PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — The U.S. Attorney's office gave the press 11 minutes to get to the federal courthouse to hear the stunning jury verdict finding Ammon Bundy and his six co-defendants not guilty of conspiring to keep federal employees from working. Even so, courtroom 9a was packed, with press and supporters who didn't fit crowded in the hall outside hoping for a chance to get in.
Inside, giddy conversation buzzed as observers waited for the jury to enter the room. The climax of a 10-month, real-life spaghetti western that cost the government just under $12 million to prosecute, caused roughly $6 million in damage to the refuge, left dozens in jail and one man dead. Observers speculated: would all seven defendants be found guilty, or just the leaders? Oregon's U.S. Attorney Billy Williams chatted it up with press, even inviting reporters to a press conference planned for the next morning.
The jury entered. Greg Bretzing, FBI special agent in charge of Oregon and the man who coordinated the law enforcement response to the occupation, walked in and sat next to Williams. The two men exchanged a smile and a nod.
Then U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown read the verdicts: Not guilty on all counts.
The hearing continued, but Williams and Bretzing fled the courtroom. They had just lost the biggest case of their careers, because of a political decision to prosecute a charge they couldn't prove.
Williams never showed up to his own press conference. Whatever he'd planned to say apparently didn't include the possibility of reacting to a not guilty verdict.
Lisa Ludwig, standby counsel for Ryan Bundy, said prosecutors must be reeling from the loss but weren't likely to make any major overhaul to the way the U.S. Attorney's Office prosecutes cases.
"Billy just did what U.S. Attorneys do," Ludwig said. "He didn't step up and try to impose reason and wisdom. He'd lose his job if he tried to do that. [The D.C. office] may be trying to be a little bit less institutionally racist, but only by incrementally microbaby steps. Because criminals are a weak constituency and so are the people who care about what happens to them."
A Case of the Wrong Charge
Ammon Bundy isn't free yet. His next stop is Nevada, to face charges related to the 2014 standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and Bundy supporters who stopped the government from seizing his father Cliven Bundy's cattle. But his acquittal in Oregon may embolden him and his followers. One of his attorneys, J. Morgan Philpot, said the verdict was a vindication of the Bundys' political beliefs.
Other lawyers said the verdict was a result of the prosecution choosing the wrong charge.
Conspiracy to keep federal employees from working is a Civil War-era statute that was initially enacted to prevent the Confederacy from interfering with federal officers. It's rarely used in modern circumstances: The government used it in one case where two people kidnapped a judge to avoid prosecution.
Federal conspiracy cases are usually used to convict defendants in drug, investment fraud and prostitution cases. Those involve the exchange of actual material items like money and heroin; it's tough to argue against the claim that everyone involved in a drug ring worked toward the same goal.