FBI Agent Found Not Guilty Of All Charges Related To Malheur Shooting Death
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A federal jury in Oregon has found FBI agent W. Joseph Astarita not guilty of charges related to the shooting death of a Malheur National Wildlife occupation spokesman in 2016. Astarita was accused of lying about who fired when activist LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed during the occupation. Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting was in the courtroom today when the verdict was read and joins us now. Hi, Conrad.
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Explain what Astarita was charged with lying about.
WILSON: Well, prosecutors say that Astarita fired twice at Finicum, and then when he was asked by his supervisors whether he shot, prosecutors said he lied about it twice, telling them he never fired. And so that was the basis for two counts of making false statements. Prosecutors say because of those alleged lies, that obstructed justice. Today, the jury acquitted Astarita on all three counts.
SHAPIRO: The FBI was pursuing Finicum that day. So what would have been the reason to lie about who shot when?
WILSON: Well, prosecutors in their closing statements said it might have been about ego. They said Astarita was part of an elite Hostage Rescue Team. It's really competitive. It's this international counterterrorism force. It's very difficult to become a member of it. And so had he fired that day and missed or - you know, prosecutors said that that would have been at the very least an embarrassing thing to admit. During the trial, Astarita said that really all he ever wanted to be in life was an FBI agent, so missing a shot like that, prosecutors argued, would mean that they - you know, he may have failed at his job.
SHAPIRO: What has the reaction been so far from antigovernment activists to this acquittal?
WILSON: Well, many of them have already taken to social media, calling the verdict an injustice. On the Facebook page of Jeanette Finicum - that's LaVoy Finicum's wife - people expressed remorse for the loss of her husband. But others said that this was a conspiracy and that the government was covering up for Astarita even though this case was decided by a jury.
SHAPIRO: So the federal government lost this case today. What does this mean for the FBI going forward?
WILSON: Well, you know, the outcome helps preserve the FBI's images of integrity, in a way. You know, one of their most elite agents was acquitted of having done anything wrong in this really high-profile police shooting. You know, at the same time, having an agent on trial like this isn't good for the agency - for either.
As for prosecutors in this case, this is just another black eye. I mean, they didn't get any convictions in Oregon after - there were a couple trials in Oregon. They got a couple convictions in the second one, but the leaders of the occupation - Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy - they were all acquitted. And they didn't get convictions for Cliven Bundy in the 2014 Nevada standoff with the government. So really, you know, now they've lost this case. It's just another black eye.
SHAPIRO: Conrad, we mentioned you were in the courtroom when the verdict was read. What was the scene there?
WILSON: Well, you know, I mean, Astarita looked really relieved with the outcome. He appeared to be holding hands with two of the attorneys on either side of him. He was seated, facing forward, just really focused on the side wall of the courtroom. And after the jury was dismissed, he just stood up and embraced his defense team. He had four attorneys working with him on this case, and he just gave them big hugs.
Federal prosecutors, you know, not surprisingly declined an interview and aren't doing a press conference. But in a statement, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, Billy Williams, said that they respect the jury's verdict, and the Department of Justice felt that the case needed to be brought before a jury. Astarita's defense put out a statement, and they said, you know, Astarita is a hero who puts out - puts his life on the line every for his - puts his life on the line for his country every day. And they were grateful to the jury, you know, for seeing through a case that they believed never should have been brought.
SHAPIRO: That's Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks for joining us today, Conrad.
WILSON: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.