The second round of jury verdicts in the armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has come in and created a stark contrast with the first round, in which seven defendants were acquitted of conspiracy and weapons charges. The first seven tried included ringleaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who famously mustered armed men from the so-called militia movement to back up his efforts to deadbeat the government out of 20 years of grazing fees.
After most commentators called the first Malheur trials a case of jury nullification, the prosecutors hired a jury consultant for the second trial, which has resulted in all four defendants being convicted. Darryl Thorne and Jason Patrick were convicted of conspiracy and may get up to six years in prison. Duane Ehmer and Jake Ryan were convicted of the lessor charge of deprivation of government property. Sentencing for all four will be set later so that presentencing reports can be prepared. They are free on bail pending sentencing.
Like the first seven defendants, the ones just convicted were charged with conspiring to impede the employees of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from doing their jobs. In the first trial, the defendants successfully claimed that if the employees had ignored the brandished firearms and demanded to come to work, they would have been allowed to work.
In the latest trial, the prosecutors argued that any rational person would be impeded from work by someone with a gun sitting at their desk. None of the four defendants in the latest trial testified but the facts that they occupied the facility and they were armed were uncontested.
Ammon Bundy did testify about the reasons for the takeover as a protest against federal control of western lands. The armed occupiers claimed at the time of the takeover that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was rightfully state land rather than federal land, apparently unaware that if the federal officials withdrew, the law appeared to require that the land revert to the Northern Paiutes.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was formerly known as the Malheur Indian Reservation, from which most of the Northern Paiutes were removed in retaliation for being on the losing side of the Bannock War in 1878. The remaining Paiutes inhabit a 760-acre reservation near Burns, Oregon, and they have come to cordial understandings with the workers at Malheur about access to sacred sites and protection of Paiute artifacts.
In January of 2016, early in the occupation, Burns Paiute tribal chairperson Charlotte Roderique told ICMN, “We are really worried about the status of the artifacts down there.” When the Burns Paiutes were finally able to enter Malheur and assess the damage to culturally sensitive sites on February 29, they found that their worries were well founded.
Reporters for The New York Times were allowed into the occupied area later and found, “Garbage, broken electronics, abandoned outdoor gear and rotting food…” “Journalists given a tour,” the Times reported, “were advised to avoid the human feces that dotted the premises.”
The verdicts just returned bring to 11 the number of persons put on trial for the occupation of Malheur out of about 25 arrested when the standoff ended. These verdicts come in the same week that President Donald Trump demanded the resignations of all U.S. Attorneys who served the Obama Administration.
As a candidate, President Trump avoided criticizing the militia movement and he became the preferred candidate of the white supremacists among them, so it will remain to be seen what the U.S. Attorney appointed by Trump will do with the remaining cases from the Malheur occupation.
During the occupation, when the armed occupiers were allowed to peacefully come and go from Malheur, Indians pointed out the differences between how the federal government treated the armed occupiers of a wildlife refuge on Northern Paiute treaty land and how state governments in the Dakotas treated unarmed and peaceful water protectors on Standing Rock Sioux treaty land.
Over the next year, as arrested water protectors come to trial, that comparison will continue to play out, this time in courtrooms. When President Trump appoints a new U.S. Attorney for the area where Trump has vociferously supported construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, it’s not impossible that some new federal charges could be discovered to levy against the water protectors. Within Indian country, the perceived linkage between the unarmed Indians and the armed white people will be the backdrop of every trial.