Anti-government extremists may be re-invigorated after an Oregon jury Thursday acquitted Ammon and Ryan Bundy –leaders in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff– of federal conspiracy and weapons charges.
In the wake of the federal government’s stunning defeat, experts fear that the acquittal may inspire other anti-government extremists to plot their own takeovers and more aggressively promote their causes.
“They are already jubilant about this. They feel they have been vindicated,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League who monitors anti-government extremist social media. “This has really raised the chance that we could have some sort of sequel to the Oregon standoff.”
Ryan Lenz, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told TPM that the outcome of the trial was a “disaster.”
“It seemed to most of us, that it was clear these men had broken the law. They had taken over this public building with weapons and started making demands. It seemed so clear what had happened,” Lenz said. “It seemed to everyone that this was an obvious slam dunk.”
“Does this mean now that anybody can go in and take over a federal building? I don’t know,” Lenz said.
The 41-day Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff became a major rallying point for anti-government sympathizers from all corners of the movement last winter. Individuals from all over the country mobilized. In Harney County, the Bundy brothers and dozens of others held press conferences, made videos and actively promoted their cause on social media. When their comrade LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed by police, he quickly assumed the role as the movement’s martyr.
But, experts on extremism, noted that the quick arrests and swift move to hold a trial had taken a toll on the movement. It had sent a message that their tactics had consequences. Now, that message has been undermined.
“It’s absolutely terrifying and baffling what happened in the courtroom. It makes no sense to me,” Lenz said.
In the clearest picture we have yet, one juror told the Oregonian that the decision to acquit the Bundy brothers and five others was a statement against the prosecution’s case.
“It should be known that all 12 jurors felt that this verdict was a statement regarding the various failures of the prosecution to prove ‘conspiracy’ in the count itself – and not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, actions or aspirations,” Juror 4 told the Oregonian in an e-mail.
The thrust of the prosecution’s case had been that the Bundy brothers and others had intended to impede federal officers and that they had plotted to make a stand with the takeover.
“All 12 agreed that impeding existed, even if as an effect of the occupation,” the juror told the Oregonian.”But we were not asked to judge on bullets and hurt feelings, rather to decide if any agreement was made with an illegal object in mind. … It seemed this basic, high standard of proof was lost upon the prosecution throughout.”
The juror told the Oregonian that the jury recognized that acquitting the Bundy brothers and five others could have consequences, but that that is not how they were supposed to be making their decision.
“Don’t they know that ‘not guilty’ does not mean innocent?” he wrote to the Oregonian. “It was not lost on us that our verdict(s) might inspire future actions that are regrettable, but that sort of thinking was not permitted when considering the charges before us.”
There are still more cases to be heard, however, related to anti-government extremism. More individuals affiliated with the Malheur refuge case will go on trial this winter, and federal prosecutors in Nevada are preparing their own trial on charges related to the 2014 Bundy ranch standoff.
Dan Bogden, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada, declined to comment on the Malheur Wildlife Standoff outcome.
“We are set to go to trial in the case of United States v. Cliven Bundy, et. al. on February 6, 2017. Although our charges are separate and different from those charged in Oregon, we do have some common defendants that will be transported to Nevada for trial before the US District Court in Nevada,” Bogden said. “With such pending litigation, I am unable to comment on the defendants, our case and should not be making comment on the Oregon case.”
Pitcavage, however, said that he has little doubt the Nevada prosecutors are looking closely at what might have gone wrong in Oregon.
“It is not a good sign. It may be a wake up call for prosecutors down in Nevada to redouble their efforts to make sure they have an air tight case,” Pitcavage said.