In 'stunning victory' for defense, jury acquits Oregon's Malheur occupiers

Malheur occupation trial: After a drawn-out trial, Oregon occupiers Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy, along with five of their fellow protesters, were found not guilty of federal conspiracy charges and firearm possession.

Don Ryan/AP
Defendant Shawna Cox speaks at left as supporters hug outside federal court in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016. A jury exonerated brothers Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy and five others of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

After only five days of deliberation, a jury found seven occupiers of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, including Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy, not guilty of federal conspiracy and weapons charges Thursday afternoon. 

The Bundy brothers, along with a number of armed followers, took over a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon for 41 days during January and February of this year. The occupiers say they were protesting tyrannical federal land-management policies, which has led to the poverty and plight of local ranchers.

During the trial that began in early September, the Bundys say their plan was to take ownership of the refuge before handing it over to the discretion of local officials. The occupation required firearms, argued the Bundys, because they would have been immediately arrested otherwise.

“We’re so grateful to the jurors who weren’t swayed by the nonsense that was going on,” defendant Shawna Cox told Reuters after the verdict was read. “God said we weren’t guilty. We weren’t guilty of anything.” 

But the prosecution felt otherwise, accusing the occupiers of possessing firearms in a federal facility and conspiring against the federal government. 

“It’s stunning. It’s a stunning victory for the defense,” Robert Salisbury, attorney for defendant Jeff Banta, told reporters. “I’m speechless.” 

It is not just the verdict that is surprising: by any measure, the occupiers’ trial was unorthodox. 

For example, Ryan Bundy chose to represent himself in court, claiming his innocence as a member of the “sovereign Bundy family,” and therefore immune to federal law. 

As the Christian Science Monitor’s Gretel Kauffman reported in September, the older Bundy brother also drew attention by referring to himself as an “idiot” in one court motion, seeking $800,000 in damages for his arrest, and attempting to subpoena Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and other government officials to testify in this case.

And Ammon Bundy’s attorney Marcus Mumford was anything but traditional in his defense. At one point in the case, Mr. Mumford cited the 1948 western film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to make a point about federal jurisdiction. When the verdict was read Thursday afternoon, Mumford was tackled and tasered by US Marshals after a heated argument with the judge. 

In Mumford’s opinion, the not guilty verdict meant his client was free to go. However the judge disagreed: The Bundy brothers will remain in custody as they still face charges in Nevada due to a previous armed standoff against the federal government in 2014 with their father, Cliven Bundy.

Regardless of the strange trial or surprising verdict, some worry about the acquittals’ future implications.

“The Bundy clan and their followers peddle a dangerous brand of radicalism aimed at taking over lands owned by all of us,” Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Associated Press. “I worry this verdict only emboldens the kind of intimidation and right-wing violence that underpins their movement.”

Protesters of the verdict also took to Twitter, many attributing the acquittal to the protestors’ race.

But the defense attribute the protesters’ weapon supply to their Wild West-like culture. 

“For these defendants and these people, having a firearm has nothing to do with a threat or anything else,” defense lawyer Matthew Schindler told The Washington Post. “It’s as much a statement of their rural culture as a cowboy hat or a pair of jeans. I think the jury believed at the end of the day that that’s why the guns were there.”

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