PORTLAND, Ore. — Federal prosecutors today told a jury that the leaders of the armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year "moved as a military force."
In his opening statement in the trial of seven leaders in the 41-day standoff, Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow said that what started as a peaceful protest quickly turned into an "illegal armed occupation."
At the end of 2015, federal employees at the 187,000-acre refuge were preparing to combat invasive carp that were threatening food for migratory birds, he said.
Soon, he went on, "they faced an invasion far more dangerous than the common carp."
Barrow, wearing a dark-gray suit and checked blue tie, spoke carefully and methodically, laying out the government's case at the federal courthouse here.
Prosecutors charged 26 of the occupiers with conspiring to prevent government employees from doing their jobs at the refuge through the use of force during the standoff that ended Feb. 11. The current trial is for seven, including the group's leaders, Ammon and Ryan Bundy.
Several defendants, including the Bundys, also face charges of possessing a firearm on federal property. Ryan Bundy and another defendant, Kenneth Medenbach, have also been charged with theft or destruction of government property (Greenwire, Sept. 9).
Ammon Bundy's attorneys also began their defense today, and Ryan Bundy was set to offer his own opening statement later today after asking the judge whether he could distribute pocket Constitutions to each juror. Federal District Judge Anna Brown denied the request.
Barrow laid out the government's case in four parts for the all-white mostly female jury. He began with the events leading to the occupation, then the standoff itself, the ensuing arrests and aftermath.
In stark terms, he chronicled the Bundys leading a convoy of seven vehicles to the refuge, and showed video of Ammon Bundy calling on supporters to join him at the refuge to take a "hard stand" against the government and to bring their guns.
Barrow painted the occupiers as laying a military siege to the refuge. He said another occupier who has pleaded guilty would testify in hopes of a reduced sentence that Bundy led strategy sessions where he handed out assignments for various squadrons positioned around the refuge. The occupiers also conducted sessions with firearm tactical training.
And after the standoff, Barrow said authorities found "a mess" at the refuge, including many guns and 15,000 rounds of ammunition.
The government's case got a boost yesterday when Brown said she would allow evidence taken from the defendants' Facebook accounts.
Barrow was also careful to point out that the case was not about the Bundys' beliefs or protests against federal land management.
"We are not prosecuting the defendants because we don't like what they think or said," Barrow said. "We are prosecuting them because of what they did."
Ammon Bundy's attorney, however, said the prosecution was all about his client's beliefs.
The attorney, Marcus Mumford, said his client's actions had little to do with impeding federal employees.
"He did what he did to demand accountability from the federal government," he said.
The federal government, Mumford went on, "refuses to respect the limits of its power."
Mumford, who is short and stocky and speaks with a stutter, repeatedly cast the federal government as a bad actor who refused to meet with his client. Ammon Bundy, he repeatedly said, acted "in the light" while the government was "in the dark" and "wields its power to stifle criticism."
Further, he argued that his client and the other defendants were seeking to take ownership of the land through a legal principle called "adverse possession."
Instead of confronting him about that claim, Mumford said, the government "laid in wait" to arrest him when he left the property on Jan. 26.
Mumford contends that as long as Bundy was seeking to act under the adverse possession principle, he is not guilty of conspiracy.
But his interpretation of adverse possession drew an objection from Barrow, who said he was mischaracterizing the law. (The prosecution contends that adverse possession claims cannot be brought against the government on federal lands.)
The judge interjected that Mumford could not tell the jury what the law of adverse possession is — only how it informed his clients' state of mind.
Mumford did, however, make one statement that both sides would appear to agree on.
"The evidence, I think, is going to surprise you at times," he said.