Jury finds all Oregon standoff defendants not guilty of federal conspiracy, gun charges
COMMENTARY: Notice how the defense attorney was taken down by about 6 US Marshalls just because he asked a question to the Judge. The judge was just as surprised as the attorney. He was taken down to the floor and tasered!!! This is America and they do this in front of God and judge and everyone with no fear of reprisals? The attorney, Mumford, was arrected. This is proof that the charges against the Bundys are contrived!
A federal jury on Thursday found Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy and five co-defendants not guilty of conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs through intimidation, threat or force during the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The Bundy brothers and occupiers Jeff Banta and David Fry also were found not guilty of having guns in a federal facility. Kenneth Medenbach was found not guilty of stealing government property, and a hung jury was declared on Ryan Bundy's charge of theft of FBI surveillance cameras.
"More than we could have hoped for,'' said one of Ammon Bundy's lawyers, J. Morgan Philpot.
"Stunning,'' said defense lawyer Lisa Ludwig, who was standby counsel for Ryan Bundy.
"I'm just thrilled,'' said Neil Wampler's attorney Lisa Maxfield.
The jury of nine women and three men returned the verdicts after five hours of deliberations on Thursday in the high-profile case that riveted the state and drew national and international attention to the federal bird sanctuary in rural eastern Oregon.
Each defendant stood separately, facing the jury, as the judge read the verdicts. Ammon Bundy, his hands clasped behind his back, nodded as the "not guilty'' verdicts were read for him first. As he sat, he smiled and rubbed the shoulder of his lawyer, Marcus Mumford.
His older brother Ryan Bundy stood. As his "not guilty'' verdicts were read, he nodded, and mouthed to the jury, "Thank you.'' Defendant Neil Wampler hugged and kissed his defense lawyer, Maxfield.
The coda to the stunning verdict, undoubtedly a significant blow to federal prosecutors, was when Ammon Bundy's lawyer Marcus Mumford argued that his client, dressed in a gray suit and white dress shirt, should be allowed to walk out of the court, a free man.
U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown told him that there was a U.S. Marshal's hold on him from a pending federal indictment in Nevada.
"If there's a detainer, show me,'' Mumford stood, arguing before the judge.
Suddenly, a group of about six U.S. Marshals surrounded Mumford at his defense table. The judge directed them to move back but moments later, the marshals grabbed on to him.
"What are you doing?'' Mumford yelled, as he struggled and was taken down to the floor.
As deputy marshals yelled, "Stop resisting,'' the judge demanded, "Everybody out of the courtroom now!''
Mumford was taken into custody, a member of his legal team confirmed.
Ammon Bundy's lawyer J. Morgan Philpot, said afterwards on the courthouse steps that Mumford had been arrested and marshals had used a stun gun, or Taser, on his back. Another member of Ammon Bundy's legal team Rick Koerber, echoed Philpot, saying he heard Mumford questioning in court why they were using a Taser against him.
Philpot decried the marshals' treatment of Mumford in the courtroom. "What happened at the end is symbolic of the improper use of force by the federal government,'' he said.
By 6:30 p.m., Mumford was released from custody. He confirmed that he was struck with a stun gun once while he was on the floor of the courtroom.
"I grew up on a dairy farm, so am I used to some rough treatment, sure?'' he said. But he said the actions of the U.S. marshals were uncalled for.
"All I was asking for was papers. Just show me you have the authority to take Mr. Bundy into custody.''
As to the verdict, "Very pleased, very gratified. This jury was dedicated. They listened to our case.''
Tweets by maxoregonian Just after the verdicts were announced, people emerged onto the front steps of the courthouse to tell a crowd of media and onlookers.
Supporters of the defendants gathered in a joyous hug. One of them, Brand Thornton of Las Vegas, one of the original occupiers who accompanied Ryan Bundy and others onto the refuge on Jan. 2 and was called as witness by the defense, said that he has been at the trial since Oct. 2.
The verdict "means everything," Thornton said. It's huge for ranchers and land rights within Harney County and across the West, he said.
"We did something peaceful and wanted to stay peaceful," said Thornton, who has kept vigil outside the courthouse, blowing a shofar.
"This is for the people of Oregon," Thornton said. "This was never for us."
Wampler appeared on the courthouse steps and described the verdict as a "stunning victory for rural America."
David Fry's lawyer Per C. Olson said, "It was the right result.''
"I think the jury saw through this that they were well-meaning, well-intentioned individuals,'' Olson said. The jury saw that the defendants cared about the Hammonds and didn't like how the federal government was treating them.
Maxfield, who represented Wampler, came out of the courthouse, holding up her fists. She said she has never seen "anything like this happen,'' where multiple defendants in a federal court trial were all acquitted, and called it one of the most significant cases in her career.
Defendant Shawna Cox said she had a "peaceful feeling,'' as she waited for the verdicts, "but I didn't expect we'd all be found not guilty.''
"I wept,'' Cox said. "It brings me to tears. I'm so grateful to the jury.''
Defense lawyer Matthew Schindler, standby counsel to defendant Kenneth Medenbach who was excused from court because of medical ailments, said he called his client right away.
"He's been fighting for more than 20 years to be in a situation where a jury acquitted him,'' Schindler said. "It's vindication.''
Schindler said he believes the jury's verdicts resulted from the difficulty the government had in proving that the "intent'' of the defendants was to conspire against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
"The judge gave us broad ability to bring in a defendant's state of mind and what you saw was a number of defendants who each had their own motivations,'' Schindler said.
When prosecuting a drug conspiracy, it's easy to point to what the defendants' underlying objective is. But in this case, Schindler said, there was "no obvious underlying self interest.'' He said the defense also was bolstered because the jurors came from different regions from the state, and not just from Portland.
Oregon U.S. Attorney Billy Williams sat in the back of the courtroom with Oregon's FBI Special Agent in Charge Gregg Bretzing as the verdicts were read. Williams left the courtroom early, before the scrum with Mumford, to attend a gathering of the League of Minority Voters in Salem Thursday night.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, who was the face of law enforcement during the 41-day refuge takeover, said in a statement, "While I am disappointed in the outcome, I believe our form of government and justice system to be the best in the world. These folks were tried in a court of law and found not guilty by a jury of their peers. This is our system, and I stand by it.''
The five-week trial offered a rare display: Three of the seven defendants chose to represent themselves. Five of them were among the more than 80 people who took the witness stand to testify.
And one of the original 12 jurors was dismissed after a fellow juror raised concerns about his impartiality four days into an initial round of deliberations - what the judge called an "extraordinary circumstance.'' An alternate juror was summoned to begin a new round of deliberations with the remaining 11 jurors Thursday morning.
There was heightened security in and around the courthouse throughout the trial, with security officers ordered to wear bulletproof vests, and metal detectors set up outside the main trial courtroom and an overflow room with a live video feed of the proceedings.
Often, supporters knelt in prayer in the courthouse corridor before the trial began in the mornings, and some kept vigil across the street, with one fellow occupier blowing a ram's horn, or shofar, as the jury deliberated.
Ammon Bundy, the leader of the refuge occupation, said he and a group of supporters staged the Jan. 2 takeover to further their protest of the return to federal prison of Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, convicted of setting fire to federal lands.
The Hammonds lived near the refuge and had served short prison terms but were ordered to return to prison to complete five-year mandatory minimum sentences.
Bundy also sought to stake claim to to the federal bird sanctuary near Burns and turn it over to locals to run for cattle grazing, mining and logging. Bundy, who had recently moved to Idaho from Arizona, is the son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher famous for a 2014 standoff with federal authorities over grazing rights.
He was arrested Jan. 26 along with his brother and Shawna Cox on their way to a community meeting off the refuge in John Day. Jeff Banta and David Fry were arrested Feb. 11 at the refuge, among the last four occupiers left. Kenneth Medenbach was arrested Jan. 15 and Neil Wampler was arrested in California on Feb. 11.
Prosecutors described the case as strikingly simple: The occupiers took control of a wildlife refuge that wasn't theirs.
They argued that the conspiracy began Nov. 5 when Ammon Bundy and ally Ryan Payne met with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward and issued ultimatums, promising extreme civil unrest if the sheriff didn't personally stand in to protect the two local ranchers.
They presented videos of Ammon Bundy issuing a "call to arms'' and copies of his Facebook messages, in which he promised "much more than a protest.'' They played video of Ammon Bundy standing atop a snowbank in the parking lot of the Burns Safeway on Jan. 2, summoning people to take a "hard stand'' and join him at the refuge to draw attention to the plight of the Hammonds as well as other local ranchers abused by the federal government.
That day, Ryan Bundy was in the first caravan of cars that headed about 30 miles south of Burns to the refuge to clear the buildings at gunpoint in a coordinated, planned maneuver, government witnesses testified. Others followed, quickly transforming the wildlife headquarters into an armed compound that Ammon Bundy openly declared would serve as a base for patriots for years to come, prosecutors said.
With gun-toting guards working shifts at the front gate and in the watchtower, the Bundys and their devotees used refuge offices as their own, dug through federal records, opened up boxes of Native American artifacts stored in the basement of one office and dug two trenches on the property and a bunker.
FBI agents seized 22 long guns and 12 handguns from the refuge. Federal agents bagged 18,331 separate pieces of ammunition at the refuge --- 16,636 live rounds, 1,627 spent casings at the boat launch and 68 spent casings at the refuge headquarters, testimony showed.
Refuge employees testified about finding their offices trashed, files missing or scattered throughout the refuge, and fire equipment removed or missing.
Prosecutors described Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy and Shawna Cox as leaders of the occupation and said the others played different roles, yet all acted to disrupt refuge employees. On notes recovered from Ammon Bundy's iPhone, prosecutors displayed the breakdown in tasks he assigned supporters – Cox, for example, was in charge of "maps/titles'' and had two thumb drives with more than 5,000 federal government documents on them when police arrested her. Ryan Bundy was in charge of land "claim'' and Kenneth Medenbach, "signage.''
David Fry, they said, was the computer IT expert for the group, who helped get the occupation's message to the world, and stayed the longest, from Jan. 8 through Feb. 11, the last to surrender. Jeff Banta was shown in photos carrying a revolver during the last two weeks of the occupation.
Video captured Medenbach replacing the main refuge sign and truck decals with "Harney County Resource Center'' signs and logos and drilling a sign into the branch office door of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that read "Closed Permanently.'' Video supported by witness testimony also showed Ryan Bundy helping remove FBI surveillance cameras on a rural road outside the refuge.
The seizure of the refuge had a substantial destabilizing effect on county residents and the 16 refuge employees who couldn't report to work during the occupation, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight.
Defense lawyers argued that Ammon Bundy and the others didn't talk about trying to prevent federal workers from coming to the refuge and that they faced an unfair prosecution for a peaceful political protest.
Ammon Bundy testified that he was divinely inspired to occupy the refuge to stake claim to the property through the principle of adverse possession and return it to the people of Harney County.
He said he didn't share his idea until a backroom meeting on Jan. 2 at the Ye Olde Castle Restaurant in Burns. He acted, he said, only after local and state officials ignored his repeated requests to intervene in the case of the local ranchers returning to prison.
Ryan Bundy and Cox said they traveled to Burns on Jan. 2 to attend the march and protest in support of the Hammonds and planned to stay just a day or two.
Defendants said they had the legal right to carry firearms. Ammon Bundy testified that if the occupiers hadn't brought guns to the refuge, authorities would have quickly hauled away the protesters and ended the takeover.
They weren't intimidating or threatening, they said. Nearly a dozen defense witnesses who had visited the refuge during the occupation testified about the happy, peaceful, "even merry'' atmosphere there. The only violence that occurred, the defendants argued, was at the hands of state police and FBI agents, who fired at occupation spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum's truck when he raced away from a police stop on Jan. 26. State troopers fatally shot Finicum after he emerged from the truck and reached at least three times inside his jacket, where he had a loaded 9 mm pistol, police said.
Defense lawyers said their clients didn't even think about blocking refuge workers from doing their jobs. Some of the occupiers believed the refuge was closed and that employees were on New Year's vacation.
Some of the attorneys urged jurors not to infer that their clients intended to keep federal employees out simply because government supervisors had told the workers not to report to the refuge. They also pointed out that the refuge was a "public place'' and didn't belong to the government but to the people.
During the last two weeks of the occupation, Banta and Fry left the refuge headquarters buildings and camped out on the west edge of property, afraid FBI agents would kill them. At that point, they were in a standoff with the FBI, not involved in any conspiracy to impede staff of the Fish & Wildlife Service or Bureau of Land Management, they said.
Defense lawyers also raised questions about the FBI informants at the refuge. Prosecutors confirmed there were 15 informants involved in the case, nine of whom were at the refuge – including three who were identified at the trial. Six others at the refuge remained unidentified.
Without knowing who they were or what they did during the occupation, the lawyers didn't know if any of the informants conspired with the defendants to commit any of the crimes alleged in the indictment, defense lawyers argued. They revealed that one of the informants at the refuge was a man who went by the alias "John Killman'' but was really Fabio Minoggio of Las Vegas, who was asked to oversee the shooting range at the refuge.
POTENTIAL PRISON SENTENCES
The federal conspiracy to impede charge carries a maximum sentence of six years and a $250,000 fine with no mandatory minimum.
Possessing a firearm in a federal facility carries a five-year maximum sentence with no mandatory minimum.
The maximum sentence for the theft of government property is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, with no mandatory minimum.
The seven on trial were among 26 people indicted on the conspiracy charge.
Eleven of them pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge.
Seven others are set for trial on Feb. 14, but their cases may be affected by the verdicts. If convictions are handed down in this case, then defendants scheduled for trial in February might consider potential pleas. If there are acquittals, prosecutors may rethink going to trial on same charges against co-defendants next year.
On the eve of jury selection in this case, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the conspiracy charge against Pete Santilli, an independent broadcaster and self-described "shock jock,'' who provided live stream footage of the occupation.
Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy also face prosecution in Nevada in the 2014 standoff with federal agents over the impounding of their father's cattle near Bunkerville, Nevada.
The trial there is set to start Feb. 6. The two brothers and father Cliven Bundy are among 19 indicted in Nevada. Others from the Oregon refuge occupation also indicted on federal charges in Nevada are Pete Santilli, Ryan Payne, Brian Cavalier, Blaine Cooper and Joseph O'Shaughnessy.
Payne pleaded guilty to the federal conspiracy charge in Oregon under a potential global agreement that was in the works with Nevada prosecutors, but he recently asked to withdraw the Oregon plea because no deal was reached in Nevada. Prosecutors in Portland have until Oct. 31 to respond.
Cooper entered guilty pleas in both cases. O'Shaughnessy pleaded guilty in the Oregon case, with a deal pending in Nevada. Cavalier pleaded guilty in the Oregon case.
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