Two sons of antigovernment Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy aren’t being prosecuted for staging a political protest, but for an armed takeover of a public wildlife refuge in Oregon, a federal prosecutor said at the outset of a trial for seven defendants.
A 12-member U.S. District Court jury in Portland, hearing the case over the next two months, will decide whether the defendants are guilty of conspiring to impede U.S. Interior Department employees at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year through intimidation, threats or force.
The defendants are Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, along with David Fry, Jeff Banta, Shawna Cox, Kenneth Medenbach and Neil Wampler.
Charges were dismissed last week against an eighth defendant, Pete Santilli, a self-described broadcaster who claimed he never spent a night at the refuge and whose YouTube broadcasts were protected speech. Nineteen other defendants charged in the Malheur takeover will have separate trials.
The 41-day takeover of the sprawling, 187,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary in eastern Oregon began on Jan. 2. Before it ended, one of the occupiers, Robert LaVoy Finicum, was fatally shot at a police roadblock away from the refuge.
The Bundys’ father, Cliven, is not charged in the Malheur case, but remains in custody in Nevada where he and 16 others, including his sons, Ammon, Ryan, Melvin and David Bundy, are scheduled to stand trial in February. They are accused of conspiracy, threatening federal officers and carrying firearms during a crime of violence and obstruction.
Those charges are associated with a 2014 standoff at Bunkerville, Nev., that occurred while federal agents were attempting to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle on public lands for non-payment of grazing fees to the government.
Seven of the defendants in the Nevada case also are charged in Oregon with involvement in the Malheur takeover.
The trial in Portland “pits the federal government against a group of self-described patriots who fervently believe public lands are in the wrong hands,” the Oregonian reported.
“The case will help to further establish when political protest protected by the First Amendment crosses the line into words and deeds that will send you to prison, and what the legal limitations are to constitutional guarantees of free speech, assembly and the right to bear arms,” the newspaper reported.
A 12-member jury, with eight alternates, was selected last week from a pool of 350 people from throughout Oregon. Most of the jurors selected said they were only slightly familiar with the case and hadn’t formed any opinions. Opening arguments were heard Tuesday.
“The case is all about mental state – what was meant by what people did,” U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown told prospective jurors, according to the Oregonian.
“The defendants are not on trial for what they believe,” the federal judge said. “They can only be found guilty if the government proves their criminal intentions.”
Embarking on that very path, Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow played a video of Ammon Bundy speaking to a crowd of followers and supporters at a Jan. 2 antigovernment demonstration and march in Burns, Ore. Assorted antigovernment activists, pro-gun rights supporters and various militia groups showed up.
The demonstration was billed as a way to show support for two area ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, facing prison terms for arson on federal land, but it became a precursor of the takeover of the wildlife refuge.
The video played for the jury showed Ammon Bundy atop a snow bank telling the crowd: “I’m asking you to follow me to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. We’re going to make a hard stand. … We’re going to insist the Constitution be protected here in this country.”
The prosecutor argued that the video, which is expected to be admitted as evidence during the trial, showed Bundy’s intent to lead an armed occupation of the refuge, something beyond protected free-speech or expression of political beliefs.
The prosecution’s s first witness was expected to be Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, who has said he was threatened by Ammon Bundy who showed up in Burns, Ore. two months before the takeover and demanded the sheriff intervene and prevent the Hammonds from surrendering to prison.
When Ammon Bundy and a band of armed followers drove to the refuge following the Burns demonstration, they put armed guards at the entrance and in a watchtower.
The occupiers set up living quarters in the government offices, hacked into government computers, dug trenches and tore down fencing, tampered with American Indian artifacts and covered the entrance sign with one saying: “Harney County Resource Center.” When it ended, FBI agents recovered dozens of abandoned firearms and 1,000 spent shell casings.
Some of the occupiers have struck plea bargains and entered guilty pleas. It now appears likely that federal prosecutors will call those individuals to testify for the prosecution in an attempt to buttress the government’s case that the refuge takeover was a willful, intentional criminal act.
Defense attorney Marcus Mumford told the jury that Ammon Bundy, while leading the occupation, didn’t intend to “interfere with some kind of nature study,’” but wanted to return the federal refuge to the people “because the federal government refuses to respect the limits of its powers,” the Oregonian reported.
Mumford said Ammon Bundy’s sole purpose was to demand “the federal government obey the law. The nerve!”
The defense attorney told the jury in opening arguments that Bundy was asserting his rights under adverse-possession, which he believed was a legal way to occupy the refuge and take it back from federal control.
Ryan Bundy, acting as his own attorney, showed the jury a photo of him standing by his wife and seven of their eight children. He “described himself as a son of a rancher, member of the Mormon church and a family man who now raises cattle, melon and children,” the Portland newspaper reported.
The judge rejected a request by Ryan Bundy to provide each juror with a “pocket copy” of the Constitution, but he held one up, telling the jurors that he believes “governments are instituted by God for the benefit of man and that ‘human law’ should punish guilt but never suppress the freedom of the soul,” the newspaper account said.
“I believe we were there not to break the law, but to enforce the law, to uphold the law … the Constitution of the United States,” Ryan Bundy told the jury, saying he was thankful to finally have his day in court.
“It’s a marvelous thing to see a jury and let you decide,” Ryan Bundy told the jury.