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Witnesses Begin To Take Stand In Oregon Wildlife Refuge Occupation Trial


Prosecutors and the defense gave opening statements this week in the Oregon Wildlife Refuge Occupation trial taking place in Portland. Witnesses have begun to take the stand. The occupation in rural eastern Oregon earlier this year lasted 41 days, during which police shot and killed one of the occupiers. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson has been in the federal courtroom all week. He joins us now. And Conrad, describe the prosecution's case.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: So the government has charged the defendants with conspiracy. So they're trying to show that this takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was well planned and that - really the effect of it was federal workers at the refuge weren't able to do their jobs. Federal prosecutors are trying to show that the reason federal employees who work at the refuge felt so threatened is because the government knew that they were dealing with many of the same people who pointed guns at federal agents back during a standoff in Nevada in 2014.

CORNISH: Now, am I reading this right that there are seven opening statements from the defense, two from people representing themselves? How's this going?

WILSON: Yeah, you are reading that right. And the defense is pushing this idea of what happened at the wildlife refuge - they're saying it was a political protest and that the presence of firearms wasn't meant to threaten anybody, but rather it was protected by the Second Amendment. Before giving his opening statement, one of the occupation leaders, Ryan Bundy, said that he wanted to give each juror a pocket Constitution, which is something U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown said no.

Interestingly, Ryan Bundy started his opening statement by showing the jury a family photo. It kind of looked like a Christmas card with his wife and seven of his eight children. He told the jury that if you're going to judge me, you need to know me first. And he talked about his faith. He's a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And he also raised issues about the authority of the federal government.

CORNISH: Right, and this is important because one of the elements in this case is that the defendants don't believe the federal government even has the right to own or manage public lands, right? I mean, how is this actually playing out in the courtroom?

WILSON: Right, so defense attorney Marcus Mumford - he's representing occupation leader Ammon Bundy - he brought up the idea of adverse possession, which basically means that if you take possession of the land and use it, it's yours. To be clear, it's a pretty fringe legal theory. On many occasions, Judge Anna Brown has reminded the jurors that they're not really litigating who owns the refuge or whether even the federal government can own and manage land. She says that she's allowing it into the trial so the defendants can speak to their state of mind at the time and provide an explanation for why they did what they thought they were doing.

CORNISH: Now, the original occupations drew national attention. What's going on in the courtroom? Are there a lot of onlookers?

WILSON: Yeah, there have been a lot of people who have shown up to see the trial so far - lots of family members of the defendants. There have been people from Harney County, which is five hours away and where the actual occupation took place. And there's also been members of the Burns Paiute Tribe, whose historic lands were damaged during the occupation.

CORNISH: Conrad, what's next in this case?

WILSON: So there's definitely more than a month of testimony to come. The best estimate is that the case will go to the jury in early November. Judge Anna Brown has talked about how the court would even handle Thanksgiving. And she said that everyone's going to be able to celebrate it and not together.

CORNISH: That's Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks so much.

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

Conrad Wilson