Guest Opinion: The Oregon occupation acquittals
The jury system is one of the glories of American law, giving ordinary people responsibility over many serious matters between the government and its citizens. Thursday’s acquittal of seven people who occupied a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon could be taken as a vindication of that institution. Or it could be taken as proof that even the noblest human inventions are subject to human fallibility.
The verdicts came as a shock even to the defendants’ lawyers. “I had been telling my client you can count on being convicted,” admitted defense attorney Matthew Schindler. “You don’t walk into a federal court and win a case like this. It just doesn’t happen.” Said another defense lawyer, fervently if not quite accurately: “I’m speechless.”
There was not much dispute about the events that led to the trial. Brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy were among the armed protesters who organized the January takeover of the 187,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, demanding that the federal government surrender control. The siege ended a few weeks later after the Bundys and several followers were arrested while outside the preserve.
The government charged the defendants with conspiracy to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs, as well as weapons offenses. But the defendants insisted their actions were meant only to draw attention to what they regard as federal overreaching. “This has nothing to do with refuge employees or their duties,” Ammon Bundy testified. The guns, they said, were needed only in case the interlopers were attacked.
Obviously the occupiers did impede federal workers. But proving criminal intent was crucial to the government’s case, and prosecutors failed to convince the jury. One juror said afterward that the verdict “was a statement regarding the various failures of the prosecution to prove ‘conspiracy’ in the count itself — and not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, action or aspirations.”
Whether the outcome will advance the occupiers’ cause is not at all clear. During the occupation, Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum, one of the leaders, declared, “It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government.” They did return to the federal government, though Finicum didn’t live to see it. He was shot to death, apparently reaching for his gun, while trying to escape from police.
The Bundy brothers still face trial on charges related to an armed 2014 standoff at their father’s ranch in Nevada. Several people involved in the Oregon occupation pleaded guilty, and others are awaiting trial.
We give the jury credit for undertaking a difficult task and reaching the verdict it thought was warranted by the evidence and the law. But as Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., put it, “The notion that an armed occupation could take over a citizen-owned facility and cause extensive damage, and yet face no consequences within our legal system, is deeply concerning.”
Let’s hope this outcome doesn’t encourage other irresponsible conduct by sympathizers, copycats and vigilantes who think the law is what they say it is. If some people out West don’t like Washington’s handling of federal lands, we encourage them to pursue change through the peaceful means offered by our system of government. There’s an election Nov. 8.