PORTLAND, Ore., Sept. 6, 2016 (Gephardt Daily) — It has been eight months since Arizona Strip rancher Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum — spokesman for the armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — was shot dead by Oregon State Police officers during an attempted felony stop on a desolate stretch of road between Burns, Ore., and the town of John Day.
Starting Wednesday in Portland, the accused ringleaders of the occupation, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, will join five co-defendants as jury selection begins in their federal conspiracy trials, to be held before U.S. District Judge Anna Brown.
The seven defendants, whose trial proceedings get underway Wednesday, face a variety of charges, the most serious being the allegation they “conspired to prevent federal employees from carrying out their duties through intimidation, threats or force.”
The charge carries a maximum six-year prison sentence.
Defendants have also been charged with carrying firearms in a federal facility during the 41-day occupation. The weapons charge carries a maximum five-year sentence.
Eleven others have already pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge. Seven more will be tried in February 2017.
In June 2016, a far more serious charge — “use of a firearm in committing a crime of violence” — was dismissed by Judge Brown, who ruled that conspiring to impede federal workers from performing their duties at the wildlife reserve did not mean the “threatened use of physical force” was an absolute certainty.
Conviction on that charge alone would have resulted in minimum mandatory sentences of five years to life imprisonment. Sentences stemming from any other convictions would then have to be served consecutively to the “crime of violence” sentence, in accordance with federal guidelines.
Judge Brown’s decision to toss the charge was a rare victory for defense teams, which have bombarded the bench with numerous motions over the past several months, nearly all of which were denied.
Many of the motions directly challenged Judge Brown’s and the federal court’s authority to hear the case at all, especially those filed by Ryan Bundy and Kenneth Medenbach, who are acting as their own legal counsel.
In one recent motion, defendants demanded Brown “renew her vows” as judge while they simultaneously maintained the federal government can’t bring charges against them because the Constitution prohibits federal ownership of public land.
Brown referred to the motions as “baseless and frivolous,” warning Bundy and Medenbach that their right to represent themselves as legal counsel was being eroded by their baseless arguments.
“Pro se status is not a license to do whatever one wants in the courtroom,” Brown said.
Medenbach agreed to follow the judge’s directives; however, Ryan Bundy reportedly seemed noncommittal.
“I will abide by court rulings so long as those rulings are within the law,” Bundy responded to Judge Brown.
In an eleventh-hour motion Tuesday, just one day before jury selection was to begin, Ryan Bundy told the court he wanted to ditch his court-appointed standby counsel, Lisa Ludwig.
“I do not want her to represent me. I do not want her assistance,” Bundy told the court.
Brown denied the motion, but assured him Ludwig’s role was as a standby counselor.
“Her role is standby only. You’re speaking to the jury. She’s not here to represent you. You don’t have to consult with her.”
In another last minute motion, late last week, Ammon Bundy’s legal team, which includes former Utah State Rep. J. Morgan Philpot, filed a motion mocking the court’s refusal to dismiss the case against their client.
Bundy’s lawyers had argued defendants were shielded from federal prosecution based on a legal precedent known as adverse possession, which allows a person, or even a trespasser, to legally acquire property owned by someone else, provided certain criteria are met.
Federal prosecutors argued, and Brown agreed, that the defense motion was fatally flawed as the federal government is technically immune to adverse possession.
Bundy’s legal team responded by citing dialogue from the 1940s Western movie, “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” starring Humphrey Bogart, saying prosecutors’ dismissive stance on the adverse possession theory were reminiscent of Bogart’s exchange with bandits in the outback:
BANDIT: “We are the federales. You know, the mounted police.”
BOGART: “If you are the police, where are your badges?”
BANDIT: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”
“The government’s response says, essentially, we don’t need to prove no stinking subject matter jurisdiction,” Bundy’s attorneys wrote. “But that’s the thing: they do.”
Jury selection begins Wednesday. Opening arguments are scheduled to start Sept. 13.
The trial is expected to take two months.
In addition to the charges surrounding the occupation in Oregon, Ryan and Ammon Bundy face other federal charges surrounding their alleged roles in organizing armed resistance against BLM and federal law enforcement officers during the Bunkerville, Nev., standoff in 2014.
Bundy’s brother, Dave Bundy, and family patriarch Cliven Bundy have also been charged in the Bunkerville standoff.