What we’re reading about the Bundy trial in Oregon

A guide to making sense of the courtroom drama, as the trial begins.


Seven people who took part in the Bundy occupation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are on trial in Portland, Oregon, facing a jury of their peers from around the state. Despite the heightened tensions around the trial, presiding Judge Anna Brown told reporters, “The defendants are not on trial for what they believe. They can only be found guilty if the government proves their criminal intentions.”

The trial is likely to be convoluted. Already, jail-cell hijinks, including scuffles and an alleged escape plan involving a hidden 12-foot rope made out of bedsheets have made headlines, as well as a snag in the government’s use of Facebook posts as evidence.

The seven people who are on trial for the Oregon standoff are Ken Medenbach, David Lee Fry, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, Neil Wampler, Jeff Wayne Banta and Ammon Bundy.
Multnomah County Sheriff

Ultimately, the trial will likely be a critical touchstone amidst a spate of Sagebrush Rebellion activities throughout the West in the past few years. It will inevitably touch on the issue of federal management of public lands, a talking point in this year’s election, as well as gun ownership and use, a discussion after a string of mass shootings and gun violence has brought gun control to the forefront of national conversation.

The touchiness of those issues and the ire they inspire is already apparent. Brown told defense attorneys, “Our lives have been threatened,” though she said did not know specifically from whom. Several U.S. Department of Agriculture offices, including Forest Service facilities, shut down last month after receiving unspecified threats. Earlier this summer, William Keebler, a right-wing militant who allegedly knew LaVoy Finicum, who died during the January standoff, was arrested for bombing a Bureau of Land Management building.

Here’s what the staff of High Country News is reading about the trial and surrounding drama, as we try and make sense of the courtroom theater and what it means. We'll update as the trial progresses:

New to the standoff?

Brush up on how we got here with our coverage of the Malheur standoff and its conclusion, or check out the New York Times’ succinct explainer of the “who, what, where, when, and why” of the Bundy standoff at Malheur. It touches on how the takeover got started, starting with local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond’s jail time, how it ended, and looks at how the rise of antigovernment protest evolves from undercurrents of unrest in areas of economic downturn in the West. You can also check out our rundown of who attended the standoff and how they got there here.

Want to understand the larger forces at play?

Read Hal Herring’s stunning essay, “The darkness at the heart of Malheur,” reported from within the standoff and exploring what makes these flashpoints possible. Also check out Oregon Public Broadcasting’s award-winning radio-documentary on the standoff and what it means.

How to stay up to date on the trial:

1. The Oregonian has an overview of the jurors who have been selected for the Bundy trial, which began opening remarks Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. The jurors are from all over Oregon, and include eight women and four men who were asked to devote at least two months of their lives to the trial. The jury process was a long one – three days – during which potential jurors were asked about their knowledge of the Bundy takeover, and their views on the First and Second Amendment and the Church of Latter Day Saints. As could be assumed, it was difficult to find someone who had no knowledge of the Bundys, especially since the family name has been in the spotlight since Cliven Bundy’s standoff in Nevada in 2014. Ultimately 12 jurors and eight back-ups were selected.

2. What’s at stake for other sagebrush rebels during this trial? This Oregonian article takes a look at the Bundys’ case and what it might mean for other sagebrush rebels, should they attempt a similar takeover. It also discusses what makes this case unusual, and the precedent this trial could set for the remaining occupiers going on trial in February 2017.

3. Pete Santelli, an “independent broadcaster” who recorded footage and made YouTube video broadcasts of the occupation, had his federal conspiracy charges dismissed for his presence and involvement during the refuge takeover. However, Santelli still has federal charges to face from the 2014 Bundy standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch, and will be transferred to a jail in Nevada. Santelli was set to go on trial for his part in the occupation, which he says he did not partake in, but was rather there to cover it as a story. “I have no other focus now but to get in front of a jury in Nevada,” Santilli told the Oregonian, “and maybe not pick on the FBI as much as I have. I'm going to retire from that.”

4. For those who are up to date on the standoff and impending trial, this news article adds another layer. Defense attorneys have argued that the FBI improperly handled Facebook messages that were to be used as evidence and requested that the evidence be suppressed. The FBI admits that it did not actually seal and dispose of messages in the timeline that they originally said they did, but said that it did not impact the trial and should still be allowed as evidence. Judge Anna Brown ruled Sept. 12 to let the evidence be used, but “admonishes” the FBI for their carelessness  yet another mini-drama in the Bundys’ ongoing faceoff with the government. 

5. If you want the blow-by-blow, follow these folks on Twitter: OPB reporter Conrad Wilson  has been giving play-by-play tweets for each day of the trial so far. Maxine Bernstein for the Oregonian is also on the scene reporting on the trial, as well as Amanda Peacher for OPB, who also covered the standoff. OPB’s podcast “This Land is Our Land” gives listeners a more in-depth view as reporters rehash the day's events and what it means for the occupiers on trial.

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