Today, a federal jury found brothers Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy, and co-defendants not guilty in a Portland, Oregon, court of conspiring to impede federal employees who were trying to do their jobs through the use of intimidation, threat or force during their occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January. The standoff occurred as animated debate continues throughout the western states, where the federal government owns 47 percent of the land. Federal control of that land and the costs of grazing and mining rights on that land continue to pit locals against the federal government.
The brothers Bundy and others who occupied the wildlife refuge for 41 days were also found not guilty of bearing arms in a federal facility. These included fellow occupiers Jeff Banta and David Fry. The jury also found Kenneth Medenbach not guilty of stealing government property, while there was a hung jury declared on the charge against Ryan Bundy of the theft of FBI surveillance cameras.
After deliberating approximately five hours, the jury of three men and nine women returned the verdicts today in a case that drew national and international attention to the bird sanctuary in eastern Oregon. Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Marcus Mumford, dealt a blow to the federal prosecutors when he argued that his client should walk out a free man. When U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown told him of a U.S. Marshal's hold on Bundy from a pending federal indictment in Nevada, Mumford stood up and answered, "If there's a detainer, show me.''
Defense attorney tackled by marshalls
At that point, six U.S. Marshals surrounded Mumford at the defense table and grabbed him. Mumford yelled, “What are you doing?” as he was tackled to the floor. The lawmen shouted, "Stop resisting.'' The judged demand, "Everybody out of the courtroom now!''
Mumford was taken into custody. Another legal counsel for Ammon Bundy, J. Morgan Philpot, said later that Mumford has been arrested and was tasered.
On the courthouse steps, supporters of the defendants gathered in mutual embraces once they heard the news. Groups of supporters had gathered in prayer as of this morning, while some stood in silent vigil across the street. One of the male supporters, blew tunes from a shofar - a ram’s horn trumpet associated with Jewish tradition.
The five-week trial was unusual, not only for the arrest of the defense attorney, but also because three of the seven defendants represented themselves. Five of them were among the dozens of witnesses who testified. One of the original twelve jurors was dismissed when a fellow juror expressed concerns about his impartiality just four days into the initial round of jurors’ deliberations. Following what judge identified as an "extraordinary circumstance,'' an alternate was summoned and new deliberations commenced with the remaining eleven jurors today.
Security was tight at the courthouse, where officers were required to wear armor. Metal detectors were set up outside the main courtroom, while another room provided live video of the trial.
Malheur Refuge occupiers sought to turn over federal land to the people
Ammon Bundy led the occupation at the refuge that began on January 2nd and has maintained that his purpose has been to protest the imprisonment of Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, father and son, who are serving time in a federal prison for setting fire to federal lands at the refuge. Bundy wanted to lay a claim to the federal bird sanctuary and turn it over to local people for mining, logging, and running cattle. Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher famous for a 2014 standoff with federal authorities over cattle grazing rights.
Federal prosecutors described their case as a simple one: Bundy and the other occupies seized control of a federal wildlife refuge that they did not own. They argued that Ammon Bundy and Ryan Payne began the conspiracy on November 5, 2015, when they met Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward and issued ultimatums and promised civil unrest if the sheriff did not personally stand in to protect the Hammonds.
The prosecutors showed videos in which Ammon Bundy issued a "call to arms'' and also promised "much more than a protest.'' Bundy issued a call on the people of Burns, Oregon, to join him at the nearby refuge and take a "hard stand'' to draw attention to the Hammonds and others allegedly abused by the federal government.
Ryan Bundy was among the first to enter the refuge and clear the buildings at gunpoint, according to government witnesses, in a coordinated maneuver. The refuge was turned into an armed camp, with armed guards turning shifts at the front gate and in a watchtower.
The FBI seized 22 long guns of various sorts, as well as 12 handguns at the refuge. They also seized 16,636 live rounds of ammunition. Employees of the refuge found their offices trashed, while files were scattered or missing. Firefighting equipment disappeared.
More legal headaches for the occupiers
Brothers Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy will also face prosecution in Nevada for their roles in the 2014 standoff with federal agents over the impounding of their father's cattle near Bunkerville, Nevada. A trial is scheduled for February 6. The Bundy brothers, and their father, Cliven Bundy, are among 19 people indicted in Nevada. Some of those involved in the Oregon refuge occupation were also indicted in Nevada: Brian Cavalier, Blaine Cooper, Joseph O’Shaughnessy, Ryan Payne, and Pete Santilli. In Payne’s case, he pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in Oregon under a potential global agreement with Nevada prosecutors. However, he has asked to withdraw the Oregon plea because no deal was reached in Nevada. Cooper entered guilty pleas in both cases. O'Shaughnessy pleaded guilty in the Oregon case, with a deal pending in Nevada. Cavalier pleaded guilty in the Oregon case.
The Bureau of Land Management leases much of the 247 million acres under its authority to ranchers as grazing land for their cattle. Companies are also leased land to extract minerals or oil. In the case of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it is set aside for conservation and no such development is allowed. In the case of the land that caused the 2014 dispute between the federal government and Cliven Bundy, it was available for lease to ranchers but with restrictions in place to protect an endangered species of desert tortoise.
Some of the federal land -- hundreds of thousands of acres over the last 25 years -- but ranchers would probably not be able to buy it. So said Professor John Freemuth of Boise State University in a January interview with the New York Times. Advocates for devolving federal land to local control say the ownership by the states would be more responsive to land users’ needs.
The costs of transferring land to the states
Congress has weighed legislation that would transfer ownership of public lands from the federal government to state governments. However, the costs to state government for managing lands turned over to them by the federal government would be exorbitant. State governments would also lose revenue because the federal government transfers much of its leasing revenue to the states as compensation for the taxes the states would have otherwise collected from private owners. An economic study from Utah in 2012 found that taking over land management would cost the state government a substantial sum: $275 million a year.
Back in 1999, the libertarian Cato Institute offered a solution to the problem of ownership of federal land in the west. It argued that government has been notably bad at managing land. “Indeed, the failure of socialism is as evident in the realm of resource economics as it is in other areas of the economy,” said an executive summary of a Cato report.
Noting that the federal government owns approximately one-third of all the land in the United States, Cato suggested a blueprint for privatizing all public lands over the course of two to four decades. According to Cato, “Land would be auctioned not for dollars but for public land share certificates...distributed equally to all Americans.”
Some progressives are furious over the acquittals, seeing in them racial discrimination. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas tweeted "I don't get the Bundy verdict." Others included author and gay sex advisor Dan Savage. He tweeted after the verdict, "Let's try this again with armed black guy and see if they live to get to trial, much less get acquitted at trial."