Star turn for ‘relentlessly mundane’ prosecutor

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 10/25/2016 01:13 PM EDT

As the jury deliberates in the trial of seven Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers, assistant U.S. attorney Ethan Knight is poised to secure convictions in two of the highest-profile cases in Portland, Ore.’s history.

The two lead lawyers in the trial of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge could not be more different.

On one side is standoff leader Ammon Bundy’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, who has tussled with the judge, asked inappropriate questions and been threatened with being held in contempt. Short and stocky and speaking with a severe stutter, he also frequently wears cowboy boots and rumpled suits in court (Greenwire, Sept. 30).

On the other is prosecutor Ethan Knight. Tall and lean, the assistant U.S. attorney is partial to Brooks Brothers suits and pocket squares. He speaks with a commanding and clear voice — "almost like he’s yelling at someone who is deaf," one former boss said — and is known for being ethical and hardworking.


And as the jury deliberates in the trial of seven occupiers who are charged with conspiring to impede federal officials during the 41-day standoff last winter, Knight is poised to secure convictions in two of the highest-profile cases in Portland, Ore.’s history.

In 2013, he led the prosecution of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American who was convicted of trying to detonate a car bomb during Portland’s 2010 holiday tree-lighting ceremony.

That case and the Malheur trial have established Knight as a rising legal star in Oregon at the age of 42, said Tung Yin, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor who knows Knight.

"The fact that they’ve put him as the lead prosecutor on the two most noteworthy cases since I’ve been here in Oregon suggests he’s seen as the go-to guy in complex terrorism cases," Yin said.

Knight, according to his former bosses and colleagues, seems to have been born to be a federal prosecutor.

He spent his early years in Evanston, Ill., before moving to Portland at 9 years old and eventually attending Lincoln High School. There, he excelled in debate, becoming one of the best in the country in constitutional law competitions.

Kirsten Snowden, who worked with Knight at the Multnomah County district attorney’s office before he jumped to the U.S. attorney’s staff, said Knight has always seemed older and wiser than his age.

Ethan Knight
Assistant U.S. attorney Ethan Knight. | Photo courtesy of Knight.

"When I think of him, he’s relatively young, but he always comes across as a little old man," she joked.

Knight attended Duke University and then the University of Oregon School of Law, where he was a moot court champion. He delivered a commencement address on civility in law and society.

Amanda Marshall, who was Knight’s boss as a former U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, said she judged him during those early competitions. He even stood out then, she said.

"He was one of those guys that as a college debater, you could tell this kid is super bright," Marshall said.

Knight joined the U.S. attorney’s office in 2007 and quickly made an impression — both inside and outside the courtroom.

Co-workers recalled that he is always impeccably dressed and his office neatly organized. While his opponent in the case — Bundy’s attorney Mumford — enjoys hard rock bands Van Halen and Journey, Knight enjoys Eric Clapton and makes time to run every day during his lunch break.

Dwight Holton, another former U.S. attorney for Oregon, said Knight is "all the things you look for in a prosecutor."

"He’s solid as a rock," Holton said. "Ethan is smart, meticulous and measured."

Marshall added: "He’s tight and incredibly prepared."

Lawyers who have gone up against Knight in court have another word for Knight’s courtroom demeanor: boring.

Matthew Schindler, a Lake Oswego, Ore., attorney who represents a defendant in the current Malheur case, Kenneth Medenbach, has faced off against federal prosecutors in many cases.

Knight, like other prosecutors, he said, is "relentlessly mundane."

"They are all business," Schindler said. "They don’t want to give me an opportunity to get up and say, ‘Look at the games they are playing for a conviction.’ Instead, they are just vanilla."

He added, however, that Knight is tough.

The U.S. attorney’s office is "a challenging opponent in trial," Schindler said. "One that I never underestimate."

Other attorneys note that prosecutors are not supposed to be flashy. The job, they said, is to present the evidence through witnesses and to stay out of the way of testimony. Defense attorneys, in contrast, are more likely to embrace theatrics in an attempt to undermine government witnesses on cross-examination.

Knight declined to comment on the record while the Malheur case is still pending a verdict.

His handling of the Mohamud trial in 2013 drew national media attention.

The homegrown terrorism case was extremely complicated, Oregon lawyers said, and Knight was intimately involved from its inception, advising the FBI and other authorities during the investigation and sting operation in 2010. He was just 35 when the investigation began.

Mohamud was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. And Marshall, who was U.S. attorney during the trial, said Knight was dogged in his handling of the case.

He also, she said, insisted on getting to know the 21-year-old Mohamud’s parents. He argued against seeking a life sentence — a position that was at odds with the prevailing sentiments in the Justice Department and FBI. Mohamud was ultimately sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Knight’s closing argument in that case, Marshall said, remains the best she has ever seen.

"He’s an impressive guy," Marshall said. "There is a certain maturity and thoughtfulness about him."

The Mohamud case has reached the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and may eventually be submitted to the Supreme Court. If the high court decides to review it, Marshall said she would expect Knight to argue it.

Outside of court, colleagues said Knight has a sly and self-deprecating sense of humor. His wife, Elizabeth, who he met in law school, is also an attorney in Portland, and Knight is very involved in raising his two sons.

He has also served on committees for the Oregon State Bar and has previously helped coach the constitutional law team at his alma mater, Lincoln High School, one of the best programs in the country.

Sparring with Bundy

In the Malheur trial, Knight has largely deferred to his co-counsels, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Geoffrey Barrow and Craig Gabriel.

But Knight has handled some of the case’s highest-profile moments, including the cross-examination of Bundy and the government’s closing argument.

In questioning Bundy, which lasted less than 15 minutes, Knight quickly and aggressively sought to catch Bundy in contradictions offered during his earlier testimony — including that he was the occupation’s leader.

Knight attempted to undercut Bundy’s rigid anti-government stance, noting that Bundy has accepted a $530,000 federal small-business loan.

The prosecutor also jumped on Bundy’s insistence he hadn’t thoroughly planned the occupation because he needed to use a GPS navigation device to find the refuge.

"You had to use GPS to get there even though you planned to control it until 2036?" he asked.

After an objection from his lawyer, Bundy responded that Knight was "assuming I’m acknowledging it’s a federal property."

"We were there," Bundy said, "disputing it was a federal property."

The prosecutor pressed harder, hitting a central theme of Bundy’s defense: that the occupiers were seeking to take over the land through adverse possession, a legal principle that transfers ownership of property through prolonged occupation. (The government contends you cannot bring an adverse possession claim on federal land.)

"So you’re saying the property you went to was not, in your belief, a federal property?" Knight asked, according to media pool reports.

"No," Bundy said.

"Yet you were trying to adversely possess it," Knight shot back, "isn’t that correct?"