A federal judge on Wednesday declared a mistrial in the criminal case of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who led a 2014 armed standoff with U.S. government agents in a range-land dispute, and tentatively set a new trial date for February.
Bundy, two of his sons and another man had been charged with 15 counts of criminal conspiracy and other violations stemming from the confrontation, which galvanized right-wing militia groups challenging federal authority over vast tracts of public lands in the American West.
U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro told federal prosecutors that they had willfully violated evidence rules and failed to turn over pertinent documents to the defense.
Navarro had warned prosecutors last week that she might declare a mistrial after listing documents previously undisclosed by prosecutors that could be used to impeach government witnesses or bolster defendants’ arguments that they felt surrounded by government snipers prior to the standoff.
In a stinging rebuke on Wednesday, Navarro said prosecutors knew or should have known of the existence of memos from FBI agents that may have been helpful to the defense.
Those memos and other documents, some 3,300 pages in all, were not turned over until well after an Oct. 1 deadline, and then only after repeated efforts by Bundy’s defense counsel, Navarro said.
Defense attorneys have long argued the Bundy family felt endangered by government “snipers” positioned on the hill above their ranch.
Navarro set a retrial date for Feb. 26, 2018 but whether a new trial will actually happen is uncertain. Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre said prosecutors have yet to decide whether to pursue the case, and even if they do, the judge will hear defense arguments on Jan. 8 on whether to dismiss the case.
Bundy’s attorney, Bret Whipple, said the judge’s decision should send a clear message to the prosecution that the case will be dismissed.
“I think we have a very strong case that this will never be tried again,” Whipple said.
The revolt, against the federal Bureau of Land Management, by Bundy and his armed followers was sparked by a court-ordered roundup of Bundy’s cattle in April 2014 after he had refused for two decades to pay fees required to graze his herds on federal property.
Bundy, his two sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy and co-defendant Ryan Payne, have cast the uprising as an act of patriotic civil disobedience against government excess. The most serious counts they faced had carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
“I don’t believe there’s a jury in this country that would convict us,” Ammon Bundy said after the hearing, adding, “I believe that God has favored us.”
Hundreds of supporters, responding to his pleas for help, descended on Bundy’s ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada, about 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas, in a show of force to demand that his impounded livestock be returned.
Police and government agents, vastly outgunned, ultimately retreated rather than risk bloodshed, and no shots were ever fired.
Prosecutors contend Bundy and his followers were defying the rule of law by threat of violence, rather than engaging in an act of legal protest.