By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Nine members of a Christian militia group accused of plotting to kill police and wage war on the U.S. government were ordered freed on bond on Monday by a judge who said prosecutors failed to show they posed a real threat.
In a blistering attack, U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts in Detroit said prosecutors had failed to persuade her the defendants were a danger to the community.
While they may have engaged in "offensive and hate-filled speech," it was not at all clear that they had conspired to break any laws, Roberts wrote.
"Discussions about killing local law enforcement officers -- and even discussions about killing members of the Judicial Branch of Government -- do not translate to conspiring to overthrow, or levy war against, the United States Government," she wrote in a 36-page opinion.
"In sum, these two factors -- the weight of the evidence and the seriousness of the danger to the community -- weigh in favor of release," she concluded.
The move reverses an April 2 ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Scheer, who sided with the government and said the defendants posed a flight risk and "would constitute an unacceptable risk of danger to the community at large, and to the law enforcement community in particular" if released on bond.
Prosecutors later asked Roberts to delay Tuesday's scheduled release of the defendants while an appeal of the decision is prepared. If allowed, an appeal would be heard by the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
An indictment unsealed in late March accused the nine defendants, members of a Midwestern militia group called the Hutaree, of planning to kill a police officer in Michigan and then ambush the funeral procession using explosives.
Raids on the suspects' homes uncovered dozens of handguns and rifles along with ammunition, explosives and bomb components, authorities said.
The group's website says the term Hutaree means "Christian warrior" and says the group was "preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive." However, prosecutors downplayed the religious elements of the group.
The federal grand jury indictment charged the defendants with seditious conspiracy, attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence.
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Andrew Stern and Eric Walsh)