A federal jury in Portland cleared the Bundy brothers and five other co-defendants of conspiracy and gun charges on Thursday. Early this year, the defendants were involved in a 41-day-long standoff with authorities after they took over a wildlife refuge in Harney County, Oregon.
Ryan Bundy, however, was not cleared of a charge of theft of government property. But the jury found him and his brother Ammon (pictured) not guilty of federal conspiracy along with five other defendants.
The verdict comes after more than a month of testimony and six hours of deliberations. In the meantime, one jury member had to step down over an allegation he was biased.
The seven defendants began their protest on Jan. 2, 2016, and ended 41 days later when the last four protesters surrendered to the FBI. Prosecution originally charged the Bundys and 24 other people with conspiracy. The group allegedly conspired to stop Bureau of Land Management workers from carrying out their job at the refuge.
During the armed occupation of the refuge, preserve workers had to stay at home on administrative leave. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the federal government will have to fork out $4.3 million to cover costs of the occupation. But Harney County will bear the bulk of the costs linked to extra police presence at the scene, counselor pay, and school closings.
Several occupiers faced gun charges because they carried weapons during the protest which occurred in a federal facility. Authorities said they seized 30 firearms, more than 16,000 live rounds and about 1,700 spent casings from protesters following the standoff.
By September, only seven defendants appeared in court. The rest either pleaded guilty or agreed to face trial next year.
Prosecution relied heavily on data from law enforcement agencies including the FBI and the county sheriff’s office. FBI agents were present during the standoff. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight added that common sense suggests the defendants are guilty.
By contrast, the defense argued the defendants’ sole aim was to protest the federal government’s ownership of lands. Ryan Bundy told the jury the protesters wanted to point out that the government is not their master, but their servant.
Bundy explained that the protesters had had no plan to clash with Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s employees. The Oregon standoff, however, got many people discussing the federal government’s right to own and manage public lands and, therefore, demand grazing fees from ranchers or set restrictions to other resource-based professions.
During the protest, Ammon Bundy repeatedly told law enforcement officers that the group wanted to restore local community’s ownership of the land. In interviews, he said he was doing it for the ranchers, loggers, and miners.
The attorney of one of the defendants told the jury his client was protesting “the death of rural America,” which brought him no benefit. Five defendants had their own lawyers.
Ammon Bundy testified three days in a row with stories about his childhood at a cattle ranch and his role in another armed protest in Bunkerville, Nevada. The Bundys and other co-defendants will now go to Nevada where they will face a similar trial.
After hearing the verdict, one of the protest leaders, Neil Wampler, described the ruling as a “tremendous victory for rural America.” He also blasted the “corrupt, fed gov’t,” saying its defeat was “humiliating.”
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