By JENNY WILSON
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
February 6, 2017 - 1:57pm
Constitutional issues took center stage Monday when the first trial in the case against rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters opened with jury selection in Las Vegas.
U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro on Monday began the lengthy process of whittling down a jury pool of several hundred people to a panel of 14 — including two alternates — who will be seated for the trial against six people charged as “gunmen” in the 2014 armed standoff in Bunkerville. The standoff occurred when Bundy led a mass protest against federal agents who were acting on a court order to impound his cattle.
Dozens of jurors were grilled Monday about their views on law enforcement, protests, federal government overreach and constitutional rights — all of which are topics central to the case. The trial is unusual because the defendants charged in the 15-count indictment have relied heavily on ideological themes in arguing that they were not guilty.
Prosecutors accuse the six gunmen who are standing trial of participating in a “mass assault” on law enforcement. The defendants contend they were exercising their First and Second Amendment rights to freely assemble and to bear arms.
Todd Engel, one of the defendants in the case who is representing himself, questioned potential jurors and provided a window into what is likely to be a key defense strategy in the case. He asked jurors to imagine that baseball had been canceled for a year, and a group of people “all gathered and protested with baseball bats.”
“Would it be wrong to carry our baseball bats in front of a stadium?” Engel asked.
Jurors shook their heads no. Then, Engel pointed out the difference between that sort of a protest and one during which the protesters used baseball bats to smash windows in the stadium.
No shots were fired during the armed confrontation in April 2014.
Engel then asked potential jurors if they thought it would be acceptable for a group of gun enthusiasts to hold a Second Amendment rights protest in front of a courthouse, with a “pistol on hip, rifle on shoulder, yelling and screaming, ‘Give us our Second Amendment rights.’”
“That would be all right, as long as no one got hurt, right?” he asked.
Navarro repeatedly admonished Engel for making arguments rather than asking direct questions.
Engel and attorneys representing the other defendants asked questions aimed at unveiling some of the political and philosophical views of the people from whom a jury will be selected — such as whether the government overstepped its bounds during Prohibition, whether mass protests and marches are acceptable, and whether the government has the authority to limit or expand free speech rights.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, focused their questions on how potential jurors view police and prosecutors, and whether jurors have issues with someone using a firearm.
The morning began with some potential jurors being dismissed immediately for health, financial and other reasons. Some were dismissed for personal bias displayed on their questionnaire — such as a man who wrote “power corrupts” in response to a question about the government and another who, in reference to Bundy, wrote, “If he’s an American citizen, his cattle should be allowed to graze on this land.”
Several of Bundy’s relatives and supporters came to court for the first day of the trial. Bundy, and the men charged as ringleaders of the standoff, are scheduled to stand trial later this year.
Protesters stood outside the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse on Monday holding flags and megaphones, and yelling about constitutional rights. An increased police presence around the courthouse also marked the beginning of what is expected to be a monthslong trial. Jury selection is expected to last several days.
Contact Jenny Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710. Follow @jennydwilson on Twitter.