Trial for Bundy brothers starts in Oregon

Media covering the hearing of militia members arrested from the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge wait outside United States District Court in Portland, Oregon January 27, 2016. © Steve Dykes
The trial of sovereign-citizen activists, who earlier this year occupied a federal wildlife refuge in central Oregon, began this week with jury selection proceedings. Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others are facing federal obstruction charges.

On January 2 of this year, the Bundy brothers led some two dozen people – calling themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” – in taking over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, located about 30 miles south of Burns. The occupation, which ostensibly began as a protest over the treatment two local ranchers had suffered at the hands of federal authorities, continued for almost six weeks. The 41-day standoff ended when police killed one of the occupiers and the rest surrendered.

The Bundy brothers and five of their associates faced US District Judge Anna Brown in a federal courtroom in Portland on Wednesday. The principal charge against them is obstructing federal officials from accessing the refuge, which carries a sentence of up to six years in prison.

A pool of 30 potential jurors was called into the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse on Wednesday, The Oregonian reported. Another 120 people will be called up on Thursday and Friday, 60 each day.

In the months preceding the trial, the occupiers and their attorneys filed numerous motions questioning the government’s jurisdiction and citing the doctrine of “adverse possession” to justify the occupation. Judge Brown has said that the trial will focus on the obstruction charges and not on federal land management policies or adverse possession claims.

“The government’s response says, essentially, we don’t need to prove no stinking subject matter jurisdiction!” said Ammon Bundy’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, according to the Los Angeles Times. “But that’s the thing, they do.”

The government’s case took a hit last month, when prosecutors were not able to explain how information from 11 Facebook accounts used by the defendants – but outside the scope of the search warrants – ended up among the evidence. Much of the government’s case relies on the occupiers’ own social media posts.

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors dropped all charges against radio host Peter Santilli, who had live-streamed events from inside the Malheur refuge, saying that “the interests of justice do not support further pursuit of these charges.”

That leaves five other defendants joining the Bundys in the dock: Shawna Cox, Jeff Wayne Banta, David Lee Fry, Kenneth Medenbach, and Neil Wampler. Fry was the very last of the occupiers to give in. He finally surrendered in a dramatic standoff live-streamed online.

“Government has got to the point when they think they can make laws on anything,” AmmonBundy told RT America in January, about ten days into the standoff. “I don’t think people would be here if they did not see that there is truly a problem,” he added.

Ammon and Ryan Bundy are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who took up arms against US Bureau of Land Management agents in 2014 over a grazing rights dispute. Bundy, 70, was arrested in Portland in February. He is currently being held in a federal jail in Las Vegas awaiting trial over the 2014 standoff.