Monday, Oct. 30, 2017 | 2 a.m.
More than three years after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff with U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials near his Bunkerville ranch, jury selection will begin today for a trial that could result in him spending the rest of his life in prison.
Bundy, 71, and sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy are among four ranchers and citizen militiamen scheduled to stand trial beginning on Nov. 6. The fourth defendant, 33 year-old Montana militiaman Ryan Payne, was included in what Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro labeled the top leadership group for arranging and carrying out the 2014 standoff, which featured over 100 citizens against dozens of federal agents.
The four men each face 22 felony charges, including counts of conspiracy against and assault on federal officers.
And while six of those alleged to have participated in the standoff have already gone through the courts and six more — including two more of Bundy’s sons, Melvin and David — are scheduled to be tried later this year, the spotlight on Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy will set important presidents in both the courts and public opinion, a Las Vegas scholar said.
“The evidence is there to convict these people, but if they get off again it’d prove there’s an upsurge in this no-federal lands, Libertarian kind of movement,” explained Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law. “If they don’t get him this time around, it shows the federal government can’t even enforce its own policy.”
Today’s scheduled jury selection comes after nearly 18 months of delays following Cliven Bundy’s February 2016 arrest at the Portland International Airport, where he traveled to assist Ammon and Ryan during a 41-day occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He was first scheduled to begin trial for the 2014 Bunkerville standoff in May 2016. But that date was extended to February of this year, then March and then June, before an Oct. 10 date was set.
The jury selection was again pushed back this month following the October 1 mass shooting on the Strip, which Bundy through his attorney Bret Whipple argued could persuade jurors to be less sympathetic toward defendants in the upcoming trial. A request to also move the trial to federal court in Reno was denied.
Bartrum agreed that the close-to-home impact and magnitude of the mass shooting will increase the sensitivity of the topic to the jury, potentially working against the Bundys and others being tried. Among other crimes, the defendants are accused of pointing military-style assault weapons at officials during the 20-minute standoff on April, 19, 2014.
“The fact that you have a guy come down from Mesquite who bought some of his guns at a gun shop where one of the Bundys works, I think public defenders rightly see this as making it harder to get a sympathetic jury,” Bartrum said. “Less of the jury may be willing to overlook the fact that these guys carried AR-15s and pointed them at federal officers.”
“It shows they realize they’re relying on sympathetic jurors instead of an actual legal case,” he added.
But if anything’s working in favor of the Bundys, it’s recent judicial history. Seven leading figures in last year’s wildlife refuge occupation in Oregon — including Ammon and Ryan Bundy — were acquitted by a jury of all charges, including federal conspiracy and weapons, against them.
Two of six other defendants to reach trial in the 2014 Bunkerville standoff case were also acquitted of all charges in August. Another pair — Idaho residents Eric Parker and Scott Drexler — were acquitted by the jury of most major charges and each pleaded guilty last week to one misdemeanor count of obstruction of a court order instead of facing trial for a third time.
Only Gregory Burleson of Phoenix and Todd Engel of Boundary County, Idaho, have so far been found guilty in connection with the Bunkerville standoff. Burleson was sentenced to 68 years in prison while Engel faces a minimum sentence of 30 years. Four men were convicted in March for conspiring to impede federal officers from doing their jobs last year in Oregon, resulting in a maximum of six years in prison.
Paul Bender, a longtime constitutional law professor at Arizona State University, said factual evidence in the case, the timeline of the standoff and the seven days of alleged militia conspiracy that preceded it “is not in dispute.” Instead, the smooth-talking Bundys have relied on “muddying the waters” by combining their first and second amendment rights to justify voicing their anti-government opinions by brandishing arms.
The Bundys believe they’re presenting a legitimate legal case, Bender said, and they’ve thrived on jury sympathy and the ability to speak rationally about their make extremist ideals to win over such juries. While such arguments helped win cases in connection with the Oregon wildlife refuge takeover, Navarro has explicitly shut them down in Nevada for the Bunkerville trial.
“That could also work in Bundy’s favor,” Bender said during a July interview. “If a jury knows he’s not allowed to say completely what he really believes, they could be more sympathetic and receptive toward him.”
Whipple attempted to distance Bundy from the hundreds of militiamen the embattled Nevada rancher associated with from years before the 2014 standoff up to the time he was arrested in Portland last year.
Whipple called Bundy “practical,” saying his intent wasn’t to violate federal law, but protect his own rights as while standing up for those of local and state governments.
“He’s stubborn but very practical,” Whipple said. “He has taken care of other people and he’s fought for the remaining ranchers in Nevada.”
“He’s against federal overreach,” Whipple added. “He sees himself as a steward for the entire state of Nevada.”
Spokeswoman Trisha Young of the U.S. Attorney District of Nevada’s office declined comment on behalf of Acting Nevada U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, who is leading the federal government’s prosecution of the case, saying U.S. prosecutors would not comment on pending litigation.