Jury acquits militia that occupied Oregon wildlife refuge — but the saga is far from over
Few days in federal court are as action-packed as the one that unfolded Thursday in Portland, Oregon. In a stunning conclusion to a five-week trial, a jury acquitted seven defendants who faced a slew of conspiracy and weapons charges related to their armed takeover of a wildlife refuge earlier this year. Then, amid an uproar in the courtroom, U.S. marshals tackled the attorney for the group’s leader and used a Taser on him.
The proceeding closed the latest chapter in the government’s case against brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who led a group of armed militia members as they occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon in what they claimed was a protest against federal land management. But the saga is far from over.
The Bundy brothers, along with their father, Cliven, still face an array of felony charges in Nevada for another armed standoff with federal agents in 2014. That trial, which includes five other defendants from the Oregon case, is set to begin in Las Vegas in February. After Ammon Bundy’s acquittal on Thursday, his lawyer, Marcus Mumford, argued that he should be released immediately. When the judge refused, saying Bundy must continue to be held because of the pending indictment in Nevada, Mumford began shouting.
“No, he’s released on these charges,” Mumford yelled, according to the Oregonian. “He’s acquitted. Nevada doesn’t have jurisdiction. If there’s a detainer, show me.”
“Mr. Mumford, you really need to never yell at me now or never again,” the judge replied.
Reports from the courtroom said at least six U.S. marshals surrounded Mumford, grabbed him, and took him to the ground. While the judge ordered the courtroom cleared, the marshals shouted for Mumford to “Stop resisting.” Citing Eric Wahlstrom, supervising deputy of the U.S. Marshals Service, the Oregonian wrote that Mumford was “shocked with a stun gun in what’s called a dry-stun mode, meaning no probes were fired into his body, but a Taser was placed up against his body.” Wahlstrom was quoted as saying Mumford was tased because he “continued to resist” as the marshals tried to handcuff him.
Mumford was reportedly taken into custody, cited for both failure to comply with a federal lawful order and disturbance, and released with orders to return to federal court in January.
The dustup with Mumford capped a remarkable day in the courtroom. It’s exceedingly rare for federal prosecutors to lose one case during a trial, let alone seven at once. For their 41-day armed occupation of the wildlife refuge, the Bundys and their co-defendants faced charges of conspiring to impede the work of federal officers, illegally possessing firearms in federal facilities, and carrying firearms in relation to a crime of violence.
The weapons charges should have been a slam-dunk for the feds. Not only were the militia members repeatedly filmed and photographed carrying guns during their occupation, but prosecutors showed the jurors more than 30 guns that were seized at the refuge after the standoff. In addition, an FBI agent testified that the agency found 16,636 rounds of ammunition and nearly 1,700 spent shell casings, according to the Associated Press.
The conspiracy charges were slightly less cut-and-dried, and Bundy and Co. were able to persuade the jury that they were merely exercising their First and Second Amendment rights during an otherwise peaceful protest. Ammon Bundy even compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr. when he took the stand in his own defense. He and the other occupiers argued that nobody was hurt or threatened during their demonstration, and claimed that they were only carrying weapons to protect themselves from overzealous law enforcement officers, who fatally shot one of their group when they were taken into custody.
Jurors for the case were pulled from across Oregon, which may have helped the Bundys since many parts of the state are rural, conservative, and distrustful of the federal government. One of the jurors was even dismissed for bias during deliberations, a rare occurrence that can lead to a mistrial.
Many observers compared the dispute over land management — the Bundys want federally protected lands opened up to ranchers, miners, and loggers — and the timing of the verdict with recent events in North Dakota, where Native American tribes have been protesting against the construction of an oil pipeline. Violence erupted on Thursday when riot police descended on the demonstration and tried to clear out the protesters, after hundreds of arrests a few days before. Others claimed the acquittals were proof of a double standard in the U.S. justice system that benefits white men like the Bundys.
— Dr. Jill Stein (@DrJillStein) October 28, 2016
With the case in Nevada still pending, the Bundys aren’t out of trouble yet. But the fallout of Thursday’s not guilty verdict could have troubling implications for the rise of paramilitary groups in the United States. As noted by Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer during his recent investigation of militias operating along the U.S.–Mexico border, more than 275 such groups are believed to be operating in at least 41 states.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, told the Oregonian that Thursday’s verdicts could embolden militia groups across the country and prompt similar armed standoffs over federal control of public land.
“We are deeply disappointed in today’s verdict, which puts our park rangers and scientists at further risk just for doing their jobs,” Rokala said. “The outcome of today’s trial will undoubtedly embolden extremist groups. It’s imperative that local, state, and federal law enforcement ensure the safety of our land managers.”