A stubborn rancher's refusal to recognize federal authority in the West will be presented to a jury in Las Vegas, where a trial is set to start Tuesday for cattleman Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and a co-defendant accused of leading a 2014 armed standoff against government agents.
Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, the lead prosecutor, has accused the Bundys of trying to instigate a "range war" against federal agents who were enforcing lawful court orders after Bundy racked up more than $1.1 million US in unpaid fees and penalties letting cattle graze for decades in what is now Gold Butte National Monument.
Defense attorneys say the four men didn't conspire with anyone and didn't wield weapons. They say no shots were fired in the standoff near Bunkerville, about 120 kilometres northeast of Las Vegas.
Each defendant faces 15 felony charges, including conspiracy, assault and threats against federal officers, firearms counts, obstruction and extortion. Stacked together, convictions on all charges carry the possibility of more than 170 years in prison.
The trial sets up as a test of public land policies in Western U.S. states such as Nevada, where the federal government controls about 85 percent of the land and juries have twice balked at full convictions of men who had guns during the tense April 2014 confrontation.
Bundy argues that his family has used the same public range for more than a century, and the land belongs to the state not the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Refused to enter pleas
The trial is expected to be contentious. The 71-year-old Bundy, son Ammon Bundy and co-defendant Ryan Payne have been jailed since early 2016, and each refused to enter a plea saying he didn't recognize the authority of the government. A magistrate judge entered not-guilty pleas for them.
Openings in the long-awaited trial were postponed at the last minute last week, amid a fight about whether prosecutors properly disclosed evidence about surveillance cameras watching the Bundy homestead.
The defendants also asked to be released to a halfway house during proceedings that are expected to take about four months.
Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro last week ordered the 71-year-old Bundy, son Ammon Bundy and co-defendant Ryan Payne to remain in custody. She agreed Monday to release Ryan Bundy to halfway house supervision, said Trisha Young, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Las Vegas.
Ryan Bundy, who is serving as his own attorney, argued he was hampered preparing his case from jail.
The Bunkerville standoff was a precursor to an early 2016 protest in rural eastern Oregon, where Ryan and Ammon Bundy and Payne led a 41-day takeover of a federal wildlife refuge and called for the U.S. government to turn over public land to local control.
A federal jury in Portland refused last year to convict Ryan and Ammon Bundy of any crime. Payne pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, but wants to withdraw his plea and his expected sentence of more than three years in prison.
The Nevada standoff led to charges for other men. A federal jury in Las Vegas refused to convict the defendants in August after they were retried on accusations that they threatened and assaulted federal agents by wielding assault weapons near Cliven Bundy's ranch.
The jury acquitted Ricky Lovelien and Steven Stewart of all 10 charges, and delivered not-guilty findings on most charges against Scott Drexler and Eric Parker.
All four men were photographed carrying assault-style weapons. Jurors saw images of Parker and Drexler in prone shooting positions looking down their rifles through slots in the concrete barrier of an Interstate 15 freeway overpass toward heavily armed federal agents guarding a corral of cows below.
Defence attorneys noted that no shots were fired and no one was injured. They cast the tense standoff as an ultimately peaceful protest involving people upset about aggressive tactics used by federal land managers against Bundy family members.