TRAVERSE CITY — Potential appeal issues will be avoided by delaying a major criminal case that captured the nation’s attention, officials said.
A recent surge in COVID-19 cases prompted 86th District Court officials to adjourn a planned three-day preliminary hearing for four men accused of participating in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Court officials said attorneys for the defendants agreed to the adjournment rather than conduct the hearing via online videoconference, after health experts recommended it’s not safe to proceed in person.
The preliminary hearing that was set to begin April 14 would have determined whether the cases against Michael Null, William Null, Eric Molitor and Shawn Fix would move on to trial.
They each were arraigned in the fall on charges of providing material support for a terrorist act and possessing a firearm while committing a felony.
The hearing was previously moved from Bellaire to Traverse City for a larger courtroom and more lodging options for lawyers, witnesses and others expected to participate.
“It would be more people in the courtroom than we are comfortable with, given the numbers,” said Carol Stocking, court administrator.
Chief 86th District Court Judge Michael Stepka is set to preside over the cases.
Stocking said the judge offered to conduct the hearing via Zoom, but the defense attorneys opted to wait for a safer time to meet in person.
Defense lawyer William Barnett, who represents Molitor, said all four defense attorneys agreed to move the hearing down the road. He also said the delay is better in terms of ensuring a fair trial.
“Ultimately, the court and all parties agreed to adjourn and to move it to date to be determined. The court did the right thing by shifting the hearings to Zoom or at least proposing that,” Barnett said.
“Defendants have a right to confront their accusers under the rules. By keeping it in-person avoids an appeal issue there as well,” he said in an email to a Record-Eagle reporter.
Barnett said there are practical advantages for the delay, too.
“On Zoom, the technical part of the numerous exhibits and impeachment would be very time consuming and would have extended the hearing time tremendously,” he said. “The court put everyone’s safety at a premium so that was very much appreciated and again, the right thing to do under the circumstances.”
Michigan’s Assistant Attorneys General Sunita Doddamani and Greg Townsend will handle the state’s prosecution of the case in Traverse City.
An AG’s spokesperson could not be reached Wednesday for comment about the adjournment.
Providing material support for a terrorist act carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, according to the Michigan penal code.
The four men charged in northern Michigan are among eight facing charges in state courts in the alleged plot — three others already were bound over for trial on charges stemming from the investigation after appearing last week in 12th District Court in Jackson County. Several other men face federal charges in U.S. District Court stemming from the investigation.
Stocking said future dates for when the preliminary hearing will be rescheduled have not yet been decided. She’s closely watching COVID case counts and other information released by public health officials, she said.
Michigan currently is at the top in the U.S. for new COVID-19 cases: More than 47,000 cases, or 471 per 100,000 people, in the last seven days, the federal government reported Tuesday afternoon.
The state health department reported an additional 8,000 cases Wednesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.