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Juror in Oregon militia conspiracy trial dismissed over bias

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - A federal judge in the conspiracy trial of seven people who took part in the armed occupation of a U.S. wildlife center in Oregon dismissed a juror over questions of bias on Wednesday, then ordered jury deliberations to begin anew with a replacement.

Anti-militia supporters demonstrate outside the Harney County Courthouse in Burns, Oregon, U.S. on February 1, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

“It’s a new jury, a new day, a new start,” U.S. District Judge Anna Brown said as she directed an alternate to step in for the disqualified juror, stressing that the reconstituted panel must renew its consideration of the case from scratch.

“They cannot pick up where they left off,” she said.

The jury’s impartiality came under scrutiny on Tuesday, on day three of deliberations, when the panel sent a handwritten note to the judge stating that one juror had professed to being “very biased” at the outset of the jury sessions last week.

According to the letter, a copy of which defense lawyers showed journalists, the juror cited his past employment with the federal Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, although it left unclear whether his supposed bias was for or against the government.

Brown questioned the juror privately on Tuesday and said afterward she found “no basis” for concluding he was biased.

But defense lawyers said they were not convinced, and filed a motion on Wednesday calling for a mistrial unless the judge agreed to dismiss the juror in question and restart deliberations with an alternate in his place.

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The judge agreed to remove the juror on Wednesday, saying she had no recourse despite finding no verified prejudice or wrongdoing. Brown said opening the jury to further interrogation on the matter would have risked undermining the requisite confidentiality of its deliberations.

The dismissed juror’s history as a BLM employee 20 years ago was first disclosed during jury selection. But neither side made an issue of it then, even though the defendants’ antagonism toward the government, particularly the BLM, was at the heart of the case.

The defendants contend their seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon was a legitimate act of civil disobedience protesting control over millions of acres of public land in the West by various federal agencies, including the BLM.

The government has accused the leader of the occupation, Ammon Bundy, and his six followers on trial of engaging in a lawless scheme to seize federal property by force during the 41-day standoff that began in early January.

The standoff led to the shooting death of one protester by police and left millions of dollars in damage to the refuge, much of it from bunkers and trenches built by the heavily armed occupiers.

The six men and one woman on trial are charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation, threats or force, as well as possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property.

Each faces up to six years in prison if convicted of conspiracy alone.

One of Bundy’s attorneys, J. Morgan Philpot, said he was satisfied with the judge’s decision, adding he believed the integrity of the trial had been preserved.

“I don’t think anybody wants a mistrial,” Philpot said. “I don’t think anything tends to indicate a taint in the jury at this time.”

The 12 jurors were excused for the rest of the day and were to return on Thursday for further instructions. It remained unclear when deliberations would resume.

Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Peter Cooney