The federal trial for seven of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge began Wednesday in Portland. A handful of occupation supporters and opponents showed up to watch the first-day proceedings, which were focused on jury selection.
U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown welcomed 31 potential jurors into the courtroom saying the jury process has worked for hundreds of years because “people come with common sense and experience.” Brown stressed to the potential jurors that the defendants were presumed innocent, and the burden was on the government to prove the cases beyond a reasonable doubt. She also said the case could last nine weeks or longer.
Brown also reviewed the charges with jurors. Federal prosecutors say the defendants — including Ammon Bundy, the leader of the 41-day long occupation — conspired to impede federal workers from doing their jobs at the refuge by force, intimidation and threats.
Brown asked jurors whether they had any thoughts about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several of the defendants are members of the Mormon church.
“I don’t want to offend anyone,” said a juror, only identified as Juror 3. “I’m not particularity fond of that religion in general.”
Another juror, Juror 10, said he had been affiliated with the Mormon faith for his entire life.
One by one, Brown also asked jurors about their exposure to the case through the media.
“I’m not a news person,” said Juror 8, who said she was from Hood River. “I live in world of art. I could care less what happens in the rest of the world.”
Juror 17 said she heard news on the radio about the occupation.
“I feel like I can be impartial,” she said.
Many jurors said they were “excited” about potentially serving as one of the 12 trial jurors or eight alternate jurors in the case. One woman said her boss told her the juror summons was a “golden ticket.” It was also clear that this group of potential jurors were from all over the state: retirees from Salem, a rancher from Madras and, of course, people from Portland. The potential jurors interviewed Wednesday were of all ages but mostly white.
Throughout jury selection, the judge is taking input from prosecutors and defense attorneys, who are able to email her questions. Four additional groups of 30 jurors will interviewed Thursday and Friday.
Security at the courthouse was tighter than at past proceedings. Before potential jurors entered the courtroom, attorney Marcus Mumford, who’s representing Ammon Bundy, said the heavy presence was prejudicial to the defendants because jurors may infer there’s a risk caused by the defendants.
Brown justified the heavy presence to Mumford, telling him “our lives have been threatened.”
Mumford asked if the threats had come from the defendants or their associates. Brown said she didn’t know where they came from but agreed to ask jurors whether the police presence at the courthouse was tainting their view of the defendants.
“I’m not telling the [U.S.] Marshals how to do their job,” Brown said. “They’re required to protect everyone coming in and out of this building.”
Neil Wampler, a defendant who was part of the initial refuge takeover, is one of several defendants on pretrial release. On his way into the courtroom, he said he believes that the occupation inspired a movement that can’t be stopped, even if he and the occupation leaders are found guilty.
“At the end of this affair, I think the federal government is going to wish they never dragged us into court,” Wampler said. “They can’t win, and we can’t lose. We got ‘em right where we want them now.”
Wampler said that he’s been helping his attorney work through the thousands of pages of discovery in the complicated case. He’s upbeat about his chance in the courtroom.
“This case is a house of cards,” said Wampler. “Even what we’ve seen so far in the pretrial hearings, the prosecution is talking in circles and experiencing wheel spin trying to substantiate these bombastic accusations.”
Defendant Jeff Banta was often quiet but always present throughout the occupation. In a court-house elevator Wednesday morning, he said, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Noticeably absent from the courtroom Wednesday was Pete Santilli. Late Tuesday, prosecutors dropped charges against him. He still faces charges in Nevada related to a 2014 armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management.
Defendants Jason Patrick and Duane Ehmer also face conspiracy charges and showed up for the first day of the trial, despite their own trial not beginning until next year. They face a later court date because they waived their right to a speedy trial.
Both Patrick and Ehmer said they’re watching these court proceedings carefully, as this trial could have important implications for their own.
“Mine might not even go to trial depending on how things go here,” said Ehmer, who was recognizable during the occupation for his daily morning patrol of the refuge while riding Hellboy, his horse, while holding an American flag.
Opening statements in the trial are scheduled for next week.