By Courtney Sherwood
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – A prosecutor told jurors on Tuesday that four men who took part in the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon last year in a land rights protest were on trial for their actions, not their beliefs.
But in the defense’s opening argument, a lawyer for one of those charged countered that the men were exercising their constitutional rights to peaceably assemble and seek redress of grievances.
Last October, another trial over the 41-day standoff ended with the acquittal of anti-government activist Ammon Bundy and six of his followers, who cast their protest as a patriotic act of civil disobedience in opposition to U.S. government control over millions of acres of public lands in the West.
“We are not prosecuting these defendants because of what they said or think. We are prosecuting them because of what they did,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoff Barrow told the jury in his opening argument in Portland, Oregon federal court.
Jason Patrick, of Georgia, Duane Ehmer of Oregon, Jake Ryan of Montana and Darryl Thorn of Washington state all face multiple charges of trespassing, conspiracy to impede federal employees through intimidation and tampering with vehicles and equipment at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural eastern Oregon. Each man also faces other criminal charges.
“The larger question underlying this entire case (is) who? Who should decide the important issues in our rural communities? The people who live and work there, or is it the federal government?,” said defense lawyer Andrew Kohlmetz, who represents Patrick, during his opening remarks.
Lawyers for the other defendants were scheduled to make their opening remarks later on Tuesday. The trial was expected to last four weeks.
A conspiracy charge brought against all four men carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Fourteen other participants in the occupation have pleaded guilty to various charges.
Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and their father Cliven Bundy are in federal custody ahead of a trial scheduled to begin later this year over another armed standoff with federal officers in 2014 in Nevada. The first of three trials in that case began on Feb. 9.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Grant McCool)