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Oregon Militia Occupiers Acquitted: What Happened?

For 41 days in January and February, armed militants seized and occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. The occupation became a news-cycle and social media circus, as the occupiers broadcasted video from inside the refuge and made no secret about their goals. As one of the occupier's attorneys told the Los Angeles Times, "His point in this case was to be convicted. His point was to go to the Court of Appeals and make legal arguments about the United States' ability to own land .The notion of being acquitted never entered his mind."

But that plan hit a bit of a snag last Thursday when seven of the occupiers, including infamous ringleaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were acquitted on conspiracy and weapons charges. So how did they get off, after admitted to the crimes and wanting to be convicted?

Legal Strategy

All seven defendants were charged with conspiracy to impede officers of the U.S. from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats. Some were also charged with bringing weapons onto federal property with the intent to commit a crime. At first blush, these seemed easy enough to prove: armed men stormed federal property and occupied it -- surely they must have intended to do so.

But, among other "legal theories that experts called wrongheaded and laughable," the defendants argued they weren't trying to intimidate anyone, and Ammon Bundy claimed that he was trying occupy the refuge long enough to gain legal title through "adverse possession." (It should be noted here that adverse possession doesn't work against the federal government.) Still, Bundy's attorney argued that if his client and fellow protesters believed, even wrongfully, they were pursuing a valid legal process, they couldn't have also been intending to intimidate federal employees.

Legal Standard of Proof

That argument, along with alleged overconfidence of prosecutors, was enough to lead to across-the-board acquittals. A juror told the Oregonian:

"All 12 agreed that impeding existed, even if as an effect of the occupation ... 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.''

Both right-wing supporters and left-wing critics of the case thought this may be a matter of jury nullification, where the jurors simply disregard the evidence, the law, or judicial instructions to instead come to a verdict based on their own consciences. But the same juror seemed intent on clearing that up: "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."

Instead, it seems like prosecutors thought the case spoke for itself, when they really had some explaining to do.

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