Armed antigovernment protesters led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, charged in the takeover of a federally owned Oregon wildlife sanctuary in January, were acquitted Thursday of federal conspiracy and weapons charges.
The surprise verdict in Federal District Court was a blow to the government, which had argued that the group used force and threats of violence to occupy the reserve, impeding the federal workers there. But the jury appeared swayed by the occupiers’ contention that they were protesting government overreach and posed no threat.
In a sign of the high tensions throughout the trial, Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Marcus R. Mumford, was restrained by four United States Marshals in courtroom tussle after the verdict on Thursday. He was enraged that the Bundys were not being immediately released.
Later Thursday, Matthew Schindler, one of the defense lawyers, said: “It’s a great victory to hear the individuals in this trial prevail. It’s a tremendous victory.” As he was speaking, supporters outside the courthouse chanted: “Praise God. Praise God.”
The occupation, which took place over a month and a half in a frigid Oregon reserve many miles from the nearest town and was rooted in antigovernment fervor, galvanized the nation’s attention. There was a Wild West quality to the episode, with armed men in cowboy hats taking on federal agents in a tussle over public lands and putting out a call for aid, only to see their insurrection fizzle.
“This is beyond any happiness I’ve ever experienced,” said Ryan Bundy’s wife, Angela Bundy, 39, in a telephone interview from the family ranch in Bunkerville, Nev. “I knew that what my husband was doing was right, but I was nervous because the judge was controlling the narrative. But they saw the truth. I am just so grateful they saw it.” The family would be celebrating on the ranch Thursday night, she said.
In a monthlong trial here, the defendants never denied that they had occupied and held the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters for nearly six weeks, demanding that the federal government surrender the 188,000-acre property to local control. But their lawyers argued that prosecutors did not prove that the group had engaged in an illegal conspiracy that kept federal workers — employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management — from doing their jobs.
Ethan D. Knight, an assistant United States attorney, argued that the case was simple: Ammon Bundy had been selective in deciding which laws applied to him and had led an armed seizure of property that did not belong to him, interfering with federal workers.
Mr. Mumford said the issues raised by the trial were as big as the West and the United States Constitution. Acquitting Mr. Bundy, he argued, would be a victory for all Americans. “They’re deceiving you,” Mr. Mumford said, gesturing to the prosecutors. “It’s the government that picks and chooses the rules it’s going to comply with.”
Ammon Bundy, 41, a business owner and a son of Cliven Bundy, a rancher in Nevada known for leading antigovernment protests, testified for three days in his own defense. He argued that the takeover was spontaneous and informed by religious belief. But prosecutors, through witnesses and their final arguments, said the group used the threat of force and violence, crystallized by Mr. Bundy’s call for followers across the nation to come to the refuge with guns.
All seven defendants in the case were charged with conspiracy to impede federal employees from discharging their duties, and they also faced federal weapons charges and could have been given long prison sentences. The unanimous acquittals for the seven covered all the charges but one, a theft of government property charge against Ryan Bundy for removing cameras mounted at the refuge, with no verdict rendered on it.
Both Bundy brothers, along with others who were at the refuge, are also charged in a criminal case in Nevada over a standoff in 2014 at the Bundy ranch south of Las Vegas. In that episode, an armed group tried to prevent federal officials from seizing cattle owned by Cliven Bundy, who had refused for years to pay the government grazing fees. That trial is scheduled to begin in February.