Bundy brothers found not guilty of conspiracy in Oregon militia standoff
By Sam Levin in San Francisco and Lauren Dake in Portland, Oregon, published in The Guardian, Oct 28, 2016 (with related reporting further below)
A jury has found that brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy were not guilty of conspiring against the government, a surprising end to the high-profile Oregon standoff trial that sparked national debates about public lands and the rights of ranchers in the American west.
The decision, unveiled in federal court in Portland on Thursday, is a blow to the US government, which had aggressively prosecuted the rightwing activists who led an armed takeover of public property to protest American land-use regulations.
The Bundy brothers, who orchestrated a 2 January, 2016 takeover of the Malheur national wildlife refuge, were acquitted on a number of serious charges, along with five other defendants. Only a day earlier the court dismissed a juror over fears of bias, raising concerns that the trial would drag on for weeks.
“We are just so excited,” Angie Bundy, Ryan’s wife, told the Guardian after the verdict was announced. “We’ve been praying hard, and we knew they hadn’t done anything wrong.”
In a statement, federal officials said they accepted the decision. “Although we are extremely disappointed in the verdict, we respect the court and the role of the jury in the American judicial system,” said Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon.
The Bundy family’s public fight with the government began in 2014 when the patriarch Cliven, now 70, led an armed standoff with hundreds of supporters against law enforcement officials at his desert ranch in Nevada, over his refusal to pay grazing taxes. For decades, Cliven claimed that the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had no authority to restrict his use of public lands by his property.
The dispute and lack of prosecution galvanized ultra-conservative activists and militia groups across the west, and the Bundys launched a second fight with the BLM in January 2016 – in a remote part of eastern Oregon.
In response to the imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers, who were prosecuted for arson, Ammon and Ryan led a group of activists in an occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge, an obscure sanctuary for birds.
Ammon declared that he and other protesters, some who openly carried firearms and took over government buildings and equipment, would stay until the ranchers were freed and the refuge land was given to locals to control.
Prosecutors charged the Bundy brothers and 24 other defendants with conspiracy to impede officers through use of force, intimidation or threats, and some also faced additional charges of firearm possession and theft of public property.
Some of the defendants signed plea deals in hopes of getting shorter prison sentences, and a total of seven defendants have been on trial since September. The defendants were acquitted on the conspiracy and firearm charges, though the jury could not come to an agreement on a property theft offense that faces Ryan.
The court proceedings drew packed crowds of right-wing supporters, who see the Bundy family as a symbol of the American west and the fight against government overreach, as well liberal environmentalists, who have called for harsh prison sentences to send a message that the government will protect public lands and promote conservation.
During the trial, federal prosecutors argued that the protesters organized a “dangerous” invasion and conspired to stop refuge workers from doing their job.
Ammon’s attorney and other defense lawyers argued that the defendants were leading a peaceful demonstration and were lawfully speaking out against federal actions and policies.
Prosecutors also revealed during the court proceedings that US authorities relied on more than a dozen confidential informants during the occupation, and defendants’ lawyers have raised concerns about how the government has used that information and how those individuals shaped the actions at the refuge.
Neil Wampler, one of the acquitted defendants, appeared joyful outside of court, telling reporters: “This is a stunning victory for rural America and an extremely humiliating defeat for a corrupt and predatory agency.”
Late on Thursday night, David Fry, another acquitted occupier and the last holdout at the refuge, was released from jail and greeted by a crowd of supporters and a Domino’s pizza.
Asked about the Standing Rock protesters in North Dakota, he said that others should be encouraged by the court victory. “They need to take a look at this and realize battles can be won,” Fry said. “They need to stay strong and not let the federal government push them around.”
Now a free man, Fry said he might do some traveling, adding, “there are more federal buildings to occupy.”
Matthew Schindler, lawyer for defendant Kenneth Medenbach, the first protester arrested in January, said the case brought attention to grievances in parts of America that are often overlooked. “Their way of life is going away, and unless all of us here in the cities care about that, that’s exactly what’s going to happen,” he said outside of the courthouse. “It was a very powerful thing for individuals with nothing,” he added, to “fight the federal government”.
After the verdict, Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Marcus Mumford, reportedly got into a confrontation with the judge, Anna Brown, when he requested his client’s immediate release.
A separate trial, involving Ammon, Ryan, Cliven and two other Bundy men, is planned for next year in Nevada on charges stemming from the 2014 standoff. Given the pending case, authorities refused to release Ammon in Oregon. When Mumford argued, he allegedly ended up in a scuffle with US marshals, resulting in his arrest.
Mumford was released soon after, telling reporters that officers shocked him with a Taser. “Marshals surrounded me, told me not to resist.”
Rick Koerber, another member of the legal team, added: “This is what this case is about. It’s okay to say no to the federal government.”
Asked about Mumford’s arrest, Lisa Bundy, Ammon’s wife, told the Guardian that officials had reacted poorly to the decision. “I feel like they are sore losers,” she said. “What is the matter with them? It’s so inhumane.”
The Bundys are devout Mormons, and Angie, who has taken care of their eight children during her husband’s detention, cited her family’s faith when celebrating the decision on Thursday night. “This means that God answers prayers, that God cares about man’s freedom. This is huge.”
While Bundy supporters celebrated outside the courtroom – with prayer circles, chants of hallelujah and trumpets from a ram’s horn – environmental groups criticized the decision, saying it sent a dangerous message about public lands.
“We are deeply disappointed in today’s verdict, which puts our park rangers and scientists at further risk just for doing their jobs,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement. “The outcome of today’s trial will undoubtedly embolden extremist groups.”
Jason Liss, a Bundy supporter wearing a “Hillary for Prison 2016” shirt, said the court win could help promote the idea that federal agencies aren’t allowed to control public lands – an argument that legal experts and courts have rejected.
“It’s great a group of people still believe the constitution is the foundation of our country.”
The Oregon decision could have significant implications for the Nevada case, where the Bundys and a group of activists still face a range of similar accusations, including charges of conspiracy.
Ryan’s wife said she hoped the jury’s decision would pave the way for a clear win next year. “Ranchers have been oppressed long enough.”
Lisa said prosecutors should end the case against Ammon in Nevada. “I hope they realize they don’t have anything and drop the charges,” she said, adding, “He would just love nothing more than to come home to his babies even though he knows he has to go to Nevada.”
Oregon militia standoff trial: shock and anger after Bundys found not guilty
By Sam Levin and Julia Carrie Wong, The Guardian, Oct 28, 2016
The surprise verdict over the armed occupation has left many concerned that it will encourage other militias to take action against the government
SAN FRANCISCO – Jarvis Kennedy watched two stories unfold on the news on Thursday night: the surprise acquittal in Oregon of seven members of the armed militia that occupied the Malheur wildlife refuge and the mass arrest of Native American activists protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline. “Those guys are unarmed,” said Kennedy of the Native American protesters in North Dakota, “but these cowboys who came in with guns – they got off.”
Kennedy, the sergeant-at-arms of the Paiute Indian tribal council in Burns, Oregon, was a vocal opponent of the militia’s 41-day occupation of land that includes Paiute burial grounds. “I was in shock and disbelief, mad, and pissed off,” Kennedy said of his reaction to the verdict.
Kennedy was not alone in his dismay at the acquittal of Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five other defendants. The news stunned many across the country, leaving them to wonder how the government failed to convict members of an armed militia that brazenly occupied federal property and then broadcast it live on social media. “I had to pull over, I was so shocked,” said S Amanda Marshall, a former US attorney in Oregon who is now in private practice. “I had already decided that the case was over. I thought I heard it wrong.”
“I thought this would be a slam dunk for the government,” said Tung Yin, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, who watched the case closely. “When the occupation was winding down, I assumed [the defendants] would all plead guilty because I didn’t see any defense.”
One of the jurors told the Oregonian that the government had failed to prove a key part of the conspiracy charge – that the defendants had the “intent” to keep federal employees from doing their jobs.
“It should be known that all 12 jurors felt that this verdict was a statement regarding the various failures of the prosecution to prove ‘conspiracy’ in the count itself – and not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, actions or aspirations,” Juror 4 wrote in an email to the Oregonian.
“That is always the hardest thing to prove in any criminal case,” Marshall said. “You almost never have direct evidence of intent. As prosecutors, we always struggle with how we’re going to be able to explain intent to the jury.”
Angie Bundy, Ryan’s wife, who sat through many of the court proceedings, said she thought the prosecution’s case was undermined by the fact that the US government had relied heavily on more than a dozen paid informants who were present at the refuge. Defense lawyers had repeatedly raised concerns about how those confidential informants may have influenced the actions of the defendants during the protest. “That really backfired on them,” Angie said.
The mother of eight also argued that the government had failed to make a case that her husband and their supporters had any “intent” to impede the government.
Robert Salisbury, defense attorney for defendant Jeff Banta, who was one of the final holdouts at the refuge, said that the government might have been more successful if prosecutors had filed “criminal trespassing” charges in state court. He noted that police officials essentially allowed the occupation to go on for weeks, during which time law enforcement stayed away and failed to order the activists to leave in any formal manner.
Ammon’s lawyers, for example, noted in court that he was able to leave the refuge and eat at a local Chinese food restaurant without facing law enforcement or arrest. The fact that he and others could move freely in and out of the occupation suggests that the government was not forcibly blocked from carrying out its duties at the refuge, the defense argued.
“The government was very arrogant in the way they brought this whole case,” Salisbury said. “The jurors picked up on that.”
That analysis was backed up by Juror 4’s email to the Oregonian, in which he wrote: “The air of triumphalism that the prosecution brought was not lost on any of us, nor was it warranted given their burden of proof.”
Salisbury also noted that the firearm charges were dependent on the conspiracy claims, meaning once the government failed to prove there was a coordinated effort to block federal workers, it no longer mattered whether the defendants had brought guns to the refuge.
The acquittal has raised concerns that it will encourage other militias to take action against the federal government.
Ryan Lenz, editor of the Hatewatch blog for the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has closely studied the Bundys and rightwing militias, said the decision could have dangerous ramifications. “It’s a disaster. It emboldens the anti-government movement that grew as a result of the Bundys’ actions.”
Lenz argued that the accusation that the Bundys were conspiring to impede government workers may have missed the mark. “That wasn’t what they intended to do,” he said. “It was not about preventing anybody from going to work. It was essentially about altering the law of the land through threats, intimidation and force.”
But Yin said that he thought the prosecutors’ decisions were reasonable. “Conspiracy is actually a favorite tool of prosecutors because usually it is fairly easy to prove,” he said. “I don’t think they made a mistake in charging it.”
Still, Yin added, the outcome should serve as a warning to prosecutors preparing for the upcoming trial over the Bundy family’s 2014 armed standoff with the government over grazing fees. “It’s something I would be concerned about if I was the US attorney in Nevada,” he said.
Peter Walker, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon, was outraged by the verdict – and by the charges prosecutors had chosen to pursue. “The community suffered horribly as a consequence of the militia presence,” Walker said. “The conspiracy charge captured one small part of what happened in Harney County, and the community was frustrated by that in first place. Then, to have lost on those narrow charges basically means that there was zero accountability on the occupiers for the suffering that they caused.”
Kennedy said the verdict was typical: “We as native people, we don’t know what justice is. We never had it before. We hope for the best and expect the worst, and this time we got the worst.”
Further related news:
* Interview with Jarvis Kennedy, sergeant-at-arms of the Paiute Indian tribal council in Burns, Oregon, broadcast on CBC Radio One‘s ‘As It Happens’, Oct 27, 2016 (click on ‘Listen to full episode’ at the weblink, interview begins at the one-minute, 50-second mark)
* How the Oregon militia acquittals reflect the appeal of white nationalist agitators, by Andrew Gumbel, The Guardian, Oct 29, 2016
Conventional wisdom has it that defendants never catch a break in US federal court: the conviction rate last year was more than 95%. But it seems those odds improve if, like the leaders of last winter’s armed standoff at the Malheur national wildlife refuge in Oregon, you are part of the radical anti-government right…
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