In a surprising twist to the story, seven people who staged an armed occupation of federal lands in Oregon were found not guilty by a federal court.
To review, a group led by the Bundy family occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon during January and February 2016. One was killed and many were arrested before most of the occupiers went home.
Charges levied against the militia members included obstruction of federal officers, firearms violations, theft, and depredation of federal property. Around a dozen plead guilty, and seven chose to go to trial. At trial, those seven were acquitted of all charges.
What we don’t know
As expected, the social media response was quick, vehement, and outraged. What was portrayed in the media beforehand was clearly guilt: so why could a jury conclude not guilt? It’s a perception-versus-legal conundrum that has plagued the administration of law throughout history. So it’s important that we as citizens understand several key things:
— We do not typically know the intricate details of the law and the precedents of judgment that are being applied to the case. For example, there may be historical rulings of cases much like this where the finding was similar.
— We do not criminalize carrying firearms on federal lands. I myself have carried a firearm on federal lands (deer and elk hunting) and so the case might have been made that these people had rights supported by the Second Amendment to do exactly what they were doing.
— We do not know whether or not the militia members ever actually threatened anyone. Certainly the man that died, died reaching for a firearm rather than submitting to arrest. But the rest DID submit to arrest in accordance with the law.
So we can’t pretend to know enough about the ways things played out in court to second-guess a jury verdict. Jurors are honorable citizens who typically don’t know much about the intricacies of law and judicial precedent, so those things have to be explained to them during trial. The system is therefore set up so that the best explainer usually wins. It’s a flawed system, but it’s the best we’ve found.
What we do know
What we DO know is that there are right and wrong ways to interpret a judgment that we don’t understand, and right and wrong ways to interpret how to respond.
If this verdict indicates a flaw in the law itself, then that flaw needs to be fixed. Work with your legislators to enact a fix. That’s how our system works.
If this verdict validates in your mind that it’s ok to occupy and vandalize lands that belong to the public, threaten law enforcement with firearms, and behave with a general disregard and disrespect for the rule of law that has made this country great, then you are absolutely in the wrong.
That’s NOT what this episode taught us. Quite the contrary, it taught us that the determination to preserve and protect the values of our country should be a paramount concern to all of us.
Those are the most valuable things to take away from this verdict.