Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has long maintained that the federal government is persecuting him, and Wednesday’s mistrial over prosecutorial misconduct did nothing to dispel that notion.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial and dismissed the jury after admonishing federal prosecutors for willfully withholding “potentially exculpatory” evidence from the defense related to the 2014 armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management.
The Justice Department released a statement late Wednesday saying that the attorney general “takes this issue very seriously and has personally directed that an expert in the Department’s discovery be deployed to examine the case and advise as to next steps.”
Judge Navarro tentatively set a new trial date for Feb. 26 but also scheduled a hearing for Jan. 8, which is expected to feature defense arguments to dismiss the charges against co-defendants Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and Ryan Payne for leading the armed standoff.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Ryan Bundy told reporters outside the Las Vegas courthouse. “So now we’ve got to go through a few more steps and get this properly dismissed. There’s a lot more to do, but we’re glad to have this step done.”
About 200 Bundy supporters, some of them armed, flocked in April 2014 to the ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada, after the BLM tried to impound the family’s cattle, a result of Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay federal grazing fees in a protest against land management policies.
Ammon Bundy called the mistrial a vindication. He said the judge “talked about our family, my dad, how he wasn’t prone to be violent.”
“It was good to hear her say that and bring those things up — that they did provoke us. That this was something that they came heavy-handed upon us,” he told NBC News3 in Las Vegas. “They came on us and provoked us, and tried to use threats, tried to get us to act.”
Judge Navarro emphasized that the mistrial did not mean that the withheld evidence would have cleared the defendants but said the failure to produce it “undermined the confidence in the outcome of the trial.”
“The defense has a right to information so it can provide it to the jury so the jury can decide,” she said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The mistrial is the latest setback in the Bundy case for federal prosecutors, who faced a hung jury in April in the first trial involving six of the 19 defendants.
A retrial of four of the six resulted in jurors finding two of the defendants not guilty on all charges, acquitting the other two of most charges and deadlocking on other counts. Several defendants have pleaded guilty on reduced charges as part of deals with the prosecution.
In addition, an Oregon jury acquitted in October 2016 all seven defendants, including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, charged in connection to the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Ian Bartrum, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas law school, said the latest mistrial comes as the biggest blow to date for the Bundy prosecution.
“This mistrial is actually even a little worse,” Mr. Bartrum said. “The earlier acquittals and hung juries were sort of a case of jury nullification in the sense that at least some jurors said, ‘Look, maybe they broke the law, but we’re just not willing to convict.’”
The latest case, involving the second of three tiers of defendants, never made it to jury deliberations.
“If the earlier cases were signs that people maybe were sympathetic to the Bundys and didn’t want to convict, this does even more to erode maybe some credibility or faith in the prosecution,” Mr. Bartrum said. “It’s not just incompetence — I mean, the judge called it willful failure to disclose evidence.”
The judge ticked off evidence that the prosecution should have but failed to provide the defense, including FBI surveillance and sniper records, unredacted activity logs, a threat assessment about the Bundys from 2012, and BLM internal affairs documents.
“It’s hard to imagine this was just a mistake,” said Mr. Bartrum.
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, argued that the withholding of evidence shouldn’t detract from the serious felony charges against the defendants, including conspiracy, assault and threats against federal officers, firearms violations, obstruction and extortion.
“The government’s missteps in this case do nothing to change the fact that the Bundy clan has carried out a campaign of terror against our public lands,” Mr. Suckling said in a statement, adding that there was “too much at stake for anyone who loves public lands or wildlife or has any sense of justice.”
Carol Bundy, Cliven Bundy’s wife, said in an interview with Who’s Next outside the courthouse that the mistrial may cause critics to re-evaluate their assumptions about the ranching family.
“I do think the press is shocked,” Ms. Bundy said. “They’ve been saying, ‘The Bundys are terrorists, the Bundys are this and the Bundys are that,’ and all of a sudden the tables are turning and we’re seeing the prosecutors are the ones who have lied.”
Asked what he would do for Christmas, Ryan Bundy said, “I’m going to eat some pie. How about that? I’m going to enjoy my family.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.