The high-profile trial over the takeover of the Malheur wildlife refuge sparked a national debate about the public land rights of ranchers in the American west
A jury ruled that brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy were not guilty of conspiring against the government, a surprising end to the high-profile Oregon standoff trial that sparked national debates about public lands and the rights of ranchers in the American west.
The decision, unveiled in federal court in Portland on Thursday, is a blow to the US government, which had aggressively prosecuted the rightwing activists who led an armed takeover of public property to protest American land-use regulations.
The Bundy brothers, who orchestrated a 2 January takeover of the Malheur national wildlife refuge, were acquitted on Thursday on a number of serious charges, along with five other defendants. Only a day earlier the court dismissed a juror over fears of bias, raising concerns that the trial would drag on for weeks.
We are just so excited, Angie Bundy, Ryans wife, told the Guardian after the verdict was announced. Weve been praying hard, and we knew they hadnt done anything wrong.
The Bundy familys public fight with the government first ignited in 2014 when the patriarch Cliven, now 70, led an armed standoff with law enforcement at his desert ranch in Nevada.
For decades, Cliven had refused to pay grazing taxes, claiming that the US Bureau of Land Management had no authority to restrict his use of public lands by his property. Authorities said Clivens debt climbed to more than $1m and eventually, law enforcement attempted to seize his cattle. But officers were forced to retreat when hundreds of supporters, some heavily armed, showed up to defend the ranch in Bunkerville, an hour north of Las Vegas.
The dispute and lack of prosecution galvanized ultra-conservative activists and militia groups across the west, and the Bundys launched a second fight with the BLM in January 2016 in a remote part of eastern Oregon.
In response to the imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers, who were prosecuted for arson, Ammon and Ryan led a group of activists in an occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge, an obscure bird sanctuary.
Ammon declared that he and other protesters, some who openly carried firearms and took over government buildings and equipment, would stay camped at the site until the ranchers were freed and the refuge land was given to locals to control.
Prosecutors charged the Bundy brothers and 24 other defendants with conspiracy to impede officers through use of force, intimidation or threats, and some also faced additional charges of firearm possession and theft of public property.
Some of the defendants signed plea deals in hopes of getting shorter prison sentences, and a total of seven defendants have been on trial since September.
The defendants were acquitted on the conspiracy and firearm charges, though the jury could not come to an agreement on a property theft offense that faces Ryan.
The court proceedings have drawn packed crowds of rightwing supporters who see the Bundy family as a symbol of the American west and the fight against government overreach, as well liberal environmentalists who have called for harsh prison sentences to send a message that the government will protect public lands and promote conservation.
During the trial, which featured colorful testimony from rural Bundy fans and local law enforcement critical of the occupation, federal prosecutors argued that the protesters organized a dangerous invasion and conspired to stop refuge workers from doing their job.
Ammons attorney and other defense lawyers have argued that the defendants were leading a peaceful demonstration and were lawfully speaking out against federal actions and policies.
Prosecutors also revealed during the court proceedings that US authorities relied on more than a dozen confidential informants during the occupation, and defendants lawyers have raised concerns about how the government has used that information and how those individuals shaped the actions at the refuge.
The Bundys are devout Mormons, and Angie cited her familys faith when celebrating the decision on Thursday night.
This means that God answers prayers, that God cares about mans freedom. This is huge.
Angie, who has been taking care of their eight children while her husband was in custody, said it would be a huge relief for her husband to come home.
These ranchers who have taken a stand are the last ranchers standing, Janalee Tobias, a Utah activist who traveled to the refuge, told the Guardian.
The gun rights advocate, who testified on behalf of the defense earlier this month, argued that the Bundys were not aggressors and were trying to educate people.
A separate trial, involving Ammon, Ryan, Cliven and two other Bundy men, is planned for next year in Nevada on charges stemming from the 2014 Bunkerville standoff.
The Oregon decision could have significant implications for the Nevada case, where the Bundys and a group of activists still face a range of similar accusations, including charges of conspiracy.
Bundys wife said she hoped the jurys decision would pave the way for a clear win next year. Ranchers have been oppressed long enough.