A federal jury has convicted occupiers Jason Patrick and Darryl Thorn on felony conspiracy charges for their roles in last year’s armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Defendants Duane Ehmer and Jake Ryan were acquitted of conspiracy, but convicted on lesser charges.
Patrick, Thorn, Ehmer and Ryan were considered less prominent players in last year’s 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a remote part of Eastern Oregon’s high desert. The armed protest began Jan. 2, 2016, and ended when the final four occupiers surrendered to the FBI on Feb. 11 during a dramatic conclusion that spanned several hours and was broadcast live on the internet.
The verdict in this second trial comes after three weeks of testimony and more than two days of deliberations.
All four were charged with conspiracy to impede federal employees through force, threats and intimidation — the same charge the occupation's leaders, brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were acquitted of during another federal trial last fall.
Ryan, Thorn and Patrick also were charged with carrying a firearm in a federal facility. Ryan and Ehmer were charged with depredation of government property.
The jury delivered the following verdict:
“We are gratified that justice has been served and thank the jury for their service,” Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney for the District of Oregon, said in a news release issued shortly after the verdicts were announced. “Our communities and state are stronger because of our joint effort to bring these individuals to justice and we as Oregonians can now begin to move past these unfortunate events.”
However, the second trial's verdicts mark a stark contrast to last year's trial, when a different jury acquitted seven occupiers on all counts.
"My impression is that the jurors in the first trial believed that the prosecutors were overreaching, and that the verdict was in some ways as much a repudiation of the prosecution as it was a finding that the defendants were actually innocent," said Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University. "I think the general understanding will be that the less culpable people were convicted and the leaders weren't. Some people will think that's not justice. But it turns out to be, in a peculiarly American way the way we do justice here."
Harney County residents responded to the jury verdict with muted enthusiasm.
"I have the same gut reaction as I did in the first trial," said former county Judge Steve Grasty, a vocal opponent of the occupation. "The wheels of justice have turned. We have an outcome."
Grasty added that he found it strange that the two different juries arrived at different verdicts. But he also said he accepted both decisions and that he wants his community to move forward
Burns Paiute Councilman Jarvis Kennedy said he was pleased with the verdict.
“I was happy and excited that people of Harney County and the Burns Paiute Tribe actually got some justice out of this second trial, unlike the first," Kennedy said.
The occupation fueled a long-running debate about the federal government’s role in managing public lands, largely in the American West. Many of the occupiers believe the federal government doesn’t have the ability to own lands, except for limited purposes outlined in the Constitution.
Throughout the occupation, leader Ammon Bundy frequently said his goal was to shift the federally owned land to local control. During press conferences and interviews, Bundy frequently said he wanted to “get the ranchers back to ranching, get the loggers back to logging and miners back to mining.” The protesters even went so far as to order signs renaming the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as the “Harney County Resource Center.”
During closing arguments in this trial, the government acknowledged there was no signed document or recording that showed the occupiers' goal was to prevent federal employees from going to work. But federal prosecutors argued there was more than enough circumstantial evidence for jurors to conclude there was a conspiracy to block federal workers from their jobs at the refuge.
“At its core, this case is about four defendants that went too far,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said during the government’s closing arguments.
Prosecutors also pointed to a Dec. 29, 2015, meeting in Burns, during which Ammon Bundy described a plan to occupy the refuge.
The government’s case relied heavily on testimony from law enforcement -- largely FBI agents -- but also several federal employees who worked at the refuge.
Agents testified about their roles in processing evidence at the refuge, response to the occupation and follow-up investigations. Refuge employees talked about the work they weren’t able to do because of the occupation, as well as the deep sense of fear they felt in the weeks leading up to and throughout the occupation.
“At my house, I had loaded guns at every door,” refuge manager Chad Karges testified. “Normally, the guns are locked in a safe.”
Prosecutors spent hours showing jurors thousands of rounds of unspent ammunition and dozens of firearms investigators recovered from the refuge after the occupation.
At one point during the government’s case, U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown told an FBI SWAT team member testifying as a witness for the government to be careful with guns in the courtroom. She said some jurors had expressed concerns during previous testimony where agents held up firearms in the courtroom.
In order to be found guilty of conspiracy, the government had to prove the occupiers intended to keep federal employees from going to work. During its case, the defense argued that was never the goal.
Defense attorneys said those on trial were protesting the way the government manages millions of acres of public lands and never intended to interfere with refuge workers.
“The thought was never given to the employees,” Michele Kohler, Ehmer’s attorney, said during her closing arguments to the jury.
The defense argued that what they were doing at the refuge was protected by the First Amendment. And they said the presence of firearms was protected by the Second Amendment.
Jurors also heard considerable testimony about the Hammond family as a reason for coming to occupy refuge. Dwight and Steven Hammond are two Harney County Ranchers who are serving time in federal prison for arson.
“A lot of people think laws were broken, but the laws that the government has accused these men of violating were not broken,” said Jesse Merrithew, Ryan’s attorney, before the verdict.
Merrithew said the four defendants were engaged in a protest.
“The laws the government has accused these men of violating are laws that were designed to prevent violence against federal officials who were trying to do their jobs,” he said. “They were not designed to prosecute people for engaging in protest activities.”
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