three menacing nicknames according to their alleged crimes. He called Betterly "Professor Molotov," Chase "Captain Napalm," and Church "Mr. Cop on Fire."

In his closing Thursday, defence attorney Thomas Durkin 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."

The outcome of the trial would be closely watched, Durkin said, precisely because many share his belief that prosecutors were overzealous in slapping the label 'terrorism' on the 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."

Defence 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.

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