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Know the West

Mistrial in Bundy standoff case

Some Bundy supporters see the jury deadlock as a sliver of hope.


Bundy family supporters fly the American flag as cattle are released by the Bureau of Land Management after the standoff in 2014.
Jason Bean/Las Vegas Review-Journal, via AP

In a stunning twist, the first of three federal trials involving the 2014 armed standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and federal land managers ended in a mistrial. Todd Engel of Idaho and Gregory Burleson of Arizona were convicted of some charges, but the Las Vegas jury was hung on all other counts for them and fellow defendants Eric Parker, Steven Stewart, Scott Drexler and Ricky Lovelien.

On April 24, on the sixth day of deliberation, the jury told District Court Judge Gloria Navarro that they were “hopelessly deadlocked” on the remaining counts (10 for each defendant). Navarro declared a mistrial, with new proceedings scheduled to begin on June 26.

The second of the three trials will involve the standoff’s accused organizers: Cliven Bundy and his sons Ammon and Ryan, conservative blogger Pete Santilli and Army veteran Ryan Payne, also a key player in the 2016 occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That trial has now been postponed, with no dates set for it or the third trial, involving the Nevada standoff’s “mid-tier” participants.

The April 2014 events at Bundy Ranch, 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas, drew hundreds of anti-federal protesters furious over the government’s impoundment of Cliven Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing illegally on public land for years. (According to the Bureau of Land Management, Bundy owes at least $1 million in grazing fees.) BLM and National Park Service employees halted the operation to avoid a violent confrontation with armed protesters.

The standoff was just one skirmish in the longstanding war over control of the West’s public lands. Yet public-land management was not directly addressed in the trial, nor were the Bundys’ anti-government views, including a fringe interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that claims the federal government is not allowed to own land. “I wanted nothing to do with the Bundys and their fight with the federal government,” defense attorney Todd Leventhal told High Country News.

The lack of convictions after two months of proceedings is a blow to the prosecution, since the government usually wins federal cases. Some Bundyites, who view the trial as a referendum on federal land management, see the mistrial as a sliver of hope. “This is a total answer to (our) prayers,” said John Lamb of Bozeman, Montana, after hearing that Engel and Burleson were not convicted on all charges. Federal prosecutors now have two more months to hone their arguments for putting all 17 defendants behind bars.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News. She can be reached at [email protected]

A version of this story was originally published online on April 24, 2017.