Militia members Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted Thursday of federal conspiracy and weapons charges connected with the armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in southeast Oregon.
The defendants, along with five other members of their militia, never denied occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in January in a bold move to force the federal government to surrender 188,000-acre property to local control.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this case is not a whodunit,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said in his closing argument. Knight told the jury the defendants took over a federal workplace that didn’t belong to them.
The case is viewed as open-and-shut, but Ammon’s attorney argues that prosecutors are unable to prove the group engaged in an illegal conspiracy prohibiting federal workers at the refuge from doing their jobs. Ryan acted as his own attorney.
In fact, the group says they never intended to stop individual workers but simply wanted the land and the buildings. Ammon and his fellow defendants argued the takeover was an act of civil disobedience against a rogue federal government.
The militia members, who were heavily armed at the time of the occupation, claimed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) created a series of regulations designed specifically to drive them off their land.
Prosecutors gathered troves of evidence to present their case. An FBI agent testified that 16,636 live rounds and nearly 1,700 spent casings were found at compound after the standoff had cleared.
Authorities charged 26 occupiers with conspiracy. Eleven pleaded guilty, and seven other defendants chose to have their trial rescheduled to begin Feb. 14.
The occupation was sparked by the imprisonment of Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom were convicted of setting fire to public land to prevent the spread of invasive plants next to their ranch in 2012.
Dwight Hammond was sentenced to three months in prison while Steven was sentenced to 11 months. The sentences were well below the mandatory minimum of five years attached for such an offense.
The Department of Justice, however, got the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the original decision and ordered the Hammonds to return to jail for longer sentences, despite the fact that both Hammonds already served prison sentences for their crimes.
Ammon and Ryan are the sons of rancher Cliven Bundy, who gained fame in 2014 for engaging in an armed standoff in Nevada with the BLM over changes to cattle grazing rules.
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