Anticipating a battle in the upcoming trial against six associates of rancher Cliven Bundy, federal prosecutors this week asked a judge to prohibit defense attorneys from referencing a wide range of material that is central to defense strategy in the case.
The six men scheduled to stand trial next month are considered the least culpable of the 18 charged in what authorities call a “massive, unprecedented assault on law enforcement officers” who in 2014 tried to remove Bundy’s cattle from public land in Bunkerville following a decades-long dispute over grazing fees. The antagonistic rancher rallied armed supporters, and a high-stakes standoff ensued.
The six requests in the sweeping motion filed late Tuesday include one asking that defense attorneys be prohibited from arguing that the federal government does not or should not own the land from which Bureau of Land Management agents tried to seize cattle. That includes mentions of ownership of the Gold Butte range and its recent designation as a national monument.
Some defendants charged in the 16-count indictment have, through court filings, framed the case as a referendum on the reach of federal power. Defense attorneys have referenced land treaties that predate Nevada’s admission into the Union to boost their arguments that the federal government lacked the authority to carry out impoundment operations.
The government’s motion similarly requests a blanket ban on arguments that “‘natural law’ or other authority permits the use of force against law enforcement officers,” as well as opinions that federal agents are “improperly and excessively armed.”
Prosecutors will try the case in Las Vegas following a stinging defeat for the federal government in a recent trial in Oregon that involved some of the same players, most notably Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan. Prosecutors in Las Vegas have asked that defense lawyers be prohibited from mentioning the 2016 armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which the Bundy brothers led, and the brothers’ subsequent acquittals.
Citing fears of engendering sympathy from jurors, the government also asked the court to block references to “supposed mistreatment of cattle” during impoundment operations. The government accuses Bundy of mistreating his cattle; the Bundy family has countered that some cattle were shot and others died of dehydration during the roundup.
Prosecutors also requested a ban on any hearsay statements regarding the BLM, the roundup or the standoff. They referenced specific statements by Gov. Brian Sandoval; U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Harry Reid, D-Nev.; U.S. Congressman-elect Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev.; and state Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore, a Republican.