“The court finds that the universal sense of justice has been violated,” Navarro said. “The government conduct in this case was, indeed, outrageous.”
A defiant Cliven Bundy walked out of a Las Vegas courthouse Monday a free man after a judge threw out the case against the 71-year-old rancher and his two sons. They were accused of leading a standoff with federal agents in 2014. (Jan. 8)
LAS VEGAS — Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy walked free from the federal courthouse Monday for the first time since his arrest two years ago on charges that he led an armed rebellion against the government in 2014.
Bundy, 71, was greeted by cheers from a crush of supporters who jammed a courtroom and greeted him outside with hugs, placards, cards, tears and cries of “liberty” and “freedom.”
An hour earlier, Bundy sat stoically in prison garb and shackles as a judge dismissed the case against him, two of his sons and a militia supporter, saying federal prosecutors violated the men’s rights to a fair trial by withholding evidence.
“I’m not used to being free,” Bundy said as he emerged from an elevator into the court’s lobby alongside his wife and attorney. “I have been a political prisoner for more than 700 days.”
U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro said federal prosecutors acted recklessly and engaged in a “deliberate attempt to mislead and distort the truth” by failing to turn over evidence that could have helped exonerate the four defendants.
Navarro ended the case against Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy and militia member Ryan Payne “with prejudice,” meaning they cannot be retried on charges related to the 2014 armed standoff near Bundy’s ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada.
She ordered the immediate release of Cliven Bundy, who had elected to remain in custody throughout the trial as a form of protest rather than accept a conditional release offered in November.
“The court finds that the universal sense of justice has been violated,” Navarro said. “The government conduct in this case was, indeed, outrageous.”
A federal judge has dismissed the case against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and three other men. Their charges stemmed from a standoff with federal authorities back in 2014 over cattle grazing rights. Wochit
She said ordering a new trial would not be sufficient to address violations by prosecutors and would actually give them an unfair advantage going forward.
Navarro castigated the Nevada U.S. Attorney’s Office for willful violations of due process, saying prosecutors not only withheld evidence but “made several misleading statements to the defendants and the court.”
She said prosecutors have a sworn duty to ensure defendants receive a fair trial by bringing forward any evidence that could affect the outcome. Instead, they showed “a reckless disregard for the constitutional obligation to seek and provide evidence,” Navarro said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Myhre, who led the prosecution team, did not make any statements following the hearing.
Newly appointed Nevada U.S. Attorney Dayle Elieson issued a statement Monday.
“We respect the court’s ruling and will make a determination about the next appropriate steps,” he said.
The judge also criticized the FBI for not providing evidence to prosecutors, saying it was not a coincidence that most of the withheld evidence came from the FBI.
She said the prosecution’s reliance on the FBI and failure to look beyond the documents the FBI provided represented an “intentional abdication of its responsibility.”
Essentially, she said the prosecution decided not to follow up because the evidence would have worked in the defendants’ favor.
READ MORE: What to know about the Bundy Ranch case
Navarro’s ruling was praised by Bundy supporters, who have maintained vigils outside the court every day of the trial and have traveled from several states to show solidarity.
“I am really, really happy for the Bundy family and … all of their friends who have ended up in prison,” said Bob Moore, 65, of Gold Canyon. “This was a decision for all of America.”
Moore said the case pits individual rights against big government.
“The (government) was working to take Mr. Bundy’s ranch,” he said.
Environmentalists and civil-rights groups said Monday that the Bundys are not heroes, but lawbreakers who for decades have grazed cattle on public land as if it were their own. They said Bundy used militia members and anti-government extremists to prevent a lawful roundup of his cattle from federal land — a confrontation that led to the standoff and, eventually, the trial.
“The government’s own mistakes meant the case was not even brought to the jury for a decision,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement Monday. “This result can only embolden anti-government extremists, especially in western states, and make future confrontations and and standoffs with the government more likely.”
The Denver-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities warned that the decision in the Bundy case will embolden more people to threaten public-land managers.
“Letting the Bundys walk free on a technicality should send a chill down the spines of anyone who values our parks, wildlife refuges and all public lands,” Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said in a statement.
Bundy’s tense courtroom court moment
Cliven Bundy’s lawyer said he thought his client was going to be rearrested Monday.
The drama played out immediately after the hearing ended and Navarro had ordered his release.
Cliven Bundy stood up in shackles and walked toward the exit, intending to make a showing of the cuffs coming off.
“He said, ‘I want the community to see the shackles come off,’ ” Las Vegas defense lawyer Bret Whipple said. “He wanted (authorities) to take them off. He wanted the community to see them come off.”
Whipple said deputy marshals instead blocked his way out and prevented him from passing through the gate separating the courtroom from the gallery.
“I thought the (U.S. Marshals Service deputies) were going to take him into custody,” Whipple said.
Whipple said Bundy instead was brought to the marshals’ office, where he changed out of his prison clothes. He walked out of court wearing a cowboy hat, jeans, boots and a blazer. On the lapel of his coat was a round button printed with the words: “Not Guilty.”
Withheld evidence prompts mistrial
Navarro’s decision comes less than a month after she declared a mistrial in the case and found federal prosecutors willfully withheld critical and “potentially exculpatory” evidence from the defense.
Navarro on Dec. 20 cited six pieces of evidence that the Nevada U.S. Attorney’s Office failed to disclose that were favorable to the defense and could have changed the outcome of the trial.
The evidence included:
- Records about surveillance at the Bundy ranch;
- Maps about government surveillance;
- Records about the presence of government snipers;
- FBI logs about activity at the ranch in the days leading up to the standoff;
- Law-enforcement assessments dating to 2012 that found the Bundys posed no threat;
- Internal affairs reports about misconduct by Bureau of Land Management agents.
Ruling ensures Bundy cannot be retried
Ryan Bundy, outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, reacts to the judge’s declaration of a mistrial in the Bundy Ranch standoff case. Robert Anglen/azcentral
Navarro could have called a mistrial “without prejudice,” which would have allowed prosecutors to retry the four defendants.
Instead, her ruling ensures the four won’t be tried again. The legal tenet known as double jeopardy prevents someone from being tried twice for the same crime.
Navarro said last month that it didn’t matter if the failure to disclose was intentional or inadvertent. But she detailed several instances where prosecutors denied evidence existed and used hyperbole to mock defense requests for information.
For instance, she said, prosecutors derided defense requests for a BLM internal affairs report into misconduct as a “bright shiny object … that did not exist.”
But documents later showed an internal investigation had taken place and had found misconduct.
Navarro pointed out that during two previous trials of militia members who supported Bundy, prosecutors insisted there was no evidence that video surveillance and sniper teams were in use around the Bundy Ranch prior to the the standoff.
Prosecutors charged defendants with making false claims about snipers and videos to incite their supporters in the runup to the standoff. But documents that surfaced after the start of the trial last month showed there were tactical teams and multiple video cameras positioned around the ranch.
Navarro said assessments written by federal agents that dismissed the Bundys as a threat as early as 2012 were not turned over to the defense. Navarro said these reports could have been used to challenge prosecution claims.
One undated BLM report described the Bundys as non-violent, Navarro said, quoting: “They might get into your face, but they won’t get into a shootout.”
Since the Oct. 1 discovery deadline, when prosecutors were required to turn over all material evidence to the defense, the prosecutors turned over 3,300 pages of additional documents, Navarro said. She said much of that has occurred since the start of trial.
Navarro’s ruling did not take into account another document turned over to the defense in December and leaked on pro-Bundy websites that raises more criticism of the BLM’s conduct and use of force during the standoff.
A federal investigator alleged in a Nov. 27 memo to the assistant U.S. attorney general that prosecutors in the Bundy ranch standoff trial covered up misconduct by law-enforcement agents who engaged in “likely policy, ethical and legal violations.”
In an 18-page memo, Special Agent Larry Wooten said he “routinely observed … a widespread pattern of bad judgment, lack of discipline, incredible bias, unprofessionalism and misconduct” among agents involved in the 2014 standoff.
He said his investigation indicated federal agents used excessive force and committed civil-rights and policy violations.
Judge rejects prosecution arguments
Carol Bundy, wife of Cliven Bundy and mother of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, talks outside the U.S. Courthouse in Las Vegas on Dec. 20, 2017. Robert Anglen/azcentral
Myhre had urged the judge in a Dec. 29 motion to allow his office to retry the case. He said the defendants had wrongly tried to turn the case into a civil-rights issue and improperly tried to allege they acted in self-defense.
Myhre said his office did not intentionally violate so-called Brady rules about turning over evidence. He said the failure to turn over evidence was inadvertent and did not represent “flagrant government misconduct.”
He said prosecutors genuinely did not believe they had to turn over evidence based on previous court rulings. He also said some documents were accidentally overlooked among the hundreds of thousands of pages prosecutors turned over to defense lawyers.
But Navarro rejected Myhre’s arguments that evidence was inadvertently withheld and inconsequential to the case. She blasted the prosecutor, saying he was “well aware of theories of self defense” advanced by the defendants.
She said the evidence could have helped them challenge government claims, strengthen their arguments and allowed them to confront government witnesses from the outset of the trial.
Defense lawyers maintained prosecutors acted recklessly and got caught.
Federal public defender Ryan Norwood, who represented Payne, said Monday that Navarro was right to dismiss the case, saying her ruling offered the only remedy for legal violations.
“This whole prosecution was a tragedy for everyone,” he said. “Cliven Bundy, the others, lost two years of their lives.”
He said prosecutors are held to a higher legal standard than other attorneys.
“In this case, they didn’t meet that standard,” Norwood said.
Cliven Bundy’s lawyer wiped away tears after the ruling.
Whipple, who is a fourth-generation rancher, said the case signals a turning point in public-lands management.
“It can’t help but send a message,” he said. “With regard to public lands, who would not agree that public land is best protected by those who live on it?”
Bundy trial could impact public lands
The Bundy Ranch standoff became one of the most high-profile land-use cases in modern Western history. It pitted cattle ranchers, anti-government protesters and militia members against the Bureau of Land Management.
For decades, the BLM ordered Cliven Bundy to remove his cattle from federal lands, and in 2014 the agency obtained a court order to seize his cattle as payment for more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
The Bundys launched a social-media rallying cry. Hundreds of supporters, including members of several militia groups, converged on the Bundys’ ranch.
For many Americans, images of the four-day standoff in a dusty wash below Interstate 15 northeast of Las Vegas were shocking. Protesters, ranchers and militia members took armed positions around federal law-enforcement officers, some lying prone on freeway overpasses and sighting down long rifles.
Federal agents abandoned the roundup, saying they were outgunned and in fear for their lives.
The standoff was hailed as a victory by militia members. Ammon and Ryan Bundy later cited their success at Bundy Ranch in the run-up to another protest of BLM policies, the siege of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016. An Oregon federal jury acquitted Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others in October 2016.
19 people initially charged in standoff
The government in 2016 charged 19 people for their roles in the standoff.
Myhre and his team described the Bundys and supporters as vigilantes, willing to risk a gunbattle in defiance of lawful court orders.
The Bundys, Payne and other defendants were charged with 15 felonies, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, extortion, using firearms in the commission of crimes, assault and threatening federal officers.
After the initial charges, two of the 19 men took plea deals. Trials for the remaining 17 defendants were broken into three tiers based on their alleged levels of culpability.
Four more defendants have since taken plea deals.
But making a solid case against Bundy and his supporters has eluded prosecutors. Two federal juries in Las Vegas have rejected conspiracy claims against six defendants in earlier trials.
A jury in April deadlocked on charges against four of the first six defendants. It convicted Gregory Burleson of Arizona and Todd Engel of Idaho on weapons and obstruction charges but dismissed all of the conspiracy charges.
Ryan Bundy, who served as his own lawyer, asked Navarro last month if the government’s misconduct would result in overturning the convictions of Burleson and Engel.
Navarro said those issues would need to be addressed separately.
Remaining defendants ‘going to be OK’
It is unclear how the outcome of this case will affect the third trial of the four remaining defendants, including two more of Bundy’s sons.Outside the courthouse Monday, Ryan Bundy said his brothers have nothing to worry about.
“They’re going to be OK,” he said, adding that Navarro’s ruling will be overarching. “It will apply to them, too. … There’s no way the trial can go forward.”
Ryan Bundy said the withheld evidence would give the prosecution that same advantage in the last trial that they would have had in the mistrial. He said the case just can’t continue.
Navarro has scheduled the third trial to begin in February.
Both Ryan and Cliven Bundy remained steadfast in their resolve to go back to ranching on public land.
“What the hell are grazing fees?” Ryan Bundy asked.
The Bundys maintain the dismissal of the case also represents a dismisal of the grazing fees the Bureau of Land Management claims they owe. They said their cattle have remained grazing on public land since 2014 and that, for them, nothing has changed.
Cliven Bundy, who does not recognize federal claims on public lands, lambasted Nevada officials. Five minutes after he walked out of court, he said state and county officials have a right to protect citizens from the federal government.
He said state and county officials failed to act during the standoff, leaving it to citizens to protect his cattle and his property.
Cliven Bundy said Navarro’s ruling was actually a favor to state and local officials because it protected them from the disclosure of incriminating evidence on their conduct.
“She did them a very big favor,” he said, adding if the case had gone forward, they could have proved entrapment and other wrongful acts by law enforcement.
He said if the federal agents again try to seize his cattle, he will ask the county sheriff to disarm the agents. He said that is what should have happened in 2014.
“If the BLM comes to do an impoundment (of cattle), it will be the very same thing as last,” he said. “We will petition our sheriff to protect our life, liberty and property.”