Updated:OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. —
Channel 9's Nancy Alvarez learned the FBI paid an informant $40,000 to infiltrate an accused Osceola County hate group, but an attorney for two suspects is denying their involvement in any illegal activities.
Agents arrested members of the American Front in May after the members were accused of training for a race war at a wooded compound in Osceola County.
On Tuesday, the confidential informant was deposed by defense lawyers, who said their clients did nothing more than shoot guns,
barbecue and discuss their negative opinions about minorities, which he said is not against the law.
While prosecutors said the group was planning attacks on places that include the Orlando City Hall, Sam Edwards, the lawyer for Jennifer and Mark McGowan, blamed investigators for being "hyper" vigilant due in part to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"They're good people like everyone else; stellar members of the community," Edwards said of the McGowans.
Edwards went on to say the McGowans are devoted parents who worked
full time, the wife as a court reporter, until their arrests in May.
"What were they doing out there?" Alvarez asked Edwards.
"Well, not breaking the law, No. 1," he replied. "Not doing anything illegal."
Edwards admits the McGowans spent time at the property owned by alleged American Front leader Marcus Faella, but only for barbecues and target practice.
As for court documents accusing the group of plotting against minorities, Edwards argues "talk" is not illegal.
"This is still America and what you believe in as far as prejudices, at least for now, is not illegal," he said.
The state's case rests mostly on a confidential informant who infiltrated the group for two years, a man with a drug history who was paid by the FBI for his work and whose testimony Edwards said can't be trusted.
"My clients are not terrorists by any stretch of the imagination," said Edwards. "They have their own belief system, which they are allowed to have, but they are not terrorists."
WFTV asked legal analyst Bill Sheaffer how the informant's criminal background could impact the case.
"You don't catch criminals by using choir boys as confidential informants," Sheaffer said. "The state gets convictions often by using informants with much more baggage than this informant has."
But Sheaffer said the informant's history does put more pressure on the state to present evidence that will support the testimony. That's where Edwards said prosecutors will also have a problem.
"The real terrorists will look back on this case and say, 'Hey, we accomplished something. We've got innocent men and women being charged with a crime due to hyper-vigilance,'" said Edwards.