By Maxine Bernstein | The Oregonian/OregonLive Updated March 11, 2017 at 7:45 AM
Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said he was in constant communication with federal Justice officials in Washington, D.C. during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, through the development of the prosecution case and on charging decisions.
“Anytime there’s a case of national significance, we consult with main Justice,” Williams said.
The decision to continue to pursue felony conspiracy charges against the lesser-known defendants after last fall’s acquittal of occupation leader Ammon Bundy and six other key figures was made between his office and Justice officials in headquarters, he said during an interview in his office with the lead prosecutor in the case Friday afternoon.
“We always strive to ensure comparable resolutions are as equitable as possible,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight. “Our focus is ensuring the facts and the law supports the charges.”
Williams said he hoped the felony convictions Friday deter other armed occupations.
“You hope it dissuades people in engaging in similar conduct, that they don’t pick up guns and keep people from working,” he said.
Knight cited key changes they made for the second trial: calling recently retired FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing, instead of Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, to testify why the FBI didn’t move in during the initial weeks of the refuge seizure and why the FBI sent informants into the refuge before the defense could raise the subject. They put greater focus on how the occupation displaced federal employees, and were more vigilant in their cross-examination of defense witnesses, including Ammon Bundy.
Ward, who had multiple communications with occupation leader Ammon Bundy in November 2015, wasn’t directly involved with the four defendants who were standing trial this time so that’s why he wasn’t called as a witness, Knight explained.
The decision to hire a jury consultant for the second trial originated from a suggestion by support staff in the U.S. attorney’s office, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow.
Knight said it wasn’t easy switching gears to prosecute the four remaining, lesser-known defendants after the crushing acquittals of Bundy and six co-defendants last fall.
“It was excruciating,” said Knight, who has worked since mid-January 2016 through this trial with only three full weekends off and the week of Christmas.
“Our concern was for the employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and wanting to make sure we had a good outcome,” he said.
Williams added, “Getting back in the saddle if you will and gearing up for round two, after the result of round one, takes a tremendous” amount of dedication, focus and commitment.
He credited Knight and Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow for their professionalism, noting it’s a “tremendous personal sacrifice to handle these high-profile cases.”
But what helped drive that determination was concern for justice for the federal employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management, the people of Harney County and their local law enforcement and members of the Burns Paiute tribe, Williams and Knight said.
Asked repeatedly Friday about how he accepts the two significantly different trial verdicts, Williams said, “It takes two different juries evaluating the evidence and testimony and making different conclusions. Sometimes that’s how this system works.”
Before sentencing the defendants convicted Friday, pre-sentence reports will be done to flesh out each defendant’s criminal history, personal background and whether there are any mitigating factors that should be considered at sentencing. An occupier’s leadership role, for example, could be cause for an enhanced sentence, while those who hold less significant roles will argue for reduced sentences.
Williams said he hoped the prosecution of these defendants doesn’t taint those who live in rural communities in the West.
“This conduct isn’t a reflection on the good people in rural America, period,” Williams said. “There are so many hard-working people in ranching, farming, logging and small business who believe in the rule of law.”
— Maxine Bernstein