Verdict in Oregon Occupation Case Draws Surprise and Questions About Equity

The jury in the Bundy case rejected the government’s case entirely and voted unanimously to acquit all seven defendants. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)
The jury in the Bundy case rejected the government’s case entirely and voted unanimously to acquit all seven defendants. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)

It looked like an open-and-shut case.

Everybody knew that armed militia members led by Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan, had occupied a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon starting on a bitterly cold day in January. The Bundys and their five co-defendants in Federal District Court in Portland never argued that they had taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge buildings out of some mistake or accident. They knew full well, the defendants and their lawyers said, that the refuge was government property and that the government did not want them there.

But the jury, in a verdict on Thursday that surprised almost everyone, including the defendants and their lawyers, rejected the government’s case entirely, voting unanimously to acquit all seven defendants.

“I’ve done more federal trials than I can count and I’ve never won like this,” said Matthew A. Schindler, a lawyer representing the defendant Kenneth Medenbach.

Though the exact reasoning of the jurors, who came from across Oregon and were never identified by name in court, remains unknown, most onlookers blamed prosecutorial overreach — that the government stretched its case too far to fit the events at the refuge — or stumbles in the presentation of evidence.

In an attempt to end the 41-day standoff, the government sent paid informants into the refuge, about 225 miles southeast of Portland. But the prosecution only grudgingly admitted as much during the trial, and the protester’s lawyers used that fact to suggest that the government had something to hide, or had perhaps even induced occupiers into committing criminal acts.

The conspiracy charges leveled against the occupiers did not help either. Though often used for criminal enterprises — like a plot to steal money or to sell illegal drugs — conspiracy appeared to be a cloudier explanation for the occupation, which drew an array of people with grievances against Washington.

In an election year fraught with allegations that the system is rigged against everyday people, many antigovernment activists interpreted the verdict as a potent sign that they still have some voice and power.

“Vindicated. World news. Let’s take back the narrative America,” was the message posted Friday morning on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page.

ut people angry about the acquittals were also energized and speaking out — with some saying that race had clouded the case. (All the occupiers were white.) And people involved in the case said the divisions would not be healed anyway.

Mr. Schindler, the lawyer, said in a telephone interview on Friday morning that he had just gotten off the phone with a caller who had threatened him. “’We’re coming with guns to take adverse possession of your office,’” he quoted the caller as saying.

Mr. Schindler laughed it off, but he said he had no doubt that the repercussions of Thursday’s verdicts were far from over.

During the occupation, the Bundys were cheered on — both in person and online — by members of the so-called Patriot Movement, a loose network of militia-type groups, who are deeply skeptical of federal power and sometimes attend protests armed with semiautomatic rifles. The government, militia group members say, is all powerful and out to take away rights and guns.

The paradox of Thursday’s court verdict is that it delivered the exact opposite message. Supposed federal omnipotence and overreach became flat-footed haplessness in one brief, powerful court session, as the 12 jurors were polled about their conclusions, rejecting everything about the government’s case.

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