Opening statements wrapped up Tuesday afternoon in a federal courtroom in Portland where the trial of seven people charged in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon is underway.
The day began with Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoff Barrow outlining the federal government’s case — which he said will be divided into four chapters: the buildup, the takeover, the arrests and the aftermath. Day one ended with opening statements for the defendants: Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, David Fry, Jeff Banta, Kenneth Medenbach and Neil Wampler.
Barrow said the jury will hear from Harney County Sheriff David Ward and various refuge employees. Ward is expected to take the stand Wednesday morning as the government’s first witness. According to Barrow, the jury will see many hours of video evidence — evidence that exists, he noted, because the defendants were not hiding what they were doing at the refuge.
He also said the jury will hear from former occupier Jason Blomgren, one of the defendants who pleaded guilty. Blomgren came to the refuge from North Carolina and spent two weeks with the occupiers. The prosecution said he will testify on some of the inner-workings of the occupation and try to explain the hierarchy.
Barrow said the reason Blomgren will testify is because he is hoping for a lighter sentence.
Barrow also went into great detail about how the events of the occupation played out. He spoke about the refuge before the occupation, describing it as a peaceful bird sanctuary "open to the public" and "owned by the American people."
In terms of the takeover itself, Barrow said there was an advanced team that went to the refuge — without Ammon Bundy, who was still in Burns — and took over the facility, moving as military force of sorts. He said there is a witness who will testify about the moment when the group arrived in seven vehicles at the refuge. The witness is expected to testify that the group actually cocked their rifles in a motion that may have suggested they would fire their rifles if they thought it was necessary.
Barrow said what stated as a peaceful protest at a Safeway grocery store in Burns, "unfolded into an armed occupation." #Oregonstandoff— Conrad Wilson (@conradjwilson) September 13, 2016
The government repeatedly explained the charges against the occupiers — conspiracy to impede federal employees through force, intimidation and threats — by attempting to humanize refuge employees. The prosecution used the employees' names and went into detail about the work that wasn’t happening because of the occupation, as in the case of a refuge wildlife biologist who, according to Barrow, wasn’t able to go to work because Ammon Bundy and Shawna Cox were working in her office.
When the prosecution concluded its opening statements, the defense took its turn.
Marcus Mumford, the attorney for Ammon Bundy, was the first defense attorney to give a statement. Mumford described a different version of events, saying his client loves liberty but doesn’t like what he sees as government overreach. Mumford even referred to Bundy as a community organizer.
“Ammon has been labeled a terrorist and imprisoned for several months," Mumford said. "All because the federal government refuses to respect the limits of its power.”
Mumford was basically saying that the actions of his client, specifically, were protected under the Constitution. As federal prosecutors tried to humanize the refuge employees, Mumford tried to humanize Bundy, describing him as a 40-year-old small-business owner.
“He was taught the love of God and country,” Mumford said.
The court also heard about adverse possession — essentially taking over land and acting like it’s your own so it legally becomes yours. Mumford presented this legal doctrine as the main defense of Bundy's actions, saying Bundy thought he was employing that method on the refuge.
Adverse possession is basically taking the land and making it your own -- defendants tried to get mail and utilities in their name— Conrad Wilson (@conradjwilson) September 13, 2016
U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown carefully pointed out that adverse possession isn’t a defense against the conspiracy charge, but she has allowed the defendants to raise it as an opportunity to explain their line of thinking.
Mumford also described some meetings between Bundy and Harney County Sheriff David Ward before the occupation. Ammon Bundy, Ryan Payne and others met with the sheriff and there was some disagreement on how to perceive that meeting.
The government said the defendants brought guns and were threatening to Ward. However, Mumford described a meeting where Ward was accommodating and the meeting itself took place in the police station. He acknowledged that the men were armed but argued that if the sheriff felt threatened wouldn't he have held the meeting in the police station.
Acting as his own counsel, Bundy — Ammon’s older brother — put a family photo on screen for jurors to see, read from the Declaration of Independence and said he went to the refuge to help the Hammonds, a pair of father-son ranchers convicted of burning federal lands.
"We were not there to impede; we were there to promote liberty," Bundy said.
Bundy also wanted to give jurors a pocket Constitution, but it was disallowed.
"The jurors may not have your pocket Constitution," Judge Anna Brown told Ryan Bundy #Oregonstandoff— Conrad Wilson (@conradjwilson) September 13, 2016
Next to give opening statements was Shawna Cox, who, like Ryan Bundy, is representing herself in court. Cox went into great detail about her personal life and religious beliefs, to the point that the prosecution objected.
"If you don't get to the Malheur issues you're going to have to sit down," the judge told her.
Per Olsen, the attorney representing occupier David Fry, then addressed the jury, telling them his client has schizotypal personality disorder.
Olson said the evidence will show his client wasn't part of the conspiracy but rather had traveled to the refuge to have some of his concerns about the federal government heard.
Olson stressed how Fry's demeanor changed after the Jan. 26 death of Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who had become a spokesperson for the occupation as well as Fry’s friend.
Jeff Banta, Ken Medenbach And Neil Wampler
The attorneys for three of the trial’s less high-profile defendants — Banta, Medenbach and Wampler — finished out the day.
Banta’s attorney, Robert Salisbury, said his client was at the wrong place at the wrong time and had come to Burns to help the Hammonds.
Matthew Schindler, the attorney for Medenbach, noted that, yes, his client had made and placed signs on government property and vehicles but those action were acts of civil disobedience. He told the jury to look at his client’s intent: giving a voice to a dying rural America, of which he says his client is a member.
The day ended with a similar statement by Wampler’s attorney, Lisa Maxfield. She said her client’s actions fall under protected political speech. Maxfield described Wampler as the “original hippie,” who had recently developed an interest in the U.S. Constitution. Wampler came to the refuge to discuss constitutional ideas with likeminded people, she said, not to intimidate people.
Court is back in session Wednesday morning with Harney County Sheriff David Ward expected to take the stand.