By Courtney Sherwood
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Two men who took part in the armed occupation of a U.S. wildlife refuge in Oregon were convicted of federal conspiracy charges on Friday, in a split verdict that saw two other men cleared of the same counts, prosecutors said.
The men and others participated in a 41-day standoff protesting the federal government controlling millions of acres of land in the West. Before participants eventually surrendered, police shot occupier Robert "LaVoy" Finicum to death during a roadside confrontation
Jason Patrick and Darryl Thorn were each found guilty of conspiring to prevent federal workers from doing their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote eastern Oregon, the U.S. Attorney's office in Oregon said in a written statement.
Duane Ehmer and Jake Ryan were cleared of those charges but found guilty of depredation of government property for using an excavator to dig trenches at the refuge during last year's occupation of the site, according to prosecutors.
"Over a period of weeks leading up to and during the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, these defendants made choices. Now, a jury of their peers has spoken, and the consequences of those choices are quite clear,” Loren Cannon, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Oregon, said in a written statement.
The U.S. District Court jury of seven women and five men deliberated for three days, also finding Thorn guilty of possessing a firearm in a federal facility, but the panel acquitted Patrick and Ryan of that charge.
Attorneys for the four men were not immediately available for comment.
Defense attorneys argued during opening statements in the trial, which began in February, that the defendants were exercising their constitutional rights to peaceably assemble and seek redress of their grievances.
But prosecutors said that the men were on trial for their actions, not their beliefs.
Last October, another trial ended with the acquittal of anti-government activist Ammon Bundy and six of his followers, who cast their protest as a patriotic act of civil disobedience in opposition to U.S. government control over public lands in the West.
Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and their father Cliven Bundy are in federal custody ahead of a trial scheduled to begin later this year over another armed standoff with federal officers in 2014 in Nevada. The first of three trials in that case began on Feb. 9.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Andrew Hay)