PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Trial is gearing up this week for armed ranchers who took over a national bird sanctuary in rural Oregon to oppose federal management of public lands.
Jury selection starts Wednesday in the case against Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy and six others who helped seize Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2. They are charged with conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs. Several others were indicted, and many have pleaded guilty.
Most key figures were arrested during a Jan. 26 traffic stop that ended with police fatally shooting Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a spokesman for the occupation. Others left after Finicum’s death, but four holdouts extended the standoff to 41 days.
Here’s a recap of the takeover and a look at what to expect at trial:
WHO ARE THE DEFENDANTS?
Occupation leaders and brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy; two of the last holdouts, David Fry and Jeff Banta; as well as Shawna Cox, Pete Santilli, Kenneth Medenbach and Neil Wampler. All are charged with conspiring to impede U.S. Interior Department employees at the refuge through intimidation, threats or force.
Cox, Fry, Banta and the Bundys also are charged with possessing a firearm at a federal facility. Cox, Mednenbach and Ryan Bundy are acting as their own lawyers.
WHY WERE THEY AT THE REFUGE?
It started as a protest against the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires and grew into demands for the U.S. government to turn public lands over to local control.
The father-and-son ranchers distanced themselves from the occupiers, reporting to prison two days after the standoff began. Ammon Bundy and others contend that the Constitution limits federal power to acquire and own property within a state’s borders, revealing the larger dispute over the government’s control of vast expanses of Western range.
HOW DID THE OCCUPATION END?
The Bundys and other leaders were driving to a community forum when police stopped and arrested them. Finicum fled and crashed his truck into a snowbank to avoid a police roadblock. Authorities say he was reaching for a weapon when he exited the vehicle and that’s when Oregon State Police officers opened fire.
The four occupiers who remained after Finicum’s death finally surrendered on Feb. 11 after protracted negotiations with federal authorities who surrounded the refuge.
HOW MANY PEOPLE FACE CHARGES?
A total of 26 people were charged with conspiracy. Eleven have pleaded guilty, including several from Bundy’s inner circle. Seven defendants sought and received a delay in their trial, now scheduled for February.
WHAT’S THE GOVERNMENT’S EVIDENCE?
The takeover received extensive media coverage, Ammon Bundy gave daily news conferences and the group used social media in a mostly unsuccessful effort to get others to join them. In short, there’s no question the group occupied the refuge. Prosecutors have said the evidence includes seized weapons, thousands of photographs, thousands of hours of video and reams of information gleaned from social media.
WHAT’S THEIR DEFENSE?
They claim they used their First Amendment rights to engage in a peaceful protest and that those with guns were exercising their Second Amendment rights. The occupiers contend that nobody was threatened, no workers were impeded from performing their duties and the government fired the only shots. Moreover, they say those shots, which killed Finicum, showed why they needed guns for protection.
Defendant Pete Santilli, an internet talk show host, asserts he never occupied the refuge and was only there as a journalist.
IS THE TRIAL GOING TO LAST LONGER THAN THE OCCUPATION?
It looks that way. U.S. District Judge Anna Brown has set aside three days for jury selection, and opening statements are tentatively scheduled to start Sept. 13. The trial is expected to take two or three months.
AREN’T THE BUNDYS ALSO FACING TRIAL IN NEVADA?
They and five others from the Oregon case have been charged in a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents near their father Cliven’s cattle ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. The three Bundys are scheduled for a February trial in Las Vegas.
The elder Bundy drew national attention after his sympathizers pointed weapons at agents rounding up his cattle on public land. The U.S. government says he racked up more than $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees and penalties over two decades, while Cliven Bundy claims it has no authority over the land.
Several people took part in both standoffs. Federal officials were widely viewed as having backed down from the elder Bundy, possibly emboldening the Oregon occupation.
Cliven Bundy was arrested at Portland International Airport in February when he arrived to visit his sons.
Follow Steven DuBois on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pdxdub .
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