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2 Occupiers Found Guilty Of Conspiracy In Oregon Wildlife Refuge Standoff

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A federal jury in Oregon delivered a split verdict today in the trial of a second group of people charged with unlawfully occupying a wildlife preserve last year. Jurors found two defendants guilty of conspiring to prevent federal workers from doing their jobs at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Two other defendants were acquitted today.

Back in October, a different jury found a different group of defendants not guilty of similar charges. Joining us from Portland is Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson, who has been covering this story from the beginning. Hi there.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Today's verdict sounds a little bit complicated. So would you just begin by unpacking it for us?

WILSON: Sure. So two of the defendants have been found guilty of conspiracy to prevent federal workers from doing their jobs through force, threats and intimidation. And those are Darryl Thorn and Jason Patrick. The jury also found Thorn guilty of possessing a firearm in a federal facility. And then the jury found two defendants, Duane Ehmer and Jake Ryan, not guilty of conspiracy. But it did find them guilty of different charges - damaging federal property. And those are also felonies.

SHAPIRO: Now, the October case was against a different group of defendants, as we said. They were charged with essentially the same crimes, though, and they were found not guilty. So what was different this time?

WILSON: Yeah. So - well, for starters, this is a different group of defendants. The government also had additional evidence that they presented this time that they didn't last year. Overall, the federal prosecutors trying the case presented a much more focused argument. Knowing the verdict from October, the prosecutors knew where their weaknesses would lay, and they addressed them.

They said that the jury wasn't just going to see a, you know, a signed document or some recording of an agreement to conspire. But prosecutors argued that because the occupation kept employees from going to work, that was enough evidence to show that a conspiracy existed.

SHAPIRO: What was the argument the defense lawyers made? And did it differ between the defendants who were acquitted and the ones that were convicted?

WILSON: Well, it was - you know, it was really similar to the first trial. The defense argued the occupiers were engaged in a protest which they believe is protected by the First Amendment. And they were protesting the way the federal government manages lands around the West.

The defense in this case and the case from last October - they said that - a lot of them believe that the federal government doesn't have the authority to own large tracts of public lands such as the wildlife refuge they occupied. They also argued they brought firearms because they have a Second Amendment right to have guns. Another big factor - the defendants say that they were protesting the imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers convicted of arson on public lands.

SHAPIRO: And so far, what has the reaction been to these verdicts?

WILSON: Well, the defendants were bitterly disappointed. I mean, there were a lot of tears and anger, especially since the leaders of the occupation were acquitted last fall. It's not just a split verdict. I mean this trial and the one from last fall have delivered really a mixed message. You know, is this form of protest OK or not? The earlier trial says yes, but today's verdict says no.

Fish and Wildlife Service, the FBI and prosecutors are of course pleased with the outcome of this trial. They say it shows that you can't protest this way - taking up arms and occupying a public facility and preventing people there from doing their jobs.

SHAPIRO: That's Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson speaking with us from Portland on the verdict in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge case. Thanks very much.

WILSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT SONG, "NOSTRAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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