Public land users and advocates across the country are struggling to understand how seven accused Malheur Wildlife Refuge militants, including ringleaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were acquitted. In response, the Idaho Conservation League has been working to understand how the jury could’ve reached this conclusion given the seemingly overwhelming evidence against the accused.

The Jurors’ Task

In a jury trial, jurors are asked to apply the law as specifically stated in instructions provided by a judge. The task is to determine whether-when compared to the law-the facts that are provided via evidence and testimony warrant a conviction. Ideally, jurors don’t have prior knowledge of the case they are deciding, and review the evidence without bias. In this instance, we don’t know how much jurors did or didn’t know about the refuge occupation beforehand. It’s been reported that the jurors came from across Oregon and that one juror was dismissed as the jury began deliberations; apparently his fellow jurors felt he was biased because he was a former government employee.

Ammon and Ryan Bundy and the others were charged with 1) conspiracy to impede officers of the US in carrying out their duties, and 2) possession of firearms in the course of the conspiracy. That means, if no conspiracy is found, then the firearms charge becomes moot. That appears to be what happened here.

Federal conspiracy has three elements: there was an agreement between two or more persons to commit at least one crime, defendants became a member of the conspiracy knowing of at least one of its objects (or purposes) and intending to help accomplish it, and at least one member of the conspiracy performed at least one act for the purpose of carrying out the conspiracy.

In an article published in the Oregonian, a juror is quoted as saying the prosecution failed to show that "an agreement was made with an illegal object in mind," which was the first of three elements of a conspiracy.

It’s easy to armchair guess the jury. But we weren’t in that courtroom. We don’t know what evidence was and wasn’t presented, or how the jury received it.

So, What’s Next?

Seven defendants  are scheduled to face identical charges in February. Based on the acquittal, the government may seek to modify the charges or change tactics.

Eleven of the twenty-six originally charged have already pled guilty and will serve prison terms and/or pay fines consistent with their plea deals. At least one, though, had already initiated attempts to change his guilty plea to not guilty, prior to the announcement of the verdict.

Both Ryan and Ammon Bundy, along with other Malheur militants, are also scheduled to face other federal charges stemming from the armed conflict with Bureau of Land Management  over illegal ranching that initially brought the Bundy family into the media glare.

Based on the outcome of the Malheur trial, we know that federal and state partners who are committed to upholding laws designed to protect our shared natural resources will face increasing challenges in the future.

We also know that regardless of the outcome of this or other upcoming trials, the vast majority of Idahoans and other public land users agree that public lands are a shared resource and necessitate working collaboratively to find lasting solutions-and that violence and inflammatory rhetoric are a needless distraction.

And we  know that our public lands and the public servants who steward them feel more vulnerable than ever and need our support and dedication-now more than ever.