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Lessons from the first week of the Bundy standoff trial

Checking in on jury selection and opening statements.

 

On Monday, Feb. 6, jury selection began for the first of three federal trials related to the 2014 showdown between armed supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and Bureau of Land Management officers who were fulfilling a court order to impound Bundy’s cattle. The trials are at the center of a longstanding war in the American West over public lands, as well as an upswelling of anti-federal “patriot” groups across the country that began in 2008. By Tuesday afternoon, a jury was selected; defense attorneys and prosecutors gave opening statements Thursday. The trial’s first witnesses were expected to appear in court Feb. 13.

Over 100 potential jurors were shuffled in and out of the downtown Las Vegas courtroom last week. In the search for the ideal jury, defense attorneys and prosecutors grilled them on topics ranging from their thoughts on peaceful protest and the use of firearms, to how they consume news media. The final jury, including four alternates, includes five men and eleven women.

[RELATED:http://www.hcn.org/issues/46.8/the-blm-vs-cliven-bundy-timeline]

In opening statements, U.S. prosecutor Steven Myhre depicted the April 12, 2014 events as “the worst day of many of their lives” for BLM and National Park Service officers who were confronted by angry Bundy supporters. Myhre described how the government employees were simply doing their jobs, and how they feared for their lives when they saw armed protestors posted at the top of the wash high above them. Myhre emphasized that the defendants thwarted the government officers from completing the task a court had ordered them to do. “We will prove to you these men were gunmen here to make the BLM back down,” Myrhe said.

By contrast, defendant Todd Engel of Idaho, who is representing himself, described wholesome scenes of families and cowboys with common values. Engel also said before arriving in Nevada, he “had no idea who the BLM was.” Similarly, attorneys representing other defendants said their clients had little knowledge of grazing rights or the court order that required Bundy to remove his cattle. Defense attorney Todd Leventhal, representing O. Scott Drexler of Idaho, described three separate groups of people who were at the standoff: “You have the Bundys. Their goal was to get their cattle back…. Then the militia: I believe the goals for the militia were to get some kind of platform.” The third group, Leventhal said, included the six defendants who drove to Bunkerville for various personal reasons — in large part as a reaction to shocking images they had seen on social media.

Carol Bundy, wife of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, speaks with supporters outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas Feb. 9, where six men were on trial in connection with the 2014 standoff at the family ranch.
John Locher/The Associated Press

The six defendants currently on trial are considered “low-level” participants in the standoff: Richard Lovelien, Gregory Burleson, Eric Parker, O. Scott Drexler, Steven Stewart and Todd Engel. Core leaders of the 2014 protest, including Cliven Bundy, 69, and his son Ammon, 40, will be tried second, likely not for several months. The third trial will include “midlevel” defendants.

All 17 defendants face identical charges, some with more counts of each charge than others. According to the U.S. attorney’s office in Nevada, the maximum penalties for the charges are as follows: 

  • Conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States – 5 years, $250,000 fine
  • Conspiracy to impede and injure a federal law enforcement officer – 6 years, $250,000 fine
  • Assault on a federal law enforcement officer – 20 years, $250,000 fine
  • Threatening a federal law enforcement officer – 10 years, $250,000 fine
  • Use and carry of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence – 5 years minimum and consecutive
  • Obstruction of the due administration of justice - 10 years, $250,000 fine
  • Interference with interstate commerce by extortion - 20 years, $250,000 fine
  • Interstate travel in aid of extortion – 20 years, $250,000 fine 

Two additional defendants involved in the standoff pleaded guilty last year: Blaine Cooper, 37, of Ariz., and Gerald A. DeLemus, 61, of N.H.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor with High Country News. You can reach her at 415-730-8991 or taywiles@hcn.org.