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Trial To Begin For Ex-FBI Agent Charged In Shooting At Wildlife Refuge

NOEL KING, HOST:

Jury selection starts today in the case of an FBI agent who's accused of lying and obstruction of justice. The case centers around the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of the occupation's leaders, Robert LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed. Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting has the story. And, just a quick note, this story does have audio that some listeners may find disturbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWNA COX: Gun it.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On January 26, 2016, occupation spokesman LaVoy Finicum flew down a remote stretch of tree-lined highway in eastern Oregon. He was going 70 miles per hour in his quad cab pickup. It was the final moments of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COX: Keep going.

WILSON: Finicum had just fled the FBI and Oregon State Police after a traffic stop where law enforcement tried to end the occupation by arresting the leaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COX: (Unintelligible) I can call as soon as I get service.

WILSON: This scratchy cellphone footage you're hearing was captured by Shawna Cox, one of the refuge occupiers, who sat in the back of the truck with occupation leader Ryan Bundy. Ahead was an FBI roadblock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COX: OK. They're shooting.

WILSON: Finicum swerved off the road and into the snow and immediately jumped out of his truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVOY FINICUM: Go ahead and shoot me.

WILSON: Then two shots.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

WILSON: They missed Finicum, but seconds later, he was hit by Oregon State Police troopers and killed, after police say Finicum ignored their commands and attempted to reach for a handgun inside his jacket pocket. The event marked a turning point in the occupation, the beginning of the end. Weeks after the shooting and the occupation was over, local law enforcement officials determined the shots taken by Oregon State Police were justified and necessary. Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said during the course of the investigation, they discovered evidence that a member of the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team fired two shots as Finicum got out of his truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANE NELSON: Of particular concern to all of us is that the FBI HRT operators did not disclose their shots to our investigators, nor did they disclose specific actions they took after the shooting.

WILSON: Surveillance video taken by an FBI airplane showed HRT agents appearing to pick things up off the ground at the crime scene. Federal prosecutors say all of the shell casings seen on the ground after Finicum was shot disappeared. Last summer, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, Billy Williams, announced a grand jury indicted one of the FBI agents, Joseph Astarita.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILLY WILLIAMS: Specifically, Special Agent Astarita falsely stated he did not fire his weapon during the attempted arrest of Mr. Finicum, when in fact he did.

WILSON: Astarita's defense has stressed in court that the government's case lacks eyewitnesses, ballistics evidence and video showing Astarita firing. For the so-called patriot movement that supported the occupation, this is not a case about whether an FBI agent shot and lied. It's bigger than that.

CLIVEN BUNDY: They had to kill LaVoy.

WILSON: That's Nevada rancher and anti-government activist Cliven Bundy summing up the skepticism among some occupation supporters.

BUNDY: It's not that they accidentally killed him where he just happened to be in the right position in the wrong spot. They had to kill LaVoy. LaVoy had a message out there that they didn't like.

WILSON: A message that was critical of a federal government they called overreaching and burdensome for many rural Americans. Whether Astarita is convicted or acquitted, that's a message the Bundys will surely amplify. But in many ways, this trial is a no-win situation for the Department of Justice. The only win here for the federal government is tepid - to convict one of its own at a time when the actions of federal law enforcement are being called into question at the highest levels. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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