LAS VEGAS (CN) – Federal officers were fearless aggressors and the six men on trial for helping rancher Cliven Bundy did not conspire to “go to war,” defense attorneys told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday and Thursday.
Co-defendants Richard Lovelien, Todd Engel, Gregory Burleson, Eric Parker, O. Scott Drexler and Steven Stewart say they were simply exercising their constitutional rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and the right to bear arms in the Nevada desert northeast of Las Vegas on April 12, 2014.
Federal prosecutors during closing arguments described the six defendants as willing participants and co-conspirators in a “range war” with the federal government.
The men are accused of helping jailed rancher Cliven Bundy use threats of violence to intimidate and run off Bureau of Land Management officials and federal law enforcement during the 2014 standoff near his ranch outside of Bunkerville, Nevada.
Yet at least one defendant did not arrive until the day’s events had largely concluded and never knew what Bundy had in mind prior to arriving at the protest site, defense attorneys argued.
Representing defendant O. Scott Drexler, attorney Todd Leventhal said his client only came to Nevada over his concerns of overreach by the federal government and abuses of people’s rights.
“Drexler never cared about cows, and the government never showed any evidence that he cared about cows,” Leventhal said.
He said prosecutors are using perception-deception to falsely portray Drexler as a conspirator to criminal acts.
“I do not represent a crowd,” Leventhal told the federal jury, which is comprised of 10 women and five men.
He said federal prosecutors are trying to “take this thing wide,” but urged the jury to “not allow them to lump them in with Bundy or the militia.”
Leventhal showed a video of what appeared to be snipers positioned on high ground flanking either side of a local highway.
During the video, law enforcement officials are seen tackling and apparently arresting a protester while yelling at the driver of a van to continue on his way or face consequences.
The video shows man saying federal officers threw his aunt to the ground and pummeled a pregnant woman. Meanwhile, another member of law enforcement used a German Shepherd to keep protesters away.
Standing in the background was another officer holding a military-style rifle pointed at the ground.
In another video shown by Leventhal, federal officers are shown mocking many of the protesters. One called the matter a “shoot-first, ask-questions-later situation.”
“They are the aggressors,” Leventhal said of the BLM and federal officers.
To support his argument, Leventhal showed a statement made by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a former Nevada federal judge, to federal BLM officials.
The statement is dated April 8, 2014, and said: “My office has received numerous complaints of BLM misconduct, road closures and disturbances” prior to the April 12 standoff. Sandoval called the BLM’s activities “offensive” to Nevada residents and asked that it be stopped.
Leventhal also portrayed the BLM as trampling upon protesters’ rights to free speech.
Despite having some 575,000 acres of desert land available, the BLM set up a very small First Amendment protest area, according to Leventhal. The empty space was located about 7 miles away from the cattle roundup area and mostly stayed empty, which Leventhal likened to an abuse of First Amendment rights.
Leventhal said Cliven Bundy addressed the group of protesters at about 9 a.m. on April 12, and that federal prosecutors are trying to put Bundy’s words into his client’s mouth.
“The government wants those words to be his,” Leventhal said of Drexler. “Just because someone goes up and makes some crazy demands, those are not his words.”
He said Drexler had no idea what Bundy would say, which was to tell his supporters to “go get the cows.”
Bundy also wanted the local sheriff to disarm the BLM and tear down federal structures at the Red Rock National Park.
Leventhal said there was no communication between Drexler and Bundy at any time, which makes it impossible for Drexler to part of a conspiracy to commit criminal acts.
Representing Burleson, attorney Terrence Jackson said photo evidence shows prosecutors were wrong to claim his client coordinated security at the protest and worked with Bundy intimidate the BLM and federal officers. Jackson said Burleson merely went to a demonstration with guns.
“It’s legal in this country to carry guns,” Jackson said.
He said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Dickinson in his closing arguments Wednesday “properly pointed out my client wasn’t at the protest until after noon.”
By the time Burleson arrived, the BLM had left and nothing was going on, Jackson said. He said Burleson stuck around for about 90 minutes and then left.
“There was no agreement, no conspiracy to commit a crime,” Jackson said, adding there is no proof Burleson ever was armed with a gun in the wash intimidating federal officers.
Likewise, attorney Shawn Perez, representing Lovelien, on Thursday said there is no proof anyone conspired with Bundy to commit criminal acts.
“Cliven Bundy said, ‘I did not know that I was going to do until this morning,” Perez said of the events on April 12, 2014.
If Bundy did not know what he would do until that morning, then Lovelien and the others could not possibly have had prior knowledge of or any input regarding the events that unfolded that day, Perez argued.
He liked the prosecution’s case to a game of “Where’s Waldo?”
Perez said there is no proof of where Lovelien was during the standoff, and while Lovelien is a member of the Montana State Defense Force, “it is not illegal to be militia,” the attorney said. He likened Lovelien and the others to the Minutemen who fought in the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War, and said they are assets to their respective communities.
While Lovelien did write a passage on social media in which he said “I demand our country back” from those who are unfit to run it, Perez said that is political speech and was a common theme during the recent presidential election.
Other defense attorneys made similar closing arguments late Wednesday.
Attorney Jess Marchese represents Parker, and Richard Tanasi represents Stewart. Engel chose to represent himself during the trial.
All defendants generally agree there were no plans in place or coordination with Bundy prior to arriving in Nevada and throughout the standoff, and, therefore, no conspiracy to commit crimes of any sort.
A 12-member federal jury, with three alternates, will determine each man’s guilt or innocence of each of 15 remaining felony counts. They began their deliberations Thursday afternoon.
Prosecutors have requested a June 5 start for the next trial, which will include Cliven Bundy.