By Scott Bransford
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.
"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 (BLM), though it left unclear whether his supposed bias was for or against the government.
Brown questioned the juror behind closed doors 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.
The judge agreed to dismiss the juror on Wednesday, deciding she had no other recourse. Brown said that opening the jury to further interrogation on the matter would have undermined the sanctity of deliberations, which must remain private.
The dismissed juror's history as a BLM employee 20 years ago was actually 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 armed force during the 41-day standoff that began in early January.
The standoff left one protester dead and caused millions of dollars in damage to the refuge, including the creation of bunkers and trenches.
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 from court for the rest of the day and were to meet again on Thursday morning for further instructions. It remained unclear when deliberations would resume.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Toni Reinhold)