By KEN RITTER, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS (AP) — A federal jury got a first look Tuesday at videos of confrontations involving armed federal agents and Bundy family members that rancher Cliven Bundy’s lawyer said provided a catalyst for an April 2014 gunpoint standoff and a trial now underway in Las Vegas.
One clip that attorney Bret Whipple said spread widely on the internet showed Bundy’s sister, Margaret Huston, thrown to the ground by a federal agent after she approached the driver’s side of a vehicle involved in a U.S. Bureau of Land Management cattle round-up near the Bundy ranch.
Whipple derided an interpretation that Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre offered to the jury — that the 57-year-old Huston had to be pulled away from the front of the truck and knocked down for her own safety.
Myhre cast the 71-year-old Cliven Bundy as the leader of a conspiracy with sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and co-defendant Ryan Payne to enlist armed militia members to force the federal agents “at the end of a gun” to abandon efforts to collect his cattle from public rangeland.
“Videos don’t lie,” Whipple said. “See if Aunt Meg was in front of the vehicle.”
Another clip showed Bundy’s son, David Bundy, hauled to the ground and arrested on the shoulder of a state highway by two agents who approached him for taking photos of armed men with guns on a ridge top near the Bundy ranch.
A third showed an agent zapping Bundy son Ammon Bundy with a stun gun after he drove an ATV into a dump truck that Whipple said was hauling irrigation equipment illegally ripped by the government from arid public range where the family grazed cattle for 140 years.
“So many different people saw injustice,” Whipple said during his opening statements in what is expected to be a four-month trial. “The government talks about the Bundys being threatening, intimidating, interfering. At the end of the day, you’re going to determine if it was a crime or not. At the end of the day, the government is accountable to we the people.”
Bundy son Ryan Bundy, who is serving as his own attorney, is expected to make an opening statement Wednesday. Federal public defenders are expected to provide a case overview for defendant Ryan Payne, a Montana man who headed a self-styled militia group dubbed Operation Mutual Aid.
Attorney Daniel Hill, representing Ammon Bundy, said he and lawyer Morgan Philpot may wait until after the prosecution rests to make an opening.
The defense maintains the four men didn’t wield weapons and didn’t conspire with anyone.
Whipple noted that no shots were fired and no one was injured in the standoff near Bunkerville, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
He blamed a federal land management regional supervisor, who has since been dismissed, for the conduct of cattle impoundment operation agents that attracted attention of armed protesters who answered a Bundy family call for support.
As the long-awaited trial opened in Las Vegas, Myhre rejected supporters’ characterizations of Bundy, his sons and Payne as peaceful protesters and states’ rights freedom fighters.
“This case is not about protesting. This case is about breaking the law,” Myhre said, casting the April 12, 2014, armed standoff as extortion and theft from the Bureau of Land Management of almost Bundy cattle that had been rounded up.
“This is not a case about cattle grazing. It’s about whether you use force and violence to enforce your belief,” Myhre said. “They got what they wanted that day. They got it at the end of a gun.”
Each defendant faces 15 felony counts on nine charges including conspiracy, assault and threats against federal officers, firearms counts, obstruction and extortion. Stacked together, convictions on all charges carry the possibility of more than 170 years in prison.
The trial sets up as a test of public land policies in Western U.S. states like Nevada. Juries have twice balked at full convictions of men who had guns during the tense Bundy standoff.
The trial start was postponed twice: Once by the Oct. 1 shooting deaths of 58 people at a Las Vegas Strip open-air concert by a man who opened fire with rapid-fire assault-style weapons from the 32nd floor of a high-rise hotel, and once by a fight about whether prosecutors properly disclosed evidence about surveillance cameras watching the Bundy homestead.