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Jury To Decide Fate of 7 Defendants Who Occupied Oregon Wildlife Refuge

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

After about six weeks of testimony, the case against seven defendants who occupied an Oregon Wildlife Refuge earlier this year has gone to the jury. The occupation in the rural eastern part of the state restarted a debate about the role of the federal government in managing public lands.

Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson has been in that federal courtroom since September, and he's with us now from Portland. Hi.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Hi.

MCEVERS: So just remind us again. What crimes have these defendants been charged with?

WILSON: So the defendants have been charged with a conspiracy to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The government says the defendants accomplished that through the use of force, threats and intimidation. Some of the defendants are also facing a weapons charge - carrying a firearm in a federal facility. And a few of the defendants have been charged with theft of government property.

MCEVERS: And as we said, the jury now has the case after two days of closing arguments, I understand, and weeks of testimony. Let's start with the government's case. I mean what was the federal prosecutor's closing argument?

WILSON: The government told the jury that the case is not about the defendant's belief that it's illegal for the federal government to own large tracts of range land. Federal prosecutors say the defendants simply just took property that wasn't theirs to take, and in doing that, they disrupted the work that was going on at the refuge. And they accomplished their goals by carrying firearms and blocking roads in and out of the refuge.

The biggest charge - and that's the conspiracy charge we talked about. That's the crime of agreeing to work together to do something unlawful. And prosecutors argued if the jury finds a conspiracy existed, then all the defendants are guilty of it.

MCEVERS: And so how did the defense respond in their closing arguments?

WILSON: So there were seven different defendants. And so the jury heard seven separate closing arguments from them. Some of the defendants are representing themselves at trial. Other defense attorneys questioned the use of confidential informants. The FBI had a number of them at the refuge.

The defense has raised the possibility that it was some of the informants who committed some of the illegal acts at the refuge rather than the defendants on trial. They also brought up a fringe legal theory called adverse possession, saying that by taking over land and using it, improving it, it can become yours in time.

MCEVERS: And you had covered this occupation when it was playing out at the refuge, and you saw a lot of the things happen that these people are being accused of. I mean what's it been like to see them questioned about this stuff?

WILSON: Well, I mean there were guns. I saw guns. And I mean there were - roads in fact were blocked. I saw the pickup truck that the occupiers used to block them. I mean - and those are just sort of facts. A lot of testimony the jury has heard and seen are the arguments the occupiers made to me when I interviewed them on the refuge in January. So I guess, you know, now the jury is really having to decide what weight to give that evidence.

MCEVERS: OK, so the jury has the case now - any sense when we might get a verdict?

WILSON: It's very hard to say. There's a lot of evidence for the jury to consider. Deliberations could last hours, days, weeks. It's just really hard to predict.

MCEVERS: Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson, thank you.

WILSON: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.