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Judge declares mistrial in case against rancher Cliven Bundy, sons and militiaman

Cliven Bundy at an event in Bunkerville, Nev., in 2015. (John Locher/AP)

A federal judge declared a mistrial Wednesday in the criminal conspiracy case against rancher Cliven Bundy and three other defendants, saying government lawyers suppressed key evidence that would have been favorable to the defendants' case related to a 2014 standoff with federal agents.

U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro determined that the prosecution suppressed evidence from FBI surveillance cameras recording the Bundy family home and the presence of Bureau of Land Management snipers around the property in the days leading up to the standoff there. Additionally, the prosecution did not provide FBI logs, maps, reports and threat assessments that said the Bundy family was not dangerous.

Navarro pointed to assessments conducted by the FBI, the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center and the BLM that said “the Bundy family is not violent” and that they “would probably get in your face, but not get into a shootout.”

The court “regrettably believes a mistrial is the only suitable option,” Navarro told the packed Nevada courtroom. “A fair trial at this point is impossible.”

The case accused Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and Montana militiaman Ryan Payne of conspiring to commit a crime against BLM officers during the armed standoff near the family ranch in Nevada.

Navarro spoke of several reports that were also kept from the defense that showed that the Bundy family’s cows — which had been illegally grazing on public lands for more than 20 years when the BLM orchestrated a roundup of the cattle — had “no detrimental impact on Desert Tortoise habitat.” The tortoise is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Such details cast doubt on the government’s portrait of the family as violent, paranoid, anti-government extremists. But Navarro noted to the courtroom that declaring a mistrial does not mean that the men are being found not guilty.

“That is not the court’s decision,” Navarro said. “It is for a jury to decide.”

As of Wednesday evening, Cliven Bundy was still incarcerated, but his attorney, Bret Whipple, said he planned to file an emergency motion to see his client released from jail without conditions. The Bundy family patriarch, along with other defendants, was granted conditional release earlier this month, but Cliven Bundy chose to stay in jail until he was allowed to leave without GPS monitoring, which Bundy said would “acknowledge that he did something wrong,” Whipple said.

Both sides have until Dec. 29 to file briefs on whether the judge should allow the government to pursue a new trial.

“I do not think there is a jury in this country that will convict us,” Ammon Bundy said outside the courthouse, an arm slung around his mother’s shoulders as he spoke to reporters. “The truth is on our side.”

The mistrial “does bring a lot of vindication to us,” he said, noting that Navarro “talked about our family, my dad, how he wasn’t prone to use violence. My dad has said that many, many times. He’s not a violent man. He’s a man of peace. He only wanted his rights to be protected.”

Supporters of the Bundy family streamed to the Nevada desert in the spring of 2014 after videos of BLM agents using a stun gun on Ammon Bundy and throwing his aunt to the ground went viral. The family put a call out for supporters to come to their aid in what they felt was an illegal roundup of their cattle.

A mistrial is, in some ways, the latest in a string of victories for the Bundy family.

Last fall, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, as well as other defendants, were acquitted of nearly identical charges for their 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016, a federal facility they said should be returned to the people of the southeastern Oregon county.

In a separate trial this year over the 2014 standoff, several men were acquitted by a jury.

Ryan Bundy, who represented himself in both Oregon and Nevada, told reporters that the family’s decision to stand up against what they saw as federal tyranny was informed by their belief in the scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly the “white horse prophecy,” which contends that LDS followers will be the final defenders of the U.S. Constitution. The LDS church has continually condemned the actions of the Bundy family and says that the white horse prophecy is not accepted doctrine and more akin to conspiracy theory.

But on Wednesday, Ryan Bundy spoke of the prophecy as truth: “Joseph Smith prophesied that the Constitution would at some point hang as if it were by a thread,” he said. “Put it this way: Whether the church calls it doctrine or not, we’ve got quotes from several prophets reiterating that. . . . I take the words of the prophets both modern and previous ones seriously.”

After the mistrial was declared, Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, yelled into a bullhorn outside the courthouse: “Public lands belong to everybody! Not just to people who have the biggest guns!” Around him, Bundy supporters jeered in response.

“There are no public lands!” one woman yelled. “The government has the biggest guns!” another man countered.

“The prosecution and the FBI made some huge missteps,” Suckling said afterward. “That shouldn’t confuse anybody about what the Bundys had done and their guilt with bringing an armed militia onto public land that belongs to everybody.”