The not-guilty verdicts in the trial of seven armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are disappointing on many levels, but perhaps most distressing because they have led the occupiers and their supporters to the false conclusion that the jury recognized the rightness of their cause. That is not what happened.
Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and five co-defendants were found not guilty of conspiracy to impede federal officers by force, threat or intimidation and not guilty of possession of firearms in a federal facility. The rest of the defendants either pleaded guilty earlier or are scheduled for trial in February 2017.
Federal prosecutors decided to pursue the conspiracy charge in favor of lesser charges that might have resulted in no prison time. In the end, that may have been their undoing, as jurors were not convinced the defendants conspired to seize the refuge with the intent of interfering with federal workers.
In other words, prosecutors did not live up to their burden of proof, which rests with the prosecution in the American system of justice. That's disappointing, but what's more troubling is how that is being interpreted by the defendants and their followers.
Defendant Neil Wampler declared after the verdict that he and others in the so-called patriot movement would “build on this tremendous victory for rural America.”
The verdict was a victory for these defendants in the narrow sense that they managed to avoid convictions and prison sentences. It was not a victory for their misguided ideology.
The defendants adhere to a twisted interpretation of the Constitution that says the federal government may not own land. That assertion is flat wrong, and the courts have so ruled. That belief was not on trial in this case, and the verdict is not an affirmation of it.
That the Bundys and their cohorts took up residence on land owned and managed by the federal government, and that they did so with firearms, was not disputed during the trial. The only question before the jury was whether they committed the crime of conspiracy.
One juror, who emailed The Oregonian about the verdict while remaining anonymous, stressed that the jurors did not buy the defendants' beliefs about public land.
“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,'' Juror 4 wrote, despite criticism from many of the jury's decision.
"Don't they know that 'not guilty' does not mean innocent?'' the juror wrote. "It was not lost on us that our verdict(s) might inspire future actions that are regrettable, but that sort of thinking was not permitted when considering the charges before us.''
The juror is correct, but such legal niceties are lost on anti-government "patriots" who now will be encouraged to try similar stunts in the future, with no more likelihood of success than the Malheur militants achieved. Because in the end, they failed to achieve their stated goal, which was to transfer that federal land to local control.
The Bundys remain in custody as they await trial in Nevada for a standoff with federal agents over their father's refusal to pay legally required fees for grazing his cattle on federal land. We hope that case ends differently.