A federal jury delivered a resounding acquittal today for the anti-government militants who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January, finding Ammon Bundy and his six co-defendants not guilty of conspiring to keep federal employees from doing their jobs.
Supporters of the Arizona-based rancher and his anti-government movement wept, hugged and waved American flags in the streets outside downtown Portland's federal courthouse.
The verdict is a stunning defeat for U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, whose legal team was unable to prove that Bundy and his allies broke any laws by turning an Eastern Oregon bird refuge into an armed fortress.
It followed the dismissal Wednesday of a juror who had previously worked for the federal Bureau of Land Management, a potential conflict that could have resulted in a mistrial.
The "not guilty" verdict capped a six-week trial filled with testimony over the political beliefs Ammon Bundy and his co-defendants claimed were the motivation for the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown repeatedly told the jury that the defendants' political beliefs didn't affect their guilt or innocence.
But Ammon Bundy and several other defendants took the stand in their own defense to detail their beliefs that the Constitution prohibits the federal government from owning land, that the sentences given to two Burns-area ranchers convicted on federal arson charges were the result of government tyranny and that the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy's Bunkerville ranch was a vindication of Bundy's belief that the county sheriff is the ultimate law of the land.
Ammon Bundy's attorney, Marcus Mumford, painted Bundy as a valiant patriot, fighting a David-and-Goliath battle against government overreach. He told the jury Bundy is in jail because of that same "dark" force.
"I hope you can see what we've been pushing for," Mumford said. "What do you see? Government overreach. The government going too far. It happened to the Hammonds. You've heard that. But can you not see that it's happening to Mr. Bundy as well?"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight unsuccessfully argued that the case had nothing to do with Bundy's regularly brandished pocket Constitution, nothing to do with the arson sentences currently being served by Dwight and Steven Hammond and nothing to do with the Bunkerville standoff, which is the subject of separate prosecution in Nevada.
"It's not about the beliefs or values of any of these defendants," Knight told the jury. "It's about them deciding which laws apply and which don't. It's about a collective decision to take what isn't theirs and make it theirs."
Knight said Bundy and his co-defendants thought the law applied differently to them, that they believed they could choose which laws to follow because they were acting for the right reasons.
Bundy spent three days on the stand answering questions from his own lawyer and attorneys for his co-defendants. He patiently and exhaustively described his family life, his political beliefs and the lack of response to his demands from government officials, which he claimed justified the occupation that caused an estimated $6 million in damage to the refuge and left dozens in jail and one man dead.
Bundy told the jury he was proud of the occupation, even comparing his efforts to the work done by civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr.
"When M.L.K. stood, he made a hard stand," Bundy told the jury.
Knight's arguments were more narrowly focused.
Knight told the jury that Bundy and his six co-defendants' ultraconservative beliefs about the rightful role of the federal government under the Constitution are irrelevant. Instead, Knight said, what mattered was whether the occupiers broke the law by conspiring to keep refuge employees from doing their jobs.
"This is not about federal land use policy," Knight said. "It's not about the Hammonds. The government doesn't dispute that they hold these beliefs," Knight said. "But at the end of the day, you can't conspire to take somebody else's work space and say, 'You're no longer welcome to work here, Go home.'"
A particularly jarring moment came when Knight delivered a blistering 15-minute cross-examination that underscored the irrelevance of most of Bundy's testimony.
Knight mostly asked Bundy about statements he had made under direct examination.
Bundy denied or claimed not to remember events he had recently detailed. He suddenly insisted he wasn't a leader of the occupation. He said he couldn't remember whether he had been in Burns in November, after describing several November meetings with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward. And he said the refuge wasn't federal property, after outlining his foolproof plan to wrest control of federal property under the arcane process of adverse possession—a process nixed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But his snake-charmer manner remained. Bundy backpedaled when Knight asked him about the legal process he had earlier described with enthusiasm and certainty. And he used his usual earnest tone of voice to quibble even over Knight's most straightforward questions.
In the end, the jury found him persuasive.