A federal court jury on Thursday acquitted anti-government militant leader Ammon Bundy and six followers of conspiracy charges stemming from their role in the armed takeover of a U.S. wildlife center in Oregon earlier this year. The surprise verdict was a stinging defeat for federal prosecutors and law enforcement in a trial the defendants sought to turn into a forum for their cause – opposition to U.S. government control over millions of acres of public lands in the West. Bundy and others, including his brother and co-defendant Ryan Bundy, cast the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as a legitimate and patriotic act of civil disobedience. Prosecutors called it a lawless scheme to seize federal property by force.
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In an emotional climax to the seven-week-long trial in the U.S. District Court in Portland, Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Marcus Mumford, was tackled to the floor by U.S. marshals as he became involved in a heated verbal exchange with the judge over the terms of his client’s continued detention. The Bundys still face assault, conspiracy and other charges from a separate armed standoff in 2014 at the Nevada ranch of their father, Cliven Bundy, triggered when federal agents seized his cattle for his failure to pay grazing fees for his use of public land.
The outcome of the Oregon trial clearly shocked many in the packed courtroom. Attorneys exchanged looks of astonishment with the defendants, then hugged their clients as the not-guilty verdicts were read amid gasps from spectators. Outside the courthouse, supporters celebrated by shouting “Hallelujah” and reading passages from the U.S. Constitution. One man rode his horse, named Lady Liberty, in front of the courthouse carrying an American flag.
The verdict came hours after a newly reconstituted jury, with as replacement drafted in after one panelist was dismissed over questions of bias on Wednesday, renewed deliberations in the case. Jurors previously had deliberated over three days. The 12-member panel found all seven defendants – six men and a woman – not guilty of the most serious charge, conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation, threats or force. That charge alone carried a maximum penalty of six years in prison. The defendants also were acquitted of illegal possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property, except in the case of Ryan Bundy, for whom jurors were deadlocked on the charge of theft.
The takeover was initially sparked by outrage over the plight of two imprisoned Oregon ranchers the occupiers believed had been unfairly treated in an arson case. But the militants said they were also protesting larger grievances at what they saw as government tyranny. The standoff led to the shooting death of one protester by police shortly after the Bundy brothers were arrested, and left parts of the refuge badly damaged. While a number of self-styled militia groups had rallied to Bundys’ cause, the occupation generated little sympathy from local authorities in nearby Harney County. As the protest wore on, the occupiers drew ridicule on social media and anonymous deliveries of sex toys, glitter and nail polish at the compound.
More than two dozen people, in all, have been criminally charged in the occupation, and a second group of defendants is due to stand trial in February. Mumford told reporters after his courtroom scuffle that he believed Ammon and Ryan Bundy would remain in custody for the time being but may be transferred to Nevada. Four co-defendants were free on their own recognizance during the trial. A fifth, David Fry, the last of the occupiers to surrender in February, was expected to be released soon.