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Defendants In Oregon Wildlife Refuge Occupation Found Not Guilty

Defendant Shawna Cox speaks outside federal court in Portland, Ore., on Thursday after she and six others were acquitted of charges related to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Don Ryan AP
Defendant Shawna Cox speaks outside federal court in Portland, Ore., on Thursday after she and six others were acquitted of charges related to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Ammon Bundy, shown during an interview at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January, still faces charges related to a standoff in 2014.
Rick Bowmer AP
Ammon Bundy, shown during an interview at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January, still faces charges related to a standoff in 2014.

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Defendant Neil Wampler speaks as he leaves federal court Thursday in Portland, Ore.
Don Ryan AP
Defendant Neil Wampler speaks as he leaves federal court Thursday in Portland, Ore.

In a surprise verdict, a jury has found all seven defendants not guilty of charges linked to their armed occupation of Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year.

The courtroom quickly descended into chaos, and the decision could "have huge implications on the militia movement as well as the federal government's control of millions of acres of public lands in the West," as NPR's Kirk Siegler reported on Morning Edition.

The defendants included brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the alleged leaders of the occupation that lasted nearly six weeks. The Bundys' fight with the government is rooted in "unpaid fees for cattle grazing on federal public land," Kirk said, but "their movement has lately attracted conspiracy theorists and other far-right groups that aren't associated with ranching."

The main charge in this case was "conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs," and as The Two-Way has reported, "some of the defendants have also been accused of stealing government property and carrying firearms at the refuge."

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"Federal prosecutors had argued the Bundys and their militia conspired to keep federal workers from doing their jobs at the refuge, through threats and intimidation," Kirk reported. "But defense attorneys claimed they were exercising their First- and Second - Amendment rights in a protest over the federal government's control of public land in the West."

The defendants were allegedly part of a group that took control of the refuge's headquarters in January, setting off a tense 41-day standoff. During that time one of the militants was shot dead by police. As Kirk reported, the Bundys will remain in custody: they "still face similar federal charges in Nevada for a 2014 armed standoff [with the federal Bureau of Land Management] at their father's ranch."

And even though the Bundys won their case in court, Ammon Bundy's lawyer Marcus Mumford told the judge "his client should be allowed to go free," member station Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

Judge Anna Brown "told Mumford that his client was not allowed to leave, but the attorney persisted, raising his voice as he argued with the judge," OPB reports. "The incident ended with Mumford being tackled by several U.S. Marshals and Brown clearing the courtroom."

Joan Anzelmo, a retired federal land manager, described this a "very dangerous verdict." As he said to Kirk: "This was a national wildlife refuge that was taken over essentially in an act of domestic terrorism. With arms, and terrorizing the town, threatening the citizens, threatening the employees."

Anzelmo is concerned that this could inspire other anti-government militants to take similar action, Kirk reported: "With the way the country is right now, this is going to embolden militia types, who, if they don't like something, they'll take up their arms. And you know, laws be damned. It is a terrible, terrible day for the United States."

After the verdict, OPB reported, defendant Neil Wampler vowed that he and others in their movement would "build on this tremendous victory for rural America."

There was never a question that the group had seized the refuge with arms, according to The Associated Press:

"Federal prosecutors took two weeks to present their case, finishing with a display of more than 30 guns seized after the standoff. An FBI agent testified that 16,636 live rounds and nearly 1,700 spent casings were found. "[Ammon] Bundy testified in his defense, spending three days amplifying his belief that government overreach is destroying Western communities that rely on the land."

The jury returned their verdict after less than six hours of deliberations, OPB reported. The member station reports that one of the jurors was replaced at the last minute "when a question surfaced that he was biased." A new jury member replaced him, and "the jury was instructed to disregard days of previous work and to re-consider the evidence."

These defendants are the most high-profile of a larger group – as OPB wrote, "others have pleaded guilty or are scheduled to go on trial in February 2017."

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