PORTLAND, Ore. – The surprising decision to acquit the leaders of an armed group that took over a national wildlife refuge in Oregon has prompted praise and criticism. Here's a recap of what happened and the reaction.
WHAT WAS THE VERDICT?
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. They had been accused of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs. The Bundy group says they were exercising their constitutional rights to protest what they believe are onerous federal land use policies.
WHAT WAS THE JURORS' REASONING?
The names of the jurors are not public but one emailed a Portland, Oregon, newspaper to say the prosecution failed to prove the fundamental elements of a conspiracy charge. In his message to The Oregonian/OregonLive, Juror No. 4 said the panel spoke with U.S. District Judge Anna Brown after the verdict and asked why the federal government chose the conspiracy charge. The juror said he learned a possible alternate charge, criminal trespass, wouldn't have brought as serious a potential penalty. The juror wrote he is baffled by the negative response from observers shocked by the acquittals, saying "don't they know that 'not guilty' does not mean innocent." He says the jurors were aware their verdict might inspire future lawbreaking, but they had to focus on the charge before them.
WHAT DO EXPERTS SAY?
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor, said the way the federal government handled the occupation precluded them from charging the wildlife occupiers with assault on a federal officer with a deadly weapon. When the occupiers took over the Oregon refuge, law enforcement closed the roads and stayed miles away while attempting to get them to leave by sending in the sheriff or communicating by phone. Part of the reasoning was to avoid a violent and potentially deadly confrontation. "This may be a case of no good deed goes unpunished," Levenson said. "The upside of not confronting them was it was less likely there would be violence. The downside was it was less likely that they could use the assault charge." Levenson said criminal trespass is only a misdemeanor and prosecutors opted to try to secure felony convictions. Levenson said this case may prompt Congress to consider toughening those laws.
WHAT DO FEDERAL OFFICALS SAY?
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she's "profoundly disappointed" by the decision. In a message Friday to all Interior Department employees, Jewell says she's concerned about the verdict's potential effect on workers and on the effective management of public lands. She encourages employees to take care of themselves and their co-workers, stay vigilant and report any suspicious activity to supervisors and, if appropriate, law enforcement. Jewell's message notes that she visited the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge after the occupation and found it disheartening to survey the damage. The occupiers contend they improved the refuge, and law enforcement caused damage during the investigation.
WHAT DO THE ACTIVISTS SAY?
William C. Fisher, an activist from Boise, Idaho, said the acquittals will embolden others. This summer, Fisher camped by a memorial to refuge occupier LaVoy Finicum at the spot where Finicum was shot and killed by authorities after he fled a traffic stop that resulted in the arrest of Ammon Bundy and others. Fisher said the acquittals will "give people hope, that they can stand up and protest peacefully." He said he considers the armed takeover at the wildlife refuge as peaceful because the occupiers did not use violence.