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Oregon standoff verdict takes on new meaning in a tense election year

Oregon standoff verdict takes on new meaning in a tense election year
In this Sept. 13, 2016, file photo, a protester, who would not identify himself, sits outside the federal courthouse as his horse, Lady Liberty, gets a drink from a fountain in Portland, Ore., during the trial for the Bundy brothers and five others. (Associated Press)

Jody Atkin felt as if he'd been constantly losing. Losing confidence in the government, losing faith in elections and losing his freedoms to what he saw as an overly aggressive federal government.

Jesse Miller felt the same way. Together, they hoisted their version of an SOS — a flag, with the patriot motto "Don't tread on me" — outside Atkin's home that looks out toward the broad, open cattle ranges of northern Nevada. It flapped briskly when the hard winds came down the mountains.

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Over the last year, much of their attention has been focused on a court case playing out in Oregon, where Ammon and Ryan Bundy, both sons of a well-known Nevada rancher, have been on trial for occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. For many residents of the rural West, the case has become a referendum on the federal government and a way of life that is under threat.

Atkin and his neighbors in this small ranching and mining town in the heart of the Nevada Gold Belt, had held out precious little hope that the Bundys would escape being locked up for years on federal conspiracy and weapons charges.

Then came the unexpected news Thursday that the Bundys and their co-defendants had been acquitted. Atkin was in his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting Thursday when his phone buzzed with the news.

"I almost yelled out loud right there in the meeting," Atkin said, re-enacting the moment in his recliner chair by raising a fist in the air. His smile was barely contained behind a thick, bushy and graying goatee.

The verdict means that the high-profile occupation, in which Bundy and his followers brazenly marched onto a federal refuge with guns and held it for more than a month, will carry no criminal consequences. Already, there are fears that the acquittal could embolden the militia movement and, at a time when the nation is straddling a deep political chasm, prompt some citizens to follow their conscience rather than the law.

On Friday, Atkin, a 62-year-old former miner who is on disability, and Miller, 47, a ranch-hand who recently moved from Virginia, were celebrating what they said was a rare victory.

Both are supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and see the upcoming election as a necessary step to undoing President Barack Obama's agenda over his two terms. But they aren't sure what should be done to keep up the fight if he is defeated.

J. Morgan Philpot, a Utah-based attorney who helped in the defense of the Bundy brothers, said most citizens are committed to working within the law to press their political beliefs.

"I don't think you'll ever see me supporting or calling for any form of revolution other than one in the hearts and minds of citizens or one that occurs in the courtrooms through legal arguments," Philpot said. "We were given a form of government that allows us as citizens to preserve our liberty and we ought to do that through lawful and peaceful means."

Ken Ivory, a Utah State representative who has spent most of his time fighting against the federal government and can be counted on in most legislative sessions to spearhead proposals in that vein, said frustration has been building for years and that the acquittals in Oregon were an encouraging step.

Ivory emphasized that he does not support using weapons to protest.

"Hopefully this stands for having a robust discussion nationally about how we deal with the root cause of the frustration instead of guns on either side of the equation," he said of the verdict. "Federal agents shooting ranchers and ranchers with guns, that's not the answer in a republic. We need to have that broader discussion because the frustration is still there. It's real."

Miller, sitting in Atkin's living room Friday on a couch near a flat screen TV, said resolution can come without revolution if people try to understand the issue from the perspective of ranchers, and those who don't live in urban environments.

But he didn't feel optimistic about that happening.

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"Even if Trump wins, he can't undo eight years in four," Miller said.

The victory for the Bundy brothers, however, led him to believe the system isn't necessarily as broken as it looked before the verdict.

John Henry Browne, a prominent defense attorney in Seattle, who defended serial killer Ted Bundy, among other high-profile defendants, said he was "impressed" with the jury in the Malheur case.

"People don't give juries enough credit," Browne said.

"It's really kind of funny, because I think people distrust government now more than ever, but that doesn't necessarily translate into not-guilty verdicts," he said. "I think it's really exciting for our society that, in this really high-profile case that people will be talking about over the dinner table, a jury paid attention to the law and the jury instructions and found the defendants not guilty."

The resonance of the acquittal was felt deeply both in the courtroom and across the country, in part because of the drama in the courtroom itself — Ammon Bundy's other attorney, Marcus Mumford, was tackled by bailiffs and blasted with a stun gun when he stood to demand an explanation for why his client wasn't being freed immediately.

Outside the courthouse in Portland, fellow refuge occupier Brand Nu Thornton blew his shofar and another man rode his horse back and forth, hoisting an American flag.

Around the country, there were other expressions of support, especially among Trump supporters.

The acquittal "gives people hope that 'Hey, when we stand up in numbers we can stand up to the government and it's not just what the government says that goes,' " said James Stanley, a 34-year-old who works in digital marketing in Ventura, Calif.

"I am a Navy veteran, and I took an oath to protect the Constitution. These people in Oregon were within their 1st Amendment rights and their 2nd Amendment rights," said Stanley, a Navy veteran and Trump supporter.

Similarly, Stanley said, citizens will be holding public officials to account for the conduct of the upcoming election to make sure it is conducted fairly — a reference to Trump's warning that some of the balloting may be "rigged."

"If there truly was enough proof that a significant number of people and votes were illegal, I would absolutely -- I would resort to other things before taking up arms, I would go through political channels. But violence is the last resort and the government needs to be aware that there are people like me out there," Stanley said. "We are not insignificant or uncaring."

Atkin stood on his porch while his dog Shadow barked in the rain. Miller finished a cigarette as they talked about America after Nov. 8. Atkin already voted for Trump. Miller had yet to cast his ballot, but planned do so for the Republican nominee.

There was a brief silence. Atkin said he'd been sober for 18 years after moving from Utah and settling in Elko to work in the mines. After meeting that challenge, Atkin said, he'd be able to handle anything.

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"There's still a lot of work to do," he said.

Montero reported from Elko and Yardley reported from Seattle. Times staff writers Matt Pearce and Jaweed Kaleem in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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