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Jury finds 7 wildlife refuge occupiers, including Ammon Bundy, not guilty on all counts

Refuge occupiers (Photos via Multnomah Co Jail).png

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A federal jury has found Ammon Bundy and his six co-defendants not guilty on all charges for taking over a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon earlier this year.

Standoff leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others were charged with conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Several also were charged with possessing a firearm in a federal facility.

All seven defendants were found not guilty Thursday on all charges. The jury had no verdict for Ryan Bundy's theft of government property charge.

Ammon Bundy's lawyer, Marcus Mumford, is now in US Marshal custody after repeatedly yelling his client was free to go after the verdict was read in a federal courtroom Thursday afternoon.

The standoff began Jan. 2 and lasted nearly six weeks, bringing new attention to a long-running dispute over control of federal lands in the U.S. West. The confrontations reignited clashes dating to the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s, when Western states such as Nevada tried to win more control of vast federal land holdings.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown released a statement shortly after the verdict was read, saying she was "disappointed."

U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams issued a statement Thursday saying that his office had strongly believed the case needed to be brought before a court and decided by a jury. Williams said while he had expected a different outcome he respects the jury's decision.

Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said he's disappointed in the outcome, but believes "our government and justice system to be the best in the world ... this is the system and I stand by it."

The defendants said they were engaging in a peaceful protest, pressing their case against federal control of Western lands and the imprisonment of two ranchers convicted of setting fires.

Despite the acquittal, the Bundys were expected to stand trial in Nevada early next year on charges stemming from another high-profile standoff with federal agents. Authorities rounding up cattle at their father Cliven Bundy's ranch in 2014 because of unpaid grazing fees released the animals as they faced armed protesters.

The Bundys and other key figures were arrested in a Jan. 26 traffic stop outside the refuge that ended with police fatally shooting Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, an occupation spokesman. Most occupiers left after his death, but four holdouts remained until Feb. 11, when they surrendered after a lengthy negotiation.

At trial, the case was seemingly open-and-shut. There was no dispute the group seized the refuge, established armed patrols and vetted those who visited.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this case is not a whodunit," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said in his closing argument, arguing that the group decided to take over a federal workplace that didn't belong to them.

On technical grounds, the defendants said they never discussed stopping individual workers from accessing their offices but merely wanted the land and the buildings. On emotional grounds, Ammon Bundy and other defendants argued that the takeover was an act of civil disobedience against an out-of-control federal government that has crippled the rural West.

Federal prosecutors took two weeks to present their case, finishing with a display of more than 30 guns seized after the standoff. An FBI agent testified that 16,636 live rounds and nearly 1,700 spent casings were found.

Bundy testified in his defense, spending three days amplifying his belief that government overreach is destroying Western communities that rely on the land.

He said the plan was to take ownership of the refuge by occupying it for a period of time and then turn it over to local officials to use as they saw fit.

Bundy also testified that the occupiers carried guns because they would have been arrested immediately otherwise and to protect themselves against possible government attack.

Ryan Bundy, who acted his own attorney, did not testify.

Authorities had charged 26 occupiers with conspiracy. Eleven pleaded guilty, and another had the charge dropped. Seven defendants chose not to be tried at this time. Their trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 14.

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