Aug. 11 (UPI) -- A federal jury has acquitted an FBI agent accused of lying about two shots fired at a militia leader killed in a federal wildlife refuge standoff two years ago.
The jury acquitted Joseph Astarita, 41, a member of the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team, of two counts of making a false statement and one count of obstruction of justice in connection with the government's side of a 41-day standoff with anti-government activists whose militia occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon in early 2016. The militia leaders and a group of about 20 people were protesting the conviction of local ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond, for burning public land four years earlier.
About three weeks into the standoff, an informant tipped off authorities that occupation leaders, including Robert LaVoy Finicum, Ammon Bundy, and his brother, Ryan Bundy, would be traveling to another county for a meeting. Before they arrived at the meeting, officers pulled over two vehicles and four men surrendered, but Finicum sped away and crashed his truck into a snowbank.
After the crash, Finicum got out of the truck, yelled, "Go ahead and shoot me," at officers, and reached toward a pocket where authorities said they found a handgun. Then Finicum was fatally shot.
Astarita's case centered on the two shots that killed militia leader Finicum, 54, on Jan. 26. It wasn't about whether the shooting was justified, but whether Astarita lied about his role in the confrontation. About a month after the shooting, the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office and local district attorneys determined authorities' lethal response was justified.
Prosecutors relied largely on forensics and circumstantial evidence that tried to pin the bullet's path from Astarita's location. Astarita denied firing his weapon at the time Finicum was hit. He also said he couldn't recall much about where he was positioned at the scene.
Defense attorneys argued an Oregon State Police officer could have fired the two shots at Finicum.
"We are grateful to the men and women of the jury who saw through a case that never should have been brought," defense lawyers Robert Cary, based in Washington, D.C., and Portland defense lawyer David Angeli said in a joint statement obtained by The Oregonian. "Joe Astarita is innocent, and it was our privilege and honor to represent him.''
It is still unclear who shot Finicum.
"So many questions [were] not asked and so many questions [were] not answered,'' Finicum's widow, Jeanette Finicum, said in The Oregonian's report.
The decision comes on the heels of President Donald Trump's pardon of two cattle ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, convicted in 2012 of the arson incident that sparked the occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge.
Trump said evidence at the Hammonds' trial was conflicting. He also noted the jury acquitted them on most charges.
Despite their armed occupation of federal land, the Bundy brothers and five others were acquitted of charges related to the standoff later in 2016.