PORTLAND, Ore. – In a case sure to rouse strong feelings about control of Western lands, a jury found the leaders of the armed group that took over a national wildlife refuge in rural Oregon not guilty of conspiracy and possession of firearms at a federal facility.
Here's a recap of the case and the issues surrounding it:
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE COURTOOM?
Jurors exonerated brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others Thursday on charges stemming from their six-week armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge in rural Oregon. Ammon Bundy's defense lawyer Marcus Mumford demanded his client be released immediately. Mumford kept yelling at the judge and U.S. marshals used their stun guns on the attorney and wrestled him to the floor. Another Bundy lawyer, Morgan Philpot, said Mumford was arrested. The judge said Ammon Bundy would be held because he's also facing charges in Nevada stemming from a 2014 standoff at his father Cliven Bundy's ranch.
HOW DID THIS ALL BEGIN?
It started as a protest against the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires and grew into demands for the U.S. government to turn public lands over to local control. The father-and-son ranchers distanced themselves from the occupiers, reporting to prison two days after the standoff began Jan. 2 outside of tiny Burns, Oregon. Ammon Bundy and others contended the Constitution limits federal power to acquire and own property within a state's borders.
HOW DID THE OCCUPATION END?
The Bundys and other leaders were driving to a community forum on Jan. 26 when police stopped and arrested them. Group spokesman LaVoy Finicum sped off and crashed his truck into a snowbank to avoid a police roadblock. Authorities say he was reaching for a weapon when he exited the vehicle and that's when Oregon State Police officers opened fire, killing him. Four occupiers who remained after Finicum's death finally surrendered Feb. 11 after protracted negotiations with federal authorities who surrounded the refuge.
WHAT WAS THE GROUP'S DEFENSE?
They said they used their First Amendment rights to engage in a peaceful protest and that those with guns were exercising their Second Amendment rights. The occupiers contended nobody was threatened, no workers were impeded from performing their duties and the government fired the only shots. Moreover, they say those shots, which killed Finicum, showed why they needed guns for protection.
WHAT DID PROSECUTORS SAY?
Federal prosecutors took two weeks to present their case to jurors, finishing with a display of more than 30 guns seized at the refuge after the standoff. An FBI agent testified that 16,636 live rounds and nearly 1,700 spent casings were found at the refuge. The local sheriff testified about his meetings with Bundy and what he perceived as ultimatums if he did not bow to his call to protect the Oregon ranchers accused of setting the fires. The manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge said he told his employees to stay home rather than confront armed strangers.
AREN'T THE BUNDYS ALSO FACING TRIAL IN NEVADA?
They and five others from the Oregon case have been charged in a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents near their father Cliven's cattle ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. The three Bundys are scheduled for a February trial in Las Vegas.
HOW IS THIS SITUATION SIMILAR TO THE PROTESTS IN NORTH DAKOTA?
Both involve strong feelings about how lands should be used. In North Dakota on Thursday law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear and firing bean bags and pepper spray evicted protesters from private land in the path of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The route skirts the Standing Rock Reservation and the tribe says it could endanger water supplies and disturb cultural sites. The tribe has gone to court to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision granting permits at more than 200 water crossings.
WHAT'S ULTIMATELY AT STAKE?
The jurisdiction of about a million square miles of public land managed by the federal government, mostly in the West. Many who depend on the land for their livelihood argue that wildlife often holds more weight than people. They sometimes frame their outlook in patriotic or religious terms and say federal land managers who impose limits are shutting down lumber mills, cutting off cattle grazing, preventing mining and destroying a way of life in the rural West. However, many environmental groups say mining, logging and ranching have run roughshod for decades on public land and left a legacy of pollution for taxpayers to clean up. They say the industries have wiped out old-growth forests and overgrazed landscapes made vulnerable to invasive species.