LAS VEGAS — The frame-up of Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan, and supporter Ryan Payne, was tossed out by federal Judge Gloria Navarro Jan. 8. She made her ruling “with prejudice,” which means government prosecutors are barred from refiling charges.
The Portland Oregonian called the decision a “stunning blow to [the] government.”
Some 125 people packed the courtroom and spilled out into the lobby of the federal courthouse here to celebrate with the Bundys, their fellow defendants and their families. They had been held in jail since early 2016.
The legal battle stems from April 2014 protests against federal agents who seized the Bundys’ cattle in Bunkerville, Nevada, threatening to put them out of business.
Hundreds of supporters mobilized and forced Bureau of Land Management and FBI agents to back down. They got support from across the state and beyond. Bonnie McDaniel told the Militant after the hearing that she and a group from Las Vegas “went to Walmart and bought underwear, clothes, food. We would clean out Walmart, then fill our van and go to Bunkerville to support them.”
Eight of 12 regular jurors and four alternates attended the hearing. Some had come to admire the ranchers and distrust the government.
“The last witness we had was a BLM ranger,” one juror told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I don’t think her answers were very truthful at all.”
Judge Navarro pointed to “flagrant misconduct” and “substantial prejudice” by the prosecutors and the FBI in not disclosing key evidence to the defense. “The government’s conduct in this case was indeed outrageous,” she said.
“I’m not used to being free, put it that way,” Cliven Bundy said outside the courthouse. “I’ve been a political prisoner for right at 700 days today. I came into this courtroom an innocent man and I’m going to leave as an innocent man.”
He stressed that the central issue in his fight is the rights of ranchers and farmers to have access to the land.
‘They fought tooth and nail’
“They fought tooth and nail for everything they got today. Nothing was just handed to them,” Kelli Stewart, a supporter from Oregon, told the crowd. “Had they not had a legal team and supporters out here they would have been run over in this courtroom.”
Stewart now believes that all those behind bars are getting a raw deal. “Everybody who is in jail at this point has not received a fair trial. As awful as it sounds to say, everybody needs to be set free,” she said. “They need due process, a jury of their peers, representation of their choice, and they need a speedy trial.”
She pointed in particular to Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, Oregon ranchers who are in prison, railroaded by federal agents for setting two backfires on their ranch, to protect against an approaching wildfire and to destroy invasive juniper growth. They were framed on charges of “maliciously damaging” federal property and prosecuted under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
“There were 53 ranchers in Clark County just a few years ago. There is only one left, Cliven Bundy. And he’s been sitting in prison for the last two years,” John Lamb told the crowd. He drove from Montana with his wife and 11 children to be at the hearing. “There are four more defendants still awaiting trial — Joel O’Shaughnessy, Jason Woods, Dave Bundy and Mel Bundy.”
Most Bundy supporters who’ve gone to trial in the last year were acquitted. Because of Navarro’s sweeping decision, those who were found guilty can file to have the convictions thrown out.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy were also acquitted in 2016 when federal agents brought charges against them for the 41-day standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Protesters demanded release of the Hammonds.
“I have spent two years in prison on a lie,” Ammon Bundy told the Militant. “I’m not done fighting by any means.”
The day before the hearing Socialist Workers Party members went to Mesquite, near the Bundy ranch, to discuss with workers how they viewed the government’s frame-up case.
Ron Martinez, a steelworker for 30 years, had just moved to Mesquite from Golden, Colorado. “When I heard about the Bundys, I wondered why is this going on,” he said. “I have great admiration for these guys because of their stand. I wanted to visit them in jail.”
Knocking on doors in the Summer Winds apartment complex here, we found real interest in the Militant and its coverage of the Bundys’ fight. We sold one subscription and six single copies.
Deborah Liatos contributed to this article.