A jury was seated Tuesday in Portland for the trial of an FBI agent accused of firing his gun during a key moment of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Nine men and three women, along with two alternates, will decide the guilt or innocence of agent W. Joseph Astarita, whom the government has charged with lying to investigators and obstruction of justice.
Ongoing coverage of the federal case against the people involved in the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and how life has changed in Harney County, Oregon.
On Jan. 26, 2016, Astarita and other members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team assisted Oregon law enforcement in trying to capture the occupation leaders at a traffic stop. Finicum was driving a pickup and sped through the stop to evade arrest. Someone from law enforcement fired on Finicum’s vehicle as it hurtled toward a roadblock on a remote Oregon highway.
Finicum was killed during the incident by Oregon State Police after he got out of his truck. Investigators found a loaded handgun in his jacket pocket.
Government prosecutors say Astarita fired two shots at the truck before it stopped, and then tried to cover them up by lying to investigators who reviewed the scene.
Finicum’s death has been a rallying issue for the family of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy led the armed takeover in Oregon. It’s also fueled the self-described patriot community who support the Bundys.
Jury selection proved to be a remarkably spirited affair, with some 80 potential jurors called for duty.
At one point, the courtroom looked like a live auction, with potential jurors raising their numbers in the air, ready to tell Senior U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jones why they would not be able to sit for the month-long trial.
“It better be a good excuse,” Jones said before calling on a potential juror.
“I leave for Europe on Monday,” the juror replied.
“Have a nice trip,” Jones said.
Another juror said she didn’t have childcare on Fridays.
“Goodbye,” Jones replied.
“My wife could be giving birth in a week or two,” said a juror at the back of the courtroom.
“Goodbye, papa,” Jones responded.
As the excuses mounted, Jones grew annoyed.
“This is not the time to do this,” Jones said, noting that none of the excused jurors should have made it so far in the jury selection process.
“It was handled poorly,” said a potential juror seated in the gallery.
Still, the numbers kept coming.
Potential juror No. 53 told Jones: “I was told to bring it up in the courtroom, but I’m a nursing mother.”
“Goodbye. We have a lactation room, but …,” Jones said without finishing the sentence.
“I have an anniversary trip,” another person offered.
“Have a nice anniversary,” Jones told the man.
Jones grew more frustrated as the proceeding continued, and said exemptions like scheduling conflicts should have been sorted out by the jury commissioner.
“I’ve never had this happen before,” said Jones, who has served as a federal judge for nearly 30 years.
Jones apologized to the attorneys in the room for a “communication problem” that led to so many dismissed jurors.
Jurors without scheduling issues got questions from the defense about their feelings toward police officers. Potential juror No. 14 — who was not seated — said her husband and son are both police officers.
“I have a great deal of respect for the FBI,” said another potential juror, who was also dismissed.
“FBI Lied. LaVoy Died,” one sign read. Another said, “Justice for LaVoy.”
Finicum’s widow, Jeanette Finicum, and Malheur occupier Shawna Cox were both in court Tuesday afternoon. Cox was in Finicum’s truck when he died.