Stunning Acquittal of Defendants in Standoff with Feds at Oregon Wildlife Refuge

Will the acquittal of seven defendants in a U.S. district court who used force to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last January embolden other takeovers of public lands by resentful ranchers or militia?

3 minute read

October 31, 2016, 6:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

The defendants had been charged with "conspiracy to prevent federal employees at the refuge from doing their jobs by intimidation, threats or force" during the 41-day occupation at the Malheur Wildlife National Refuge.

"The verdict is a shock to attorneys and observers on all sides of the high-profile case, which lasted six weeks in U.S. District Court in Portland," reports Tay Wiles in a web exclusive article for High Country News.

Many critics of the occupation fear the verdict will embolden people in Western states who dislike the federal government to use violence or threats to try to force land agencies to bend to their will.

People are going to get killed because of this verdict because this jury has just given militias the green light to go after federal facilities with rifles,” Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Los Angeles Times

According to Courtney Sherwood and Kirk Johnson of The New York Times, "the jury appeared swayed by the defendants’ contention that they were protesting government overreach and posed no threat to the public."

Wiles suggests that, in addition to the many challenges already facing those living in the rural West, the court's verdict may add to "misinformation — such as the claim that it’s illegal for the federal government to own land in the West — [thus] likely to polarize the issues further."

Environmental groups were not alone being appalled at the verdict. "The jury’s decision flies in the face of the basic principle that America’s national wildlife refuges and other public lands belong to all Americans," stated Backcountry Hunters & Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney.

Verdict felt throughout federal agencies managing public lands

In an all-staff email, Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze wrote: “While we must remain respectful of the jury’s decision, we must also be clear-eyed about the potential impacts of yesterday’s verdict.”

Secretary Sally Jewell also sent an email to all Department of Interior employees: “While we must respect the jury’s decision because we believe in the rule of law and our system of justice, I am profoundly disappointed in this outcome and am concerned about its potential implications for our employees and for the effective management of public lands.

While brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted, they remain in custody and will next join their father Cliven Bundy and their brother Dave, "to be tried for their actions in the 2014 Nevada standoff," adds Wiles.

"It was not immediately clear how the not-guilty verdicts would affect the government’s strategy in another case stemming from the Oregon occupation," or the forthcoming trial for the aforementioned Nevada standoff involving the Bundys, report Sherwood and Johnson for The New York Times. 

"Legal experts say there's a chance government prosecutors may consider lessening charges in order to not risk another acquittal," notes Wiles. "That trial is slated for February 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada."

"Seven additional defendants in the Oregon standoff... are scheduled to stand trial beginning in February," according to the Los Angeles Times.

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