Jury finds occupiers guilty
—Walden bill would prevent a repeat of the Hammond situation
Four former occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were found guilty on felony charges Friday, March 10, after a jury trial in Portland, OR. All four men were released, but will face sentencing on May 10. The defendants may file appeals of the verdict.
The men were some of the 26 individuals who had been arrested after their 41-day occupation of the refuge, located near Burns, OR. The protest began in early January of last year, ignited after two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were sent to federal prison for having started two different prescriptive rangeland fires that collectively spread to and burned 140 acres of federal land.
The verdict stands in stark contrast with the outcome of the trial held last fall for the perceived leaders of the occupation, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and five others. Despite having faced similar charges, those defendants were found not guilty on any counts.
Fourteen of the 26 arrested pled guilty and therefore did not undergo trial. The government dropped charges against Pete Santilli, an online radio talkshow host who had been arrested and jailed.
In this second trial for the four remaining defendants, the jury (a different jury from the first) found Jason Patrick guilty of conspiracy to impede officers of the U.S. by force, intimidation, or threat (18 U.S. Code § 372). He was found not guilty of possession of firearms and dangerous weapons in a federal facility.
Darryl Thorn was found guilty of the same conspiracy charge, and guilty on the firearms charge. Intention to commit a crime is not necessary to be found guilty under this section of code (18 U.S. Code § 930 (a)).
Duane Ehmer and Jake Ryan were both found not guilty of the conspiracy charge, but guilty of depredation of government property. The jury determined they had willfully damaged federal property by using a refuge excavator to dig two trenches.
The conspiracy charges could end in up to six-year prison sentences, and/or fines. The weapons in a federal facility charge carries an up-to-one-year prison sentence and/or fines. For depredation of federal property, a maximum 10-year sentence and/or fines apply if the sum of the damage or attempted damage exceeds $1,000. Damages or attempted damages under $1,000 could result in a oneyear maximum sentence and/or fines. The determined dollar value of the damage done was not known at print time.
In addition, the government brought misdemeanor charges against all four men. Those charges range from trespass to tampering with federal equipment. U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown will issue her own verdicts on the misdemeanors, though the timeline on her decision was unknown at print time.
Try, try again
In light of the acquittal of Bundys and five others last fall, the government could have dropped charges against the remaining defendants. However, according to federal prosecutors, the government decided to learn from the first trial in order to win “guilty” verdicts in the second.
“I think we certainly learned in the first case,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight in a recorded interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). Knight said prosecutors “went back to the drawing board” when it came to “the manner in which the evidence was presented…” He added that the misdemeanor charges, which were not levied against the first round of defendants, were made this time “to try and capture some of [the defendants’] specific conduct.”
Former U. S. Attorney Billy Williams, who was also interviewed by OPB, was asked whether adding misdemeanor charges in the second trial might appear “punitive.”
“I don’t think in any way, shape or form it’s to be punitive… it’s to hold people accountable for the conduct that they engaged in,” Williams responded.
After the verdict was issued, Knight admitted in an interview with OPB that the conspiracy charges were “not a perfect fit” and that the prosecution had received a lot of questions about why such charges were pursued.
“But the reality is in the federal criminal code, there are very few charges, and felony charges, that match up to this conduct,” he told OPB. “There’s no federal burglary statute, there’s no statute even that criminalizes impeding and preventing employees from going to work. And so what we’re left with is a conspiracy charge … But we do the best we can with the toolbox we have, and that’s why we ultimately pursued the conspiracy charge.”
Unlike the previous trial, the jury must not have been swayed by arguments that the occupation was merely a protest of the government’s treatment of Hammonds and its management of millions of acres of federal land.
“…[A]gain, no one was on trial for their beliefs and the disagreement with the government,” said Williams in his recorded OPB interview. “People have the right to have those beliefs, even if it includes the belief that the government doesn’t own that property or have the right to own it…What I hope is that there’s some more thought given to why, you know, to act on those beliefs, and take up arms, and take over property and buildings that are part of public lands. I hope it dissuades them from doing that…”
Preventing a Hammond repeat
Meanwhile, the Hammond family is in the process of paying a $400,000 settlement fee to the government, and Dwight and Steven are still in prison. Their five-year minimum sentences were the result of the government having prosecuting them under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Hammonds’ congressman, Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR2), to prevent such a scenario from happening again. H.R. 983, the Resource Management Practices Protection Act of 2017, defines the circumstances under which the antiterrorism law would not apply. If a fire that spreads onto federal land was set on an individual’s private land for the purpose of protecting that property or as part of farming-, ranching- or timber-related vegetation management (and does not pose a serious threat of injury or damage to any individual or federal property) that individual would not be prosecuted.
Laws cannot be applied retroactively, thus the passage of Walden’s bill would have no effect on the Hammonds’ imprisonment. However, ranchers and other landowners would not face the same fate for managing their property using prescriptive fires. — Theodora Johnson, WLJ Correspondent