The federal prosecutors who failed to convict Ammon Bundy returned to court Tuesday to try four lesser-known men who followed Bundy’s call to take a hard stand against the government and occupy a national wildlife refuge in Oregon.
Like the defendants in the first trial, the primary charge facing the men is conspiracy to impede Interior Department employees from doing their jobs at the refuge through the use of force, threats or intimidation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow spent a good portion of his opening statement telling jurors that a conspiracy does not have to include people gathering around a conference table and drafting a written agreement.
Barrow acknowledged there was no written agreement, but said circumstantial evidence will show there was a “meeting of the minds” to prevent federal employees from going to work.
The four defendants are Duane Ehmer of Irrigon, Oregon; Jason Patrick of Bonaire, Georgia; Darryl Thorn of Marysville, Washington; and Jake Ryan of Plains, Montana. The men, all free on their own recognizance, waived their right to a speedy trial last fall, preferring to have more time to prepare.
Three of them are also charged with possessing a firearm in a federal facility. Two are charged with depredation of government property.
They were among the more than two dozen men and women who answered Bundy’s call to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest federal control of Western lands and the imprisonment of two ranchers convicted of setting fires on public rangeland.
“The defendants are not being tried for their political beliefs, no matter how baseless, radical and ridiculous they may be,” Barrow told jurors.
Andrew Kohlmetz, an attorney representing Patrick, countered that the beliefs of the men are at the heart of the case, because they are what drove them to the refuge. He told the Portland jury of seven women and five men that impeding workers was not one of those beliefs and there was no conspiracy.
“The evidence will fail to show that a single person went there with the conscious desire or goal to interfere with anyone who worked there,” Kohlmetz said.
The protesters gained control of the refuge on Jan. 2, 2016. The Bundys were arrested in a Jan. 26 traffic stop away from the refuge that ended with police fatally shooting Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, an occupation spokesman. Most occupiers left the refuge after Finicum’s death, but a few holdouts remained until Feb. 11, 2016.
There was no dispute the group seized the refuge and established armed patrols, but jurors last fall bought defense arguments that the takeover was an act of civil disobedience and the government failed to prove a conspiracy against employees.
Barrow and the other prosecutors who lost what initially seemed an open-and-shut case declined interview requests after the bitter defeat, and haven’t elaborated on what they think went wrong.
Unlike the first trial, they hired an outside consultant to help them with last week’s jury selection process, a sign they believe the seeds of defeat were planted before the first witness was called.
They also hedged their bets by adding misdemeanors such as trespassing to the mix of charges against the four men. The misdemeanor charges will be heard in a non-jury trial after the felony trial ends.
Bundy, the star of the first trial, is expected to appear in the sequel as a defense witness. Though cleared in Oregon, he’s in a Nevada jail awaiting trial on charges stemming from a 2014 standoff with federal authorities at his father’s ranch near Bunkerville.
The defense plans to put him on the stand for two days, letting him explain the occupation and what it hoped to accomplish.
Source: Associated Press