- Associated Press - Thursday, November 17, 2016

DENVER (AP) - An attorney for a blogger convicted of illegal use of an ATV for taking part in a ride through a federally protected canyon in Utah told a federal appeals court on Thursday that his client deserves a new trial.

Attorney Michelle Mumford said the trial of Monte Wells was tainted because the judge was friends with a conservation group lawyer.

Wells took part in a ride in 2014 through parts of Recapture Canyon closed to motor vehicles because of ruins that are nearly 2,000 years old. The ride was organized to challenge federal management of Western public lands.

Attorneys for the federal government told the appeals court that even though the judge knew the lawyer for the conservation group, it had no influence on his decisions during the trial.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby oversaw the 2015 trial. Attorneys for co-defendant Utah county commissioner Phil Lyman accused the judge of bias based on his close friendship with the conservation group. Federal prosecutors defended Shelby, saying judges commonly have connections to law offices where they used to work or have friends and professional colleagues.

Shelby recused himself after the trial, handing the case over to another federal judge for sentencing.

Lyman called the charges against him “a modern-day witch hunt” in documents appealing his conviction for his role in the ATV protest ride. He became a cause celebre in a movement challenging federal management of Western public lands. The appeals court also agreed to review a written appeal of Lyman’s conviction on Thursday.

Federal officials closed the canyon to motorized vehicles in 2007 to protect the ancient dwellings, artifacts and burials, but it has long been a source of tension in the area and culminated in the May 2014 protest.

The ride came shortly after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had a standoff with the BLM over similar issues and illustrated the simmering tension between the federal government and some residents in the West over land use.

A jury found Lyman and Wells guilty of misdemeanor illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy, but the panel acquitted two other men accused of participating in the ride.

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