Ninth Circuit Denies Feds’ Bid to Resurrect Bundy Standoff Case

Cliven Bundy walks out of federal court in Las Vegas with his wife Carol on Jan. 8, 2018, after a judge dismissed criminal charges against him and his sons accused of leading an armed uprising against federal authorities in 2014. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

(CN) — The Ninth Circuit on Thursday quashed efforts to continue prosecuting the Bundy ranching family at the center of two armed standoffs with the government.

After numerous attempts by the Justice Department to prosecute the family behind the infamous standoffs with the federal government sparked by Bureau of Land Management efforts to impound Cliven Bundy’s cattle for not properly paying federal grazing fees, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled Thursday that the family will not be tried.  

In an opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Jay Bybee, a George W. Bush appointee, the court determined that a series of evidence-related violations prejudiced the proceedings and there was no way for the trial to continue fairly.

Several days into proceedings on charges the Bundy family obstructed federal law enforcement officials carrying out lawful court orders during their standoffs with government officials, the government began to produce evidence that under Brady v. Maryland might have been useful for the Bundy’s defense — and should have been turned over before trial.

The withheld evidence included surveillance-camera footage, investigative reports by the FBI regarding snipers, Tactical Operations Center log records and other threat assessment information. After the government belatedly turned it over, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ultimately concluded after a series of hearings that a trial could no longer continue in the interest of fairness.

Navarro found that without the evidence, the Bundy family’s defense could not fully prepare their case. She noted the withheld evidence could have helped the Bundys’ attorneys hone their jury selection strategy and to make stronger opening arguments.

Bybee and the rest of the panel agreed, and also agreed with Navarro’s finding that allowing a new trial would only work in the government’s favor. Navarro found a new trial would allow the government to use what it had learned from the Bundy defense strategy to unfairly bolster their case, particularly as it pertained to its witnesses’ testimony.

“The district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding as much,” Bybee wrote. “Lesser sanctions —such as a continuance to allow the defendants to review discovery or declaring a mistrial and starting over — would have given the government an opportunity to strengthen its case at the defendants’ expense.”

Thursday’s ruling marks the latest in a string of defeats for the government in its efforts to successfully prosecute the Bundy family. Despite the Bundy family’s strategy of using armed standoffs to force recognition of their belief that the federal government has no right to own land for any purpose other than a handful of narrow military uses, the government has never won a conviction of any of the leaders of the movement to date.

So far, all trials of members of the Bundy family have either ended in mistrials or acquittals. 

Dan Hill, attorney for the Bundy family, said the Ninth Circuit ruled correctly given the evidence that was kept from the Bundy family’s defense.

“We had to dig and dig in hearing after hearing — in the middle of trial — for the withheld evidence in this case. Judge Navarro’s dismissal was thorough and righteous,” Hill said in an email. “The Ninth Circuit agreed.”

Also Thursday, the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction of Bundy cohort Todd Engel on charges of obstruction and interstate travel in aid of extortion related to the standoff at the Bundy ranch. In that case, Navarro had terminated Engel’s right to represent himself during trial but the same Ninth Circuit panel found the facts did not support Navarro’s decision and vacated his convictions.

The Justice Department did not return a request for comment by press time.

U.S. Circuit Judges William Fletcher — a Bill Clinton appointee — and Barack Obama appointee Paul Watford joined Bybee in both opinions.

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