Malheur verdict hailed as ‘victory for rural America’

Perhaps no jury verdict since O.J. Simpson’s has sparked such a discussion on race and the judicial system as yesterday’s surprise “not guilty” verdict against the armed protesters — all white — who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, protesting what they said was government overeach.

The verdict came the same day authorities broke up a protest in North Dakota by Native Americans who don’t want an oil pipeline across what they say is sacred ground.

The jury in Oregon was all white.

“They’re basically giving a free to pass to other militia groups that want to organize in Oregon and other rural parts of the United States,” Carlos Covarrubias, who leads a monthly discussion on race in the Portland area, told the Oregon Live. “The ramifications could be dangerous.”

“Maybe this is a lesson that that’s not the way to engage with these people, who want nothing more than just to be heard, just to have a forum to talk about the injustices like the case of the Hammonds and the treatment of ranchers,” Lisa Ludwig, standby counsel for Ryan Bundy, one of the leaders of the militia, told the Oregonian newspaper.

Lisa Maxfield, who represented Wampler, came out of the courthouse, holding up her fists. She said she has never seen “anything like this happen,” where multiple defendants in a federal trial were all acquitted. It was one of the most significant cases in her career, she said.

“It’s a tremendous victory for rural America,” Wampler said outside the courthouse as supporter and fellow refuge occupier Brand Nu Thornton blew his shofar and another man rode his horse back and forth, hoisting an American flag.

But others, like Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, worried the verdicts would spur other similar armed standoffs against the government’s control of public lands that involve the militia.

“We are deeply disappointed in today’s verdict, which puts our park rangers and scientists at further risk just for doing their jobs. The outcome of today’s trial will undoubtedly embolden extremist groups,” Rokala said. ” It’s imperative that local, state, and federal law enforcement ensure the safety of our land managers.”

Under federal law, the jury would have had to find the defendants guilty of conspiracy in order to find them guilty of possessing weapons on federal land.

“It’s white privilege in action,” Vox’s German Lopez argues.

It is impossible to ignore race here. This was a group of armed white people, mostly men, taking over a facility. Just imagine: What would happen if a group of armed black men, protesting police brutality, tried to take over a police facility and hold it hostage for more than a month? Would they even come out alive and get to trial? Would a jury find them and their cause relatable, making it easier to send them back home with no prison time?

One doesn’t have to do much imagining here, either. The social science is pretty clear: People are much more likely to look at black people and see criminals and wrongdoers. They don’t get the privilege of innocence in the same way that white people — including these militants in Oregon — do.

One of those found not guilty promised more protests.

“Wild lands belong to all of us, not the people who hold them at gunpoint,” said National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold. “This outrageous verdict undermines the rule of law and puts people, birds and other wildlife in danger.”

  • Anna

    It will be interesting to watch the outcome of the Dakota Pipeline protests and what will happen to the members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that participated in the protest compared to the Oregon protesters.

    I think it will be a test of how far the country has come regarding race relations and the equal treatment under the law of persons of color.

    After the ugly rhetoric that has dominated the presidential election, I don’t hold out much hope for them in the U.S. Justice system.

    This is classic corporate bully vs. the little guy.

    • JamieHX

      I don’t think any corporations were involved in this case. It was actually militia bullies vs. Federal government workers.

      • Anna

        In the Standing Rock case, it is definitely corporation vs. little guy. Oil corporations have some of the wealthiest CEO’s in the world and they have very deep pockets.

        The Standing Rock Sioux have reason to be worried after the Deep Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • jon

    “Under federal law, the jury would have had to find the defendants guilty of conspiracy in order to find them guilty of possessing weapons on federal land.”
    con·spir·a·cy kənˈspirəsē noun:
    a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.

    Was the plan to take over the wildlife refuge made public before it happened? if not then it was a secret, but a group to do something unlawful (bring firearms onto federal lands)

    Apparently their defense lawyer said “For these defendants and these people, having a firearm has nothing to do with a threat or anything else, It’s as much a statement of their rural culture as a cowboy hat or a pair of jeans. I think the jury believed at the end of the day that that’s why the guns were there.”

    So I guess possessing fire arms is ok so long as it’s part of your “cultural heritage”?
    (So PC.)

    But it’s ok the sheriff’s justification for violence against protestors in ND included “some of them had knives and hatchets”

    • RBHolb

      Your definition of “conspiracy” is incorrect. Federal criminal law defines a “conspiracy” as an agreement to commit a crime. There is no requirement that the agreement be a secret.

  • Mike

    Hopefully some informed legal opinion will come out about this over time, but it certainly appears to be a terrible verdict.

    It is, however, very reminiscent of how “terrorism” is popularly defined. When white Christian extremists murder abortion doctors or otherwise terrorize groups they don’t approve of, it’s rarely called “terrorism”. That’s reserved for the dark-skinned.

    • MNIce

      I don’t know who you’re listening to. I’ve heard of non-violent pro-life protesters being denounced as “terrorists” just because they plead with women entering “reproductive health centers” not to kill their children (thereby “threatening” the abortion facility with loss of business).

      Violence against those who practice abortion is extremely rare. It isn’t proper behavior for a Christian, not only because it drives away the persons targeted instead of leading them to repentance, but because it leads the ignorant to defame Christ and his followers. Rather, Christ instructs us to “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

  • MrE85

    Sounds like they took that “jury of your peers” idea a little too far.

    • jon

      Defense lawyer must have done a great job picking out those who were carrying illegally in a federal courthouse during jury selection.

      Or I suppose looking for jurors who came to the court in a van they “borrowed” from the federal government…

    • Oregon is one of the whitest states. And the jury pool was opened to the entire state.

      • Rob

        Would be interesting to know if there were any non-whites in the jury pool, and whether the defense had them peremptorily rejected from selection.

        • BJ

          I lived in OR for a while. It is a terrible place. I recall reading an editorial piece praising a guy for shooting a child (12-14 if I recall) that hit his mailbox with a bat.

          Many people think of OR as liberal, it is not. It is libertarian not liberal.

          • jon

            Portland is liberal… Oregon is a different story… though it’s no different in MN where MSP and Duluth are generally liberal, and rural MN is generally conservative…
            Or IL where chicago is liberal and the rest of the state really isn’t…

          • Tim

            Many — probably most — states are like this, really.

          • MNIce

            I have heard a Twin Cities radio personality aver that the average IQ of an area is inversely proportional to the height of its buildings.

          • BJ

            >Portland is liberal

            eh, I lived and worked in the city of Portland – lots of trucks and gun racks.

            The paper editorial i mentioned was the Portland paper.

            I call Libertarian.

          • tboom

            Thanks for the clarification. Because of the climate and apparent liberalism I thought it might be a nice place to spend some retirement time, not so much anymore.

  • Postal Customer

    They’re white and they had guns. Case closed.

    • JamieHX

      I don’t think this had anything to do with their skin color.

  • Mike Worcester

    If I was a federal park ranger, a BLM official, a Forest Service employee, a Fish & Game technician, to name a few, I’d be very nervous right now about just who might come walking in my door and what their intentions are.

    Owning a firearm and using one for legitimate recreational and hunting purposes is certainly part of the rural ethos (I grew up in that), but forcibly taking over property that is not yours, threatening others with those firearms, and stealing property that is definitely not yours is not “rural”. That is criminal.

    I’m not a legal expert so I’ll leave the parsing of the fine points to others. That being said, the verdict was a head-scratcher. And it makes me wonder just how it will embolden others to carry out even more severe actions under the guise of being “rural”. Good grief.

  • Jay T. Berken

    To bad there isn’t a ‘law and order’ president in office, this verdict would have never happened under his watch…

    • Rob

      Because the all white jury would not have acquitted Bundy merely because a law and order person was in the Oval Office?

    • >>To bad there isn’t a ‘law and order’ president in office, this verdict would have never happened under his watch…<<

      Because the President has jurisdiction over a jury decision?

  • Rob

    The times, they are a-changin’ – for the worse. I guess the silver lining is that Bundy and his ghost writer will now be writing a book and raking in the Benjamins. Go, American Exceptionalism!

  • chris

    The contrast of this verdict with the pipeline protesters being mass arrested is a sad day for justice in the U.S.

    • Carl Crabkiller

      The arrested pipeline protesters are trespassing on private land and have not been convicted of anything as yet The gun nuts were arrested and acquitted – there is no contrast. .

  • Recall the gentleman who was killed by authorities when he raised his weapon after being stopped. He had said he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life in a cell.

    Even HE didn’t imagine he and his colleagues would be found not guilty.

  • tboom

    I’m not a legal expert but can’t a jury verdict be appealed?

    • tboom

      I found this on the US Court of Appeals web site :

      Civil Case Either side may appeal the verdict.

      Criminal Case The defendant may appeal a guilty verdict, but the government may not appeal if a defendant is found not guilty. Either side in a criminal case may appeal with respect to the sentence that is imposed after a guilty verdict.

      I assume this was a criminal case.

    • RBHolb

      No. Jeopardy attached when the jury was sworn in, so the defendants cannot be retried for this.

  • KTN

    Used to be, back in the good old days, traitors were hung or shot; now they get acquitted. Pathetic.

  • Will

    This is what’s called “jury nullification”, even if those individuals broke the letter of the law (which we can agree they almost certainly did) the jury can choose to nullify the law by declaring these defendants not guilty. While a defense attorney can never actually bring this option up in a court case and the jury can never discuss it during the case we as citizens should all realize that it is an option. Perhaps we need to take a moment to realize that the sentiment that these militia member protesters are simply reflecting an underlying feeling among many of those who live in Oregon; maybe these guys had a point that the federal government is trampling on locals and that their suggestion to release some of that land to local authorities. We always try to understand WHY there is a group protesting if the group is more liberal, let’s take some time and understand WHY this happened instead of throwing out inflammatory language like “white privilege”.

    • kat

      It’s not inflammatory to point out that these men took over federal property with a lot of fire power on board. It is not inflammatory to compare that to the current action at Standing Rock. You assume good intentions from the occupiers in Oregon and you empathize with them because of a presumed shared history and values. Call it whatever you want- but unless you feel that way when people from other races and backgrounds arm themselves and take over property that is not theirs, I’m going to stick with white privilege.

      • MNIce

        White privilege is only for Democrats. Please explain: why there is such a fuss over shipping the oil across the river by pipeline when it is far less likely to contaminate the river than shipping it over the same river by tanker cars on a railroad owned by wealthy Democrat Warren Buffet? Pipelines don’t derail and fall into the water from icy bridges. Bridges and railroad tracks have a much greater affect on sacred landscape than buried pipelines.

        • kat

          One problem is they don’t want the oil shipped across the waterway regardless of method. The main issue is you are missing the primary concern at Standing Rock. The tribes are standing for their treaty rights. The federal and state governments had no right to plan this pipeline through their treaty land. Eminent domain does not apply to native land. This is part of an ongoing struggle for native rights- not about how we choose to get our oil.
          If white privilege is only for democrats, what do you call it when people of the dominant culture (white, christian, straight) are presumed to have the best interests of themselves and their country at heart, while minorities are presumed to be a threat to your personal values?

          • MNIce

            What I call it is an ignorant conjecture on your part – you have no idea what I think about “minorities.”. There is only one minority I “presume to be a threat to my personal values.” That would be the Democrats, who constantly try to push me and my fellow citizens into stealing the fruits of other people’s labor through government handout programs.

            It makes no difference to me whether your ancestors crossed the Bering Straits 3000 years ago, were dragged out of slave ships 300 years ago, or were processed through Ellis Island 120 years ago. What matters is your character. It is wrong to think people are entitled to special treatment merely because of their ancestry. All of us who were born to legal residents of the United States or its territories are native Americans, and we all ought to treat each other as equals, whether born as citizens or naturalized.

            I was not aware that anyone had arranged to run the pipeline across a First Nation treaty land without obtaining access from the landowners in accordance with the treaty. (I prefer the Canadian term “First Nation” to avoid the confusion of a common usage of “native American” and because “Indian” should be reserved for immigrants from the largest nation in South Asia.) Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 and Article III, Section 2, Paragraph 1 of the United States Constitution make that a federal matter (Congress has the power to regulate commerce “with the Indian Tribes” and the federal courts have jurisdiction in treaty-related disputes). Previous news reports I had read conveyed the impression that all pipeline easements had been properly obtained. If that is not the case, the protesters are in the wrong place, they should be in a federal courthouse seeking an injunction.

          • kat

            I will just reply here because I think it important to note the term white privilege does not imply prejudice or malice from you personally. I am not attacking your ideals or calling you racist when I use that phrase. White privilege refers the system of thought that dominates this country. There is never a time when you need to personally defend yourself against white privilege. It is a thing that exists- not an accusation.

          • Rob

            Fred, is that you?

          • Will

            Are we all aware of the fact that there is another pipeline in this same exact location???

            It’s the light blue line…


  • Veronica

    What happens if a black group does it? This:

  • L. Foonimin

    A question for the legal experts found here; Are jury deliberations on record in any way, are selected jurors anonymous? I’m fascinated to try and understand how this jury of peers could arrive at such an outrageous conclusion.

    • Laurie K.

      Jury deliberations are secret and are not recorded. The SCOTUS recently heard arguments in a case regarding the secrecy of jury deliberations. The defendant challenged his conviction based on several jurors sworn statements that one juror stated he thought the defendant was guilty of sexual assault because he was Mexican and Mexican men take what they want. The defendant is asking the SCOTUS to choose between keeping deliberations secret and the Sixth Amendment guarantee of an impartial jury.

      • Laurie, does a judge have the option of setting aside a jury verdict if it was so out of line? Is the fact the judge didn’t in this case –if indeed he could have — significant?

        • Laurie K.

          A trial judge is absolutely forbidden from directing a verdict in favor of the State or setting aside a jury’s verdict of not guilty, “no matter how overwhelming the evidence.” Sullivan v. Louisiana, 113 S. Ct. 2078, 2080 (1993).

  • MNIce

    One of the factors many of those commenting on this article have ignored is the other side of the argument. (The reporter completely failed to present it.) The Bureau of Land Management changed the rules in such a manner that it would put a number of ranchers out of business, and would not listen to any petitions for reconsideration. When the government threatens property rights, and won’t hear any requests for redress or just compensation as required by the Constitution, what alternatives do you have? I may not agree with the measures taken by the accused, but I can certainly understand the motivation. Apparently the jury took the provocation into consideration in its decision. Accept that. It’s part of the system of protecting your rights.

    • kat

      There are lots of opportunities for protest that do not include arming yourself and taking over federal property. These men were not backed against a wall. I wonder how you feel about the people at Standing Rock- Do you think they should get a few guns and take over the nearest national park?

      • MNIce

        Sure, sure. Picket your Democrat Congress-critter’s office and protest the destruction of your personal finances by sky-high federally mandated health insurance premiums. See if that makes any difference.

        If a federal agent comes to take away your job and make your property worthless, do you think holding a sign and chanting is going to stop him? You’d probably just be ordered to leave immediately. You perhaps don’t realize that a significant number of people in the federal executive branch, from the White House on down, don’t think they’re bound by the Constitution if that gets in the way of their objectives. When they have all of the force on their side, they don’t think they have to listen to peons.

        What would a National Park have to do with a pipeline on private property that had already been legally purchased? By the way, as of this writing the pipeline protest isn’t “peaceful,” they’re blocking the road with a pile of old cars, tires and pallets, and they’ve set the mess on fire. Maybe burning rubber is supposed to save their environment… However, unlike the federal agents in Oregon, the local sheriff is hoping to defuse matters without having to arrest anyone.

        I’m not advocating violent protests. In particular, it is appalling when protesters riot and destroy property belonging to those who have nothing to do with the situation, such as we saw not so long ago in Ferguson, Missouri. Direct assault on public servants charged with upholding the law is generally out of line, unless it is necessary to protect someone from unlawful violence in progress. And then you’d better be able to prove the action was necessary to protect a person from imminent bodily harm, that your response was commensurate with the situation, and that you had just cause to believe the law enforcement officer was acting unlawfully, with excessive force.

        • kat

          I must be missing your point- the original comment said you understood the provocation, and the jury was protecting rights. I counter there was no provocation that lead the men to invade public property with firearms, and that citizens have no right to handle conflicts in this manner.
          Federal land management decisions are largely bureaucratic and political. You must understand that there are democratic ways to solve disagreements with the federal government. You also say you are not advocating violent protest, yet you defend the “rights” of the occupiers.
          Also we can talk about health care premiums another day, but it may surprise you that high health care costs are a direct result of our for profit insurance and hospital industry- not government mandates

          • JamieHX

            Yeah, I was going to make that point — about the insurance companies. And also say it’s “DemocratIC” not “Democrat” when used as an adjective.

          • MNIce

            I brought up health insurance as a current hot topic example of how the federal government seems to ignore the protests of abused citizens facing hardship as a direct result of federal regulations. I didn’t intend to toss out a red herring, but it had that effect, so I must apologize.

        • king harvest

          Whose property was made worthless? It’s not the ranchers land. Not their land. It’s mine and I want them gone. They can find another job and pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Next time they come on my property, I want them shot for trespassing.

          • MNIce

            I realized that just about everybody posting here, myself included, has forgotten what the original dispute was about. tim mick, it was not about grazing rights. That was the case with the Bundy family ranch in Nevada – a separate incident. Ammon Bundy was basically sticking his oar into a different situation – that of a federal prosecutor prosecuting accidental property damage as “terrorism.” Rich Lowry’s editorial at the time seems to me to be a reasonable and balanced analysis of the situation in question; The Wildlife Refuge Putsch.

          • king harvest

            The Hammonds were convicted of maliciously and intentionally setting fire to 139 acres of federal land. Not an accident. It cost over a half million dollars to fight the fire. They purposely put firefighters lives at risk. The minimum sentence is five years and they deserve it.

    • king harvest

      “When the government threatens property rights, and won’t hear any requests for redress or just compensation as required by the Constitution, what alternatives do you have?”
      They didn’t own the land and have NO property rights!
      I want my rent money and those cattle off MY land.

      • MNIce

        On the contrary, the Hammonds owned land adjacent to the original wildlife refuge, and they owned water rights as well. Included in the water rights was access to an irrigation system built before the wildlife refuge was created. The Fish and Wildlife Service expanded the refuge, buying out a number of ranchers, and in so doing, landlocked a portion of the Hammond family’s land. They tried to block their access to that land by barricading a county road – an illegal act by the government agency. They also violated the water rights by fencing off access to the water without acquiring the water rights from the Hammonds.

        Controlled burning is a well-established practice for maintaining grazing land. The Hammonds conducted a burn in 2001 that went off their land and onto refuge land, but they put it out themselves. In 2006, lightning started a fire that threatened their home and large areas of grazing land, so they started a backfire that successfully stopped the original fire (that’s what the Hammonds say). Five years later, for these acts, they were charged with arson and “terrorism.”

        The Hammonds have had a poor relationship with the BLM and FWS for many years. Neither side has been proper in dealing with the other. The Hammonds were careless in their burn practices, but it does not appear that they were “malicious” as you contend. The judge in their trial apparently recognized that when he gave them relatively light sentences, well below the usual minimum, although some have questioned his conduct of the trial itself (it has been claimed that he was in a hurry to get it done by the day of his scheduled retirement, and did not permit the defense adequate time to present its side). The BLM was vengeful in seeking harsher sentences long after that trial, and was caught spreading arson stories falsely using the name of an employee who is a friend of the Hammond family as a “source.”

        Government agencies are comprised of people just as fallible as any other. They are as capable of abusing power as any corporation, and have greater opportunity to do so. You would be wise to keep that in mind when evaluating stories of confrontations with government agencies.

        • king harvest

          From June 2012
          “Dusty Hammond recalled for a jury Wednesday in a U.S. District Court how he stumbled through juniper and sagebrush to escape a fire bearing down on him, a fire he helped set.

          Hammond, 24, softspoken and clean cut, explained how his first-ever deer hunt near Frenchglen turned to arson after his uncle Steve Hammond passed out boxes of strike-anywhere matches to the four-man hunting party.”

          “Light the whole countryside on fire,” Dusty said his uncle told him. “I started lighting matches.”

          A jury of their peers found them guilty of maliciously committing arson. That requires a mandatory 5 year sentence. The law has been on the books since 1996.

          The BLM doesn’t ‘t decide whether to appeal a criminal sentence. The prosecution in this case had no choice but to appeal the clearly illegal sentence the judge handed down. The appellate court agreed that the mandatory, not usual, minimum must be followed.

      • MNIce

        If someone offers to pay to have his cattle maintain grassy ecosystems on MY BLM land, I’d gladly take the money, especially considering how hard up my federal Treasury is after Mr. Obama doubled the national debt.

        • king harvest

          “Maintain grassy ecosystems”
          That’s an interesting term for arson.

          • MNIce

            Grazing helps to maintain grassy ecosystems. So do controlled burns to keep down unwanted arboreal vegetation – it’s been done for centuries by First Nation tribes in North America, and in many other places around the world. By the way, it’s not arson if you’re doing the burn on your own property, with no intention of burning anything else.

            Intentionally doing a burn on permit grazing land without approval of the administering authority is another story. Some have claimed that one of the fires was set to cover up an inadvertent over-limit deer kill during a hunt – that would be obstruction of justice; however, since no related charges were brought, evidence for that claim is lacking.

            As I have noted in other comments, neither party was very cooperative with the other. The BLM was apparently determined to make worthless the grazing permits lawfully and properly obtained by the Hammond family, and in so doing drive them out of business in order to obtain Hammond land – the efforts to block the family’s access to part of their property is an indication the agency acted in bad faith. The Hammonds took matters into their own hands instead of pursuing legal action. A dangerous clash was inevitable.

            Part of the problem may have been a “pristine Mother Nature at all costs” attitude among some in the government agencies – this has proven very counter-productive not only in relations with permit holders, but to the land in their care as well. That no-management philosophy was responsible for overgrowth in Yellowstone National Park in the 1980’s, with the consequence of a giant firestorm that destroyed a major part of the park’s forests and produced smoke that could be seen and smelled as far away as Minnesota.

          • king harvest

            “Intentionally doing a burn on permit grazing land without approval of the administering authority is another story.”
            That is THE story. That is what the Hammond’s were convicted of. It’s called arson.

            “Hammonds took matters into their own hands instead of pursuing legal action.”
            By setting fire to the range.
            139 acres burnt
            600,000 dollars spent
            All the lives endangered

            I can’t believe you try to justify that.

  • Jim G

    I just moved to Oregon last December from Eden Prairie. I have been following this case in the local media. One topic not mentioned was the removal of juror #11 the day before who was then replaced by juror #18. After four days of deliberation juror #4 asked the judge to remove juror #11 because he reportedly stated that as a former BLM employee he was biased against the defendents. The judge removed him and with the replacement juror #18 joining the deliberations a not guilty verdict came down the next day.

    • The OPB podcast series on the trial is REALLY good.

  • lindblomeagles

    The sad part is half the country still wonders why Black Lives Matter is entitled Black Lives Matter, why Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the US Flag, and why minorities throw the “race card” frequently. Ask most Americans do you know what racism is, and everybody assuredly says, “Yes, I do.” If we all understand what racism is why does our country persist in LEGALIZING double standards between white males and the rest of society, double standards, for example, in equitable pay, criminal apprehension-prosecution-incarceration, Second Amendment Rights, opioid addiction, environmental rights, sports logos, and all the other social, economic, academic, and even religious customs, norms, images, and functionalities throughout American society?

  • Bob Sinclair

    In all of the comments nothing has been said about how maybe the prosecutors botched this trial, thinking that maybe it was a slam dunk.

    Also the fact that the defense attorney was tazed because of his outburst after the trial was over. These days it seems that “optics” are everything in pursuing one’s agenda.

    I’d be willing to bet that the prosecutors in Nevada (the next Bundy trial) won’t make the same mistake the DA’s in Portland did.

    • Bob Sinclair

      BTW, I agree w/Bob. If you want a clear picture of what happened, check out the complete series of the OPB podcast “This Land is Our Land”.

      • Will

        It is very interesting so far, I’m about half way through…