Defense attorneys for four occupiers continued to make their case Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court in Portland, largely by calling a series of witnesses who testified they went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during last year’s occupation.
Many of the witness were the same people who testified for the defense during last fall's trial of occupation leaders, which ended in acquittals for all seven defendants.
The government seemed more aggressive Wednesday in trying to limit testimony about "adverse possession." That's the legal theory occupation leader Ammon Bundy and others used as their justification for taking over the refuge and trying to turn the federally managed land over to Harney County.
At one point, during the testimony of Ken Medenbach — who was acquitted of conspiracy in last fall’s trial — Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight asked U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown to clear the jury from the courtroom.
Outside their presence, Knight asked Brown to admonish defense attorneys questioning Medenbach for repeatedly bringing up the legal concept in his testimony. Brown agreed.
"I took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Medenbach told the judge in protest.
But Brown said if Medenbach continued to answer questions beyond what was being asked, she would strike his entire testimony from the record.
At the direction of Knight, Brown also directed jurors during Bundy's testimony Tuesday that his theories on adverse possession are opinion, not the law.
Jurors in the first trial said hearing only the occupiers' perspective of adverse possession without a refute from the government helped sway their vote for acquittals. In both trials, Brown limited the amount of discussion of adverse possession to a defendant's state of mind — what they thought they were doing. But the judge didn’t allow the government to put on a legal expert to refute the concept of adverse possession directly.
Federal prosecutors also tried to shut down a number of witnesses' testimony Wednesday as cumulative. They were successful on those grounds in limiting or preventing several witnesses from testifying about their observations at the refuge.
More On Pre-Occupation Meeting
Patricia Overton, who lives in Harney County, testified she knew defendant Jason Patrick.
Patrick came to the refuge “to protect the Hammonds, the Hammond ranch," she said, referring to two Harney County ranchers convicted of arson and currently serving federal prison sentences.
Patrick, Darryl Thorn, Jake Ryan and Duane Ehmer are all currently on trial for allegedly conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs at the Malheur refuge.
Overton said she met Patrick and occupation leader Ryan Payne while waiting tables at a truck stop in Burns, Oregon. She offered to give them a place to stay and testified Patrick gave her a $100 tip.
Overton's house was the scene for the Dec. 29, 2015, meeting where Bundy told others of his plan to occupy the refuge. Overton said she was away for the holidays.
Harney County rancher Debra Johnson said she brought her five children to the refuge Jan. 4, two days after the occupation started. She testified her husband went the day before.
“My goal was to help the kids see what was going on,” Johnson said. “I wanted to put my kids' minds at ease about what was going on.”
Andrew Kohlmetz, Patrick’s standby attorney, asked Johnson if she met Patrick at the refuge.
“He just wanted people to read the Constitution,” Johnson said.
Others testified about the cleanliness of the refuge and the fact they felt safe and relaxed when they visited or stayed there during the occupation.
It was a starkly different picture than the one painted by prosecutors and U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife employees who work at the refuge and testified during the government's case.
During cross-examination, Medenbach testified the refuge had been successfully taken over through adverse possession.
“It’s not the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge anymore, it’s the Harney County Resource Center,” he said.
Knight asked about the 16 federal employees who work at the refuge.
“They can go to work for the Harney County Resource Center,” Medenbach said.
Knight countered, if that were true, they wouldn’t be federal employees anymore.
“Correct,” Medenbach replied.
Mother Testifies On Son's Behalf
On Wednesday afternoon, Ryan's mother, Roxsanna Ryan, testified about her son.
She spoke about homeschooling her 13 children and raising them in rural parts of Oregon, Washington and western Montana, where the family currently has a 30-acre farm with cows, goats and horses.
Ryan’s mother said she based much of her children’s schooling on the Bible and the Constitution. She testified one of her favorite lessons was having her children write essays about constitutional amendments what the amendments mean to them.
“More than anything, I wanted my children to be able to think for themselves,” she said.
Ryan testified that her son, her husband and others went to the Malheur refuge in January to bring supplies. She said she was not surprised when Jake Ryan decided to stay.
“He felt that he needed to go to support the Hammonds,” she said.
She said the next time she heard from her son was Jan. 26, shortly after occupation spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum was shot and killed by law enforcement during a traffic stop.
“I got a call,” she said, that came right around evening “chore time.”
“'Mom,’ he said, ‘LaVoy has just been murdered,’” Roxsanna Ryan tearfully recalled her son telling her on the phone. “'Will you tell everyone goodbye for me? Things are pretty hectic here. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”
Ryan said she could hear fear in her son's voice.
She said she next heard from Jake Ryan when he was at an FBI checkpoint.
“Anytime you have a son in the confines of the FBI —” she said, before being cut off by prosecutors.
“Objection,” Knight said, adding it was an improper statement.
The defense ran out of witnesses Wednesday, ending the day early.
At this point it seems unlikely any of the defendants on trial will take the stand in their own defense.
The defense estimates it will rest its case sometime Monday, meaning closing arguments and the government's rebuttal could come Tuesday, before the case goes to the jury for deliberations.