LAS VEGAS – Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was cast Tuesday as the leader of a conspiracy to enlist armed militia members to force the federal agents, “at the end of a gun,” to abandon efforts to collect his cattle from public rangeland.
As the long-awaited trial opened in Las Vegas, acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre rejected supporters’ characterizations of the 71-year-old Bundy, sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and co-defendant Ryan Payne as peaceful protesters and states’ rights freedom fighters.
“This case is not about protesting. This case is about breaking the law,” Myhre told a jury that convened after a one-week delay to hear a case that Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro has told them could take four months.
“This is not a case about cattle grazing,” Myhre said. “It’s about whether you use force and violence to enforce your belief.”
The prosecutor used his opening statement to cast as little more than extortion and theft the April 12, 2014, armed standoff that led the federal Bureau of Land Management to abandon rounding up Bundy cattle and release almost 400 cows.
“They got what they wanted that day,” he told the jury. “They got it at the end of a gun.”
Defense attorneys were due up next before the federal jury in Las Vegas. They’ve said the four men didn’t conspire with anyone and didn’t wield weapons – and that no shots were fired in the standoff near Bunkerville, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Cliven Bundy’s lawyer, Bret Whipple, was expected say the standoff amounted to a peaceful protest involving like-minded states’ rights supporters.
Each defendant faces 15 felony counts on nine charges including conspiracy, assault and threats against federal officers, firearms counts, obstruction and extortion. Stacked together, convictions on all charges carry the possibility of more than 170 years in prison.
The trial sets up as a test of public land policies in Western U.S. states like Nevada, where the federal government controls about 85 percent of the land and juries have twice balked at full convictions of men who had guns during the tense April 2014 confrontation.
Bundy argues that his family has used the same public range for more than a century, and the land belongs to the state not the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The trial is expected to be contentious. Bundy, his sons and Payne have been jailed since early 2016, and each refused to enter a plea saying he didn’t recognize the authority of the government. A magistrate judge entered not-guilty pleas for them.
The trial start was postponed one week amid a fight about whether prosecutors properly disclosed evidence about surveillance cameras watching the Bundy homestead. Navarro declined on Tuesday to delay it another week at Myhre’s request to allow lawyers to review emails to answer questions raised during closed-door arguments about FBI conduct during the two-week cattle impound operation.
The Bunkerville standoff was a precursor to an early 2016 protest in rural eastern Oregon, where Ryan and Ammon Bundy and Payne led a 41-day takeover of a federal wildlife refuge and called for the U.S. government to turn over public land to local control.
A federal jury in Portland refused last year to convict Ryan and Ammon Bundy of any crime. Payne pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, but wants to withdraw his plea and his expected sentence of more than three years in prison.