The unlawful spectacle of the armed takeover and 41-day occupation of a federal facility in Harney County this year was, as if to test credulity, outdone when all defendants were declared not to be guilty.
The verdict was unequivocal, however, and in answer to the federal government’s leading charge of conspiracy. The prosecution’s failure to prove the occupiers intended to impede federal workers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge meant the jury, instructed by the judge to narrowly insist on proof that substantiated the charge, had no choice but to say: not guilty.
The man we had called the only true patriot in the protracted mess — Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward — was understated late Thursday in saying he stood by the judicial system as sound and having done its job. We agree. But the verdict is beyond unsatisfying: It signals to any knucklehead in America that trespassing on government property, and trashing publicly owned facilities and equipment, is an action that can be beat.
Sympathizers of Ammon and Ryan Bundy and associates, meanwhile, were busy conflating an armed, threatening presence with American-as-apple-pie civil disobedience. Dimmest of the homilies came from Lisa Ludwig, standby counsel for Ryan Bundy: “Maybe this is a lesson that that’s not the way to engage with (the occupiers), 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.”
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Problem: The Bundys and their cohorts had made clear that they wanted more than to be heard. Their mobilizing cause of protecting Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven against excessive jail time had engendered public debate — a good thing. But during the takeover they asked for the conveyance of federally owned lands to ranchers, and on Jan. 3 Ammon Bundy brokered a strained patience from law officers by — wink wink — telling them he and his associates had no intention of violence unless the government acted against them. Read: Dave Ward, go home. Oregon State Police, beware. Federal Bureau of Investigation, stay back.
Such coercive behavior is common thuggery prettied up in a cowboy outfit from a guy waving a copy of the U.S. Constitution. That the occupiers would, among other things, disturb sacred Native American sites by digging trenches for their waste, only makes the judicial outcome truly repellant.
Juror No. 4 declined to name himself in email to Maxine Bernstein of The Oregonian/OregonLive. But his message lends context: “Don’t they know that ‘not guilty’ does not mean innocent? It was not lost on us that our verdict(s) might inspire future actions that are regrettable, but that sort of thinking was not permitted when considering the charges before us.”
It seems clear the federal government wanted to convict Bundy and associates of crimes that would ensure jail time and, perhaps, set an example to others for whom lawlessness is a consideration. But even the simple possession of firearms at the federal refuge couldn’t stick without first proving conspiracy — this despite the recovery of dozens of weapons and hundreds of shell casings by the FBI. A simpler charge of criminal trespass against the Bundy crowd might have been easier to prove but bring lesser punishments.
Second-guessing the prosecution is fruitless other than to note that Juror No. 4 was put off by the government’s manner at trial: “The air of triumphalism that the prosecution brought was not lost on any of us, nor was it warranted given their burden of proof.” Ouch.
It will be some time before the circus in Harney County will fade and join other history-making verdicts, among them O.J. Simpson’s acquittal. But it will be very soon that the Bundys face separate charges in Nevada, where their rancher father started it all by resisting the federal government’s management of grazing lands.
The lesson throughout, however, is plain: Civil disobedience carries with it the willingness to scale protest actions against applicable laws, face criminal prosecution for violating them and to accept consequences. The Bundy crew got very lucky in Oregon. May they not in Nevada. And may those whom they inspire nationwide consult the Constitution that was so misapplied in Harney County.
Debate is good and guaranteed. So, too, is the right to bear arms. But staging an armed takeover of a federal facility is not and should, on a better day in court, be punishable by law.