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National

Federal Trial Begins For Leaders Accused Of Occupying Wildlife Refuge

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Federal prosecutors in Oregon are getting a second chance to prove that the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge was illegal. Some defendants in this case were acquitted, but now jury selection is underway in Portland for a trial of more of them. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: This trial follows the surprising acquittal last fall of the occupation leader Ammon Bundy and six others. The scene outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland in late October was jubilant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Not guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Jeff Banta?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Not guilty.

WILSON: A jury found the defendants not guilty of a felony, conspiring to prevent federal employees who work at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from doing their jobs, among other charges. That verdict followed last year's 41-day standoff in eastern Oregon's High Desert. Occupation supporters saw it as a victory against government overreach when it comes to managing millions of acres of public lands across the American West.

BILLY WILLIAMS: Except there are a good number of folks in rural America who are of the mind that you don't take arms and take over a federal facility to prove your point.

WILSON: Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, spoke about the government's case after the first trial.

WILLIAMS: It was disappointing, bitterly so. We obviously believed in our case, worked really hard to present the evidence.

WILSON: That belief in their case may be part of the reason the government decided to move forward with the second trial for the remaining defendants linked to the occupation. The four defendants in this next trial are less well-known. But, like the leaders, they've been charged with felonies, those same felonies the government lost on during the first trial.

Jesse Merrithew is an attorney for one of the defendants.

JESSE MERRITHEW: We simply want to get a jury that's willing to follow the law. This trial is going to be about whether the government should be allowed to suppress dissents in the heavy-handed manner that it's chosen to do with these individuals.

WILSON: But unlike the first trial, the government has added misdemeanor charges for the second group of defendants, things like trespassing and destruction of property. The judge will decide those charges, not the jury. The defense has the benefit of having watched the first trial and knowing what many of the government's witnesses will say. Martin Estrada is a former federal prosecutor-turned-defense attorney. Despite that perceived advantage, he believes prosecutors have the upper hand.

MARTIN ESTRADA: In the first trial, the defense really hit a grand slam. It's hard to hit a grand slam twice.

WILSON: The second trial could last about four weeks.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCHRE'S "INFINITE BOOKENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.