Oregon militants acquitted of conspiracy in wildlife refuge seizure

PORTLAND, Ore. - A federal court jury delivered a surprise verdict on Thursday acquitting anti-government militant leader Ammon Bundy and six followers of conspiracy charges stemming from their role in the armed takeover of a wildlife center in Oregon earlier this year.

The outcome marked a stinging defeat for federal prosecutors and law enforcement in a trial the defendants sought to turn into a pulpit for airing their opposition to U.S. government control over millions of acres of public lands in the West.

Related: Ranching dispute in Oregon; protesters take over National Wildlife Refuge

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Ranching dispute in Oregon; protesters take over National Wildlife Refuge
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Ranching dispute in Oregon; protesters take over National Wildlife Refuge
KANAB, UT - FEBRUARY 5: A man holds a flag as two armed private security guards look on outside a Mormon church for the funeral of rancher Robert 'LaVoy' Finicum on February 5, 2016 in Kanab, Utah. Finicum who was part of the Burns, Oregon standoff with federal officials was shot and killed by FBI agents when they tried to detain him at a traffic stop on February 27, 2016. ( Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Law enforcement personnel monitor an intersection of closed Highway 395 in Burns, Oregon on January 26, 2016, during a standoff pitting an anti-government militia against the US authorities. One person died in an armed clash with police as they arrested the leaders of a group laying siege to an American wildlife refuge, the FBI said January 26. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
Duane Ehmer rides his horse Hellboy at the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on the sixth day of the occupation of the federal building in Burns, Oregon on January 7, 2016. The leader of a small group of armed activists who have occupied a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon hinted on Wednesday that the standoff may be nearing its end. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
Duane Ehmer rides his horse Hellboy at the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on the sixth day of the occupation of the federal building in Burns, Oregon on January 7, 2016. The leader of a small group of armed activists who have occupied a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon hinted on Wednesday that the standoff may be nearing its end. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
BURNS, OR - JANUARY 07: A member of an anti-government militia stands next to a campfire outside of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on January 7, 2016 near Burns, Oregon. An armed anti-government militia group continues to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters as they protest the jailing of two ranchers for arson. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BURNS, OR - JANUARY 07: A man wearing a patriotic jacket rides his horse on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on January 7, 2016 near Burns, Oregon. An armed anti-government militia group continues to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters as they protest the jailing of two ranchers for arson. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Members of an armed anti-government militia, monitor the entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters near Burns, Oregon January 5, 2016. The occupation of a wildlife refuge by armed protesters in Oregon reflects a decades-old dispute over land rights in the United States, where local communities have increasingly sought to take back federal land. While the standoff in rural Oregon was prompted by the jailing of two ranchers convicted of arson, experts say the issue at the core of the dispute runs much deeper and concerns grazing or timber rights as well as permits to work mines on government land in Western states. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
BURNS, OR - JANUARY 05: Members of an anti-government militia stand outside of a building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on January 5, 2016 near Burns, Oregon. An armed anti-government militia group continues to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters as they protest the jailing of two ranchers for arson. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Ammon Bundy(2nd-L), leader of an armed anti-government militia, returns to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters near Burns, Oregon January 5, 2016 following a news conference. The occupation of a wildlife refuge by armed protesters in Oregon reflects a decades-old dispute over land rights in the United States, where local communities have increasingly sought to take back federal land. While the standoff in rural Oregon was prompted by the jailing of two ranchers convicted of arson, experts say the issue at the core of the dispute runs much deeper and concerns grazing or timber rights as well as permits to work mines on government land in Western states. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
BURNS, OR - JANUARY 05: Ammon Bundy, the leader of an anti-government militia, speaks to members of the media in front of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on January 5, 2016 near Burns, Oregon. An armed anti-government militia group continues to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters as they protest the jailing of two ranchers for arson. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BURNS, OR - JANUARY 05: A view of the visitor center at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on January 5, 2016 near Burns, Oregon. An armed anti-government militia group continues to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters as they protest the jailing of two ranchers for arson. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BURNS, OR - JANUARY 05: A member of an anti-government militia stands outside of a building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on January 5, 2016 near Burns, Oregon. An armed anti-government militia group continues to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters as they protest the jailing of two ranchers for arson. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ammon Bundy, the leader of armed protesters who have taken over a federal building in rural Oregon, told TODAY Monday that the group has no intention of committing violence unless the government intervenes.

Photo courtesy: NBC News

Members of a small militia at the entrance to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters property some 30 miles from Burns, Oregon, January 3, 2016. The armed anti-government group have taken over a building at the federal wildlife refuge, accusing officials of unfairly punishing ranchers who refused to sell their land. The standoff has prompted some schools to call off classes for the entire week. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
Deserted N. Broadway Avenue in Burns, Oregon is seen January 3, 2016, where 30 miles away a militia group has occupied the Malheur Wildlife Headquarters complex. Anti-government militiamen from several US states continued to occupy the federal wildlife facility in Oregon, saying their protest against the jailing of two ranchers could last years, media reported. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
A vehicle occupied by members of a small militia group enter the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters property some 30 miles from Burns, Oregon, January 3, 2016. The armed anti-government group have taken over a building at the federal wildlife refuge, accusing officials of unfairly punishing ranchers who refused to sell their land. The standoff has prompted some schools to call off classes for the entire week. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
Media gather outside the entrance of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters near Burns, Oregon, January 3, 2016, where an armed anti-government group have taken over a building at the federal wildlife refuge, accusing officials of unfairly punishing ranchers who refused to sell their land. The standoff has prompted some schools to call off classes for the entire week. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
Patric Batie, 14, walks along a road in Burns, Oregon, January 3, 2016, some 30 miles from the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters where a group of armed anti-government protesters have taken over a building at the federal wildlife refuge, accusing officials of unfairly punishing ranchers who refused to sell their land. The standoff has prompted some school to call off classes for the entire week. AFP PHOTO / ROB KERR / AFP / ROB KERR (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)
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Bundy and others, including his brother and co-defendant Ryan Bundy, cast the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as a patriotic act of civil disobedience. Prosecutors called it a lawless scheme to seize federal property by force.

Jubilant supporters of the Bundys thronged the courthouse after the verdict, hailing the trial's outcome as vindication of a political ideology that is profoundly distrustful of federal authority and challenges its legitimacy.

"We're so grateful to the jurors who weren't swayed by the nonsense that was going on," defendant Shawna Cox told reporters. "God said we weren't guilty. We weren't guilty of anything."

As the seven-week-long trial in the U.S. District Court in Portland climaxed, U.S. marshals wrestled to the floor Ammon Bundy's lawyer, Marcus Mumford, as he argued heatedly with the judge over the terms of his client's continued detention.

SEE ALSO: An Illinois GOP senator sniped at his Democratic opponent's heritage during a debate

The Bundys still face assault, conspiracy and other charges from a separate armed standoff in 2014 at the Nevada ranch of their father, Cliven Bundy, triggered when federal agents seized his cattle for his failure to pay grazing fees for his use of public land.

The outcome of the Oregon trial clearly shocked many in the packed courtroom. Attorneys exchanged looks of astonishment with the defendants, then hugged their clients as the not-guilty verdicts were read amid gasps from spectators.

Outside the courthouse, supporters celebrated by shouting "Hallelujah" and reading passages from the U.S. Constitution. One man rode his horse, named Lady Liberty, in front of the courthouse carrying an American flag.

The verdict came after four days of deliberations. One juror, a former federal employee, was dismissed over questions of bias on Wednesday and replaced by a substitute.

The 12-member panel found all seven defendants - six men and a woman - not guilty of the most serious charge, conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation, threats or force. That charge alone carried a maximum penalty of six years in prison.

The defendants also were acquitted of illegal possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property, except in the case of Ryan Bundy, for whom jurors were deadlocked on the charge of theft.

Related: Inside illegal wildlife trading, one of the world's biggest criminal enterprises

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Inside illegal wildlife trading, one of the world's biggest criminal enterprises
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Inside illegal wildlife trading, one of the world's biggest criminal enterprises

Criminal elements engaged in the wildlife trade range from terrorist groups to rogue security forces, but the main driving force behind the trade is transnational organized crime.

A wildlife department official holds a Malayan sun bear for the media at its head office in Kuala Lumpur, March 24, 2015. It was among other animals estimated to be worth $20,000, including juvenile eagles and a slow loris, seized by the wildlife department during an operation against illegal wildlife traders earlier this month. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be $8 billion a year worldwide, according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

That makes trafficking in animals one of the biggest sources of funding for organized crime.

Black spotted freshwater turtles are pictured after they were seized in a raid, at Sindh Wildlife Department in Karachi, Pakistan, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Pangolins like this newborn here are scaly mammals that many think are on their way to extinction because of trafficking. They're considered delicacies and their scales and blood are used in Chinese medicine.

Source: CNN

A newborn baby pangolin climbs the walls of a cage during a news conference at Thai customs in Bangkok April 20, 2011. The Thai custom office showed 175 pangolins they found hidden in a truck heading into Bangkok early this morning. Pangolins, or Manis Javanica, listed as endangered species in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), are found in Southeast Asia. Some people believe that its meat and blood can enhance sexual virility. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Trying to stop the wildlife trade is dangerous, too.

Cambodian police officers hold a python before handing it to members of the NGO WildAid, after it was recovered from smugglers, in Kandal province, outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

More than 1,000 wildlife rangers were killed between 2004 and 2014.

A policeman holds a water bottle with a yellow-crested cockatoo put inside for illegal trade, at the customs office of Tanjung Perak port in Surabaya, East Java province, Indonesia, May 4, 2015 in this picture taken by Antara Foto. Police arrested one man traveling by ship from Makassar, Sulawesi with 22 of the endangered cockatoos held inside water bottles. REUTERS/Antara Foto/Risyal Hidayat

That means a ranger is killed approximately once every four days.

A Pakistan Customs official releases a falcon in the Kirthar National Park, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Karachi January 24, 2013. Tari Mahmood, Senior Preventive Officer of Pakistan Preventive Customs, said that the customs and the Sindh Wildlife department have released six falcons that were seized during a raid in Karachi two months earlier. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

This baby orangutan was being smuggled out of an Indonesian forest so it could be sold for Rp25 million, or about $2000.

A baby orangutan lies in a plastic crate, after it was seized from a wildlife trafficking syndicate, at a police office in Pekanbaru, Riau province, in this November 9, 2015 picture taken by Antara Foto. According to local media, police investigators arrested individuals from a wildlife trafficking syndicate who were attempting to smuggle out three orangutan babies, ranging between 6 to 12 months of age, from their forest in Aceh with the intention of selling them to buyers in Pekanbaru for the price of Rp25 million per orangutan. REUTERS/FB Anggoro/Antara Foto

This Mexican tarantula was potentially destined for the pet trade.

A veterinarian holds a Mexican Tarantula, which had been rescued with other animals while being trafficked illegally, at the Federal Wildlife Conservation Center on the outskirts of Mexico City May 20, 2011. According to Mexico's Federal Wildlife Conservation Department, at least 2,500 different animals are rescued annually in the country, 70 percent from illegal animal trafficking within and outside the country and 30 percent from domestic captivity. Picture taken May 20, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

Poaching threatens to drive many species to extinction, which also destroys local economies that depend on wildlife tourism.

A keeper gives peanut to an orangutan inside a cage shortly after it arrived from Thailand at Halim Perdanakusuma airport in Jakarta, November 12, 2015. Fourteen orangutans smuggled into Thailand illegally were sent back to Indonesia on Thursday, but the operation was not without incident -- one of the powerful apes tore a wildlife officer's finger off when he tried to put them in cages. REUTERS/Beawiharta

A recent analysis found that 2015 marked a return to record highs in the illegal trade in ivory.

Source: World Wildlife Fund

A Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger stacks elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, onto a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Ugandan officials confiscated this group of African grey parrots. An international conference on the wildlife trade is currently considering a proposal to completely ban trade in these vulnerable birds.

African grey parrots rescued from an illegal trader by Ugandan officials at the Uganda-Democratic Republic of Congo border crossing are seen at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe, southwest of the capital Kampala January 12, 2011. Illegal trade in the parrots, which are valued between $300 and $700, has increased in recent years, according a spokeswoman for centre. Picture taken January 12, 2011 REUTERS/James Akena

The US Congress recently passed a law that authorized prosecutors to charge wildlife traffickers for money laundering to finance crime and extremism.

Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

A turtle is seen as Cambodian police officers handle over wild animals to members of the WildAid NGO, after they were recovered from smugglers in Kandal province, outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

The new bipartisan legislation, which President Obama is expected to sign, also increases support for wildlife rangers.

A plastic bag containing thousands of confiscated elvers (young eels) are shown to media at a cargo terminal in Ninoy Aquino International airport in Manila July 8, 2012. Airport authorities confiscated some two million elvers, weighing around 949 kg and amounting to 22,000 pesos ($524) per kilo. The elvers were supposed to be shipped to Hong Kong, local media reported. According to Philippine law fingerlings are not to be exported unless for scientific or education purposes. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo

The bill also allows the US to transfer military equipment for ranger use.

A slow loris is carried in a cage by a wildlife department official at the head office in Kuala Lumpur March 24, 2015. It was among other animals estimated to be worth $20,000, including juvenile eagles and a Malayan sun bear cub, seized by the wildlife department during an operation against illegal wildlife traders earlier this month. The illegal global wildlife trade is estimated to be $8 billion a year worldwide, according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Interpol estimates that only about 10% of the exotic animal trade is currently detected.

Source: National Geographic

An officer holds a baby saltwater crocodile at BKSDA (Natural Resources Conservation Board) office in Yogyakarta August 10, 2011. The reptile is one of eight baby saltwater crocodiles which survived during a move to Gembiraloka Zoo in Yogyakarta, after officers confiscated 27 of the species about three weeks ago as they were being smuggled from Central Kalimantan province to Central Java for trade. REUTERS/Dwi Oblo

These long-tailed macaque babies were found on a truck crossing from Vietnam into China.

Long-tailed macaque babies are seen inside a basket as police seized a truck smuggling them from Vietnam to China, in Changsha, Hunan province January 8, 2015. Police arrested 11 people on Thursday trying to smuggle at least 100 long-tailed macaques, which is a second grade protected species in China, local media reported. Picture taken January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer 

These 81 baby iguanas were found in Costa Rica hotel, presumably bound for the pet trade.

Rescued baby iguanas are pictured in a cardboard box, in an office of the Ministry of Environment in San Jose, May 25, 2015. Officers from the national police force of Costa Rica rescued 81 iguanas that had been confined to a box at a hotel in San Jose. It is presumed that the captive iguanas were the subject of an exotic pet smuggling, according to a press release issued by the Ministry of Public Security. The Ministry of the Environment rehabilitated the iguanas to a natural habitat today. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

This Mexican coyote sits in a government facility on the outskirts of Mexico City after being rescued.

A Mexican Coyote, that had been rescued with other animals while being trafficked illegally, is seen through the bars of an enclosure at the Federal Wildlife Conservation Center on the outskirts of Mexico City May 20, 2011. According to Mexico's Federal Wildlife Conservation Department, at least 2,500 different animals are rescued annually in the country, 70 percent from illegal animal trafficking within and outside the country and 30 percent from domestic captivity. Picture taken May 20, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

These falcons, recovered in Pakistan, are worth approximately $9,600 each.

Falcons are seen at the offices of Sindh Wildlife Police after they were seized in Karachi, Pakistan October 13, 2015. Twenty-two falcons worth one million rupees ($9,600) each were seized by the Rangers paramilitary force after they were discovered during a snap inspection along a toll booth, as they were being smuggled from Peshawar to Karachi. The birds were later handed over to Sindh Wildlife Department, reported local media. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

In this case, more than 90 turtles, monkeys, and parrots were found in plastic bags inside a dumpster, ready to be smuggled into El Salvadorean territory.

Terrapins are seen during a news conference in San Salvador October 29, 2014. Authorities of the Ministry of Enviroment of El Salvador rescued about 100 endangered animals abandoned in a dumpster near the border with Honduras on Wednesday morning, local media reported. More than 90 turtles, monkeys and parrots were found in plastic bags ready to be smuggled into Salvadorean territory. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

This woman was caught with 51 tropical fish in an apron when customs officers heard splashing inside her skirt while she tried to catch a flight from Singapore to Melbourne.

A woman on a flight from Singapore to Melbourne shows the 51 live tropical fish hidden in a specially designed apron under her skirt in this handout photograph from the Australian Customs Service on June 3, 2005. Customs officers became suspicious after hearing "flipping" noises coming from the vicinity of her waist, and an examination revealed 15 plastic water-filled bags holding concealed fish. Picture taken June 3, 2005. REUTERS/Handout/Australian Customs Service DG/SA

This coati was part of a group of animals seized in Mexico.

A coati, which had been rescued from a home along with two others of its kind, sits inside its enclosure at the Federal Wildlife Conservation Center on the outskirts of Mexico City May 20, 2011. According to Mexico's Federal Wildlife Conservation Department, at least 2,500 different animals are rescued annually in the country, 70 percent from illegal animal trafficking within and outside the country and 30 percent from domestic captivity. Picture taken May 20, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

A German national shipped these tarantulas into the US, where the Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated them.

Tarantula's confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are shown in this December 3, 2010 handout photo released to Reuters January 18, 2011. A German national who shipped the tarantulas into the United States through the mail pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a federal smuggling charge, prosecutors said. REUTERS/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Handout

This serpent eagle was taken from traffickers in the Philippines.

A serpent eagle sits inside its cage at Manila's police district August 18, 2011. Police seized 69 mynah, 17 assorted turtles and a serpent eagle from illegal traders and turned them over to the Manila zoo, according to authorities. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo

These spider monkeys were the lucky ones that survived their transport in a bag found on a bus.

A couple of Spider Monkeys, that had been found on a bus inside a bag with three dead monkeys, rest in a hammock at the Federal Wildlife Conservation Center on the outskirts of Mexico City May 20, 2011. According to Mexico's Federal Wildlife Conservation Department, at least 2,500 different animals are rescued annually in the country, 70 percent from illegal animal trafficking within and outside the country and 30 percent from domestic captivity. Picture taken May 20, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

This black rattlesnake was part of a larger shipment of animals intercepted by Mexican authorities.

A Black Rattlesnake, which had been rescued with other animals while being trafficked illegally, is seen inside a plastic cylinder at the Federal Wildlife Conservation Center on the outskirts of Mexico City May 20, 2011. According to Mexico's Federal Wildlife Conservation Department, at least 2,500 different animals are rescued annually in the country, 70 percent from illegal animal trafficking within and outside the country and 30 percent from domestic captivity. Picture taken May 20, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

"The very survival of elephants, rhinos, tigers and other iconic species is threatened by wildlife trafficking," said John Calvelli, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, in a statement. "We need to address this crisis now, before it is too late."

A worker holds a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) after unloading it from a truck in Denpasar, capital city of the province of Bali, May 19, 2010. Police said on Tuesday they foiled an attempt to smuggle 71 green turtles for food. The turtles, caught in the waters off Sulawesi Island, have an average weight of 100 kilograms (220 pounds). REUTERS/Murdani Usman

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The takeover of the wildlife refuge was initially sparked by outrage over the plight of two imprisoned Oregon ranchers the occupiers believed had been unfairly treated in an arson case. But the militants said they were also protesting larger grievances at what they saw as government tyranny.

The standoff led to the shooting death of one protester, Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, by police shortly after the Bundy brothers were arrested, and left parts of the refuge badly damaged.

More than two dozen people, in all, have been criminally charged in the occupation, and a second group of defendants is due to stand trial in February.

Mumford told reporters he believed Ammon and Ryan Bundy would remain in custody for the time being but may be transferred to Nevada.

Four co-defendants were free on their own recognizance during the trial. A fifth, David Fry, the last of the occupiers to surrender in February, was released hours after the verdict. (Reporting by Scott Bransford in Portland; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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