A jury Thursday delivered a stunning across-the-board acquittal to the leaders and participants in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation and a remarkable blow to the federal government as it tries to tamp down a national movement led by a Nevada family to open public lands to ranchers, miners and loggers.
The verdicts finding Ammon Bundy, older brother Ryan Bundy and five others not guilty of a federal conspiracy drew elation from defense attorneys who spent five weeks arguing that the armed takeover amounted to a time-honored tradition of First Amendment protest and civil disobedience.
“Maybe this is a lesson that that’s not the way to engage with these people, who want nothing more than just to be heard, just to have a forum to talk about the injustices like the case of the Hammonds and the treatment of ranchers,” said Lisa Ludwig, standby counsel for Ryan Bundy.
The high-profile case riveted the state and drew national and international attention to the isolated bird sanctuary in rural eastern Oregon. The jury’s decision proved no less dramatic and sets up a showdown in the next stage of the land-rights movement.
The Bundy brothers still face prosecution in Nevada with their father, Cliven Bundy, all accused in the 2014 standoff at the patriarch’s ranch over unpaid grazing fees that pitted the family and their supporters against federal Bureau of Land Management agents.
The Oregon prosecutors sat silently in front of their boss, U.S Attorney Billy Williams, and the head of the FBI in Oregon, Greg Bretzing, as the judge announced the “not guilty” pleas one by one.
Williams later thanked the jury in a written statement. “While we had hoped for a different outcome, we respect the verdict of the jury and thank them for their dedicated service during this long and difficult trial,” Williams said. “We strongly believed that this case needed to be brought before a Court, publicly tried and decided by a jury.”
Bretzing, whose agents led the response to the Jan. 2 refuge seizure, offered a slightly different take. “We believe now — as we did then – that protecting and defending this nation through rigorous obedience to the U.S. Constitution is our most important responsibility.”
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” came for him first. As he sat, he smiled and rubbed the shoulder of his lawyer, Marcus Mumford.
Ryan Bundy nodded his head and mouthed to jurors, “Thank you.”