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Pocket constitutions and upside-down flags: Ammon Bundy supporters get their week in court

A protester and his horse, Lady Liberty, pause outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., site of the trial of seven anti-government protesters who occupied a federal wildlife refuge this year.
A protester and his horse, Lady Liberty, pause outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., site of the trial of seven anti-government protesters who occupied a federal wildlife refuge this year.
(Don Ryan / Associated Press)

Ammon Bundy showed up for court this week wearing what he usually wears these days — blue jail scrubs.

“Mr. Bundy,” said his attorney, J. Morgan Philpot, “desires to appear as he is, a political prisoner not free to dress as if presumed innocent.”

Bundy, among seven defendants facing conspiracy charges for the takeover of a federal bird sanctuary, also complained before the start of the Thursday session that he’d been “molested like an animal” at the county jail, where he’s locked up during the trial. Judge Anna Brown asked if his attire was his choice — or did someone in the slammer make off with his suit?

“No comment,” said Bundy.

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Outside, flag-waving supporters, some in boots and cowboy hats, marched around the courthouse, in part hoping jurors might see one of their signs stating “Google: jury nullification.” That’s the legally permissible act of finding guilty defendants not guilty in the belief the law itself is wrong.

For their soapbox, the dozen demonstrators have staked out a park across the street where they sometimes parade their livestock. On Sunday, two riders raced their galloping horses along the sidewalk for a block, startling pedestrians.

Also on Thursday, Matthew Thomas Mglej, 27, was arrested by Homeland Security officers as he walked near the courthouse carrying an unloaded rifle hidden in a towel. His intent was unknown. Mglej had been arrested near the courthouse two years ago, too, for playing the violin — naked.

Welcome to another day of liberty and justice for all, Portlandia edition.

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Galloping horses aside, the trial of the anti-government protesters who claimed ownership of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days hasn’t yet turned into the full-blown circus some expect it to become.

But the first week of testimony has achieved at least sideshow status, with a cast of rural-West characters, legal oddities, and courtroom humor, intended or not — a harbinger, perhaps, of what is estimated to be two months of intensifying performance art.

Those on trial are part of a group calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, though they’ve been mocked on the Internet as Y’all Qaeda. They tend to come from the wide open spaces of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Idaho, and some on social media have not been kind to their cause. Typical is a staged photo on Twitter showing how to trap one of them: an open cage of sorts, with a case of beer inside as bait.

The federal trial, of course, is an otherwise serious proceeding. Prison sentences of up to six years await those found guilty of conspiring to impede federal employees, who prosecutors say were forced by the armed invaders to leave or stay away from the 187,000-acre refuge in southeast Oregon.

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Led by Ammon Bundy, 41, and Ryan Bundy, 43, sons of Cliven Bundy — the cantankerous Nevada rancher and de facto leader of the West’s land-use rights movement — the self-described patriots held the fort from Jan. 2 to Feb. 11.

One protester, Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, 54, was shot and killed Jan. 26 by Oregon state police while attempting to evade arrest. In the end, 26 occupiers were charged with federal violations; 11 have pleaded guilty and eight others are slated for trial here in 2017.

Federal prosecutors are laying out their case in the packed ninth-floor courtroom of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse (a well-attended overflow court on the 13th floor has a live video feed).

The defendants and their attorneys are corralled into seven tight rows of small tables with microphones and computer screens in the remodeled courtroom, where they chat a lot. Brown has admonished those “in the back of the room” to hold down the conversations after jurors complained the buzz interrupted their concentration.

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Dave Ward, sheriff of Harney County, where the refuge is located, said he felt right at home in the courtroom. His office in Burns “is about the size of this witness box.”

The refuge squatters easily outnumbered his force — a “squad” of four deputies and, “on a good day,” maybe two jailers.

Judge Brown, a Clinton nominee, is often smiling and patient, giving those new to courtrooms and the law room for error. “We all make mistakes,” she has had to say more than once.

But she also told defendant Shawna Cox not to take “screwball positions” while acting as her own attorney. That was after Cox, 59, from Utah, “countersued” the government for “damages from the works of the devil,” seeking “in excess of $666,666,666,666.66.”

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Protesters at the trial of seven who occupied a federal wildlife reserve recall one occupier who was killed by authorities.
Protesters at the trial of seven who occupied a federal wildlife reserve recall one occupier who was killed by authorities.
(Don Ryan / Associated Press )

Brown interrupted Cox several times during her opening remarks when she spoke of personal and religious beliefs. “If you don’t get to the Malheur issues,” the judge said, “you’re going to have to sit down.”

Brown was not impressed, either, when Ryan Bundy, also representing himself, tried to hand out copies of the “Pocket Constitution” to jury members (she did allow him to file one as an exhibit).

In his opening remarks, he quoted from the Declaration of Independence and said the takeover goal was to “promote liberty.” Earlier, he filed a motion declaring himself a sovereign citizen of the “Bundy society” and an “idiot of the ‘Legal Society,’” asking Brown to agree he was not subject to U.S. law. Motion denied.

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Ryan Bundy this week filed a motion asking Brown to recuse herself, apparently because she keeps ruling against him. She ruled against him.

One day the judge and Ryan Bundy had the courtroom laughing when the attorney/defendant got up to say he backed his brother’s wardrobe protest.

“Do you wish to change clothes too?” the judge asked.

He was fine with his suit for now, an amused Bundy answered.

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Anderson is a special correspondent.

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