LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy went on trial on Monday for his role in leading a 2014 armed standoff against federal agents that became a rallying point for militia groups challenging U.S. government authority in the American West.
Bundy, two of his sons and a third follower are accused of conspiracy, assault, firearms offenses and other charges in the latest of several trials stemming from the confrontation near Bunkerville, Nevada, 75 miles (120 km) northeast of Las Vegas.
The revolt was sparked by the court-ordered roundup of Bundy’s cattle by government agents over his refusal to pay fees required to graze the herd on federal land.
Hundreds of supporters, many heavily armed, rallied to Bundy’s cause demanding that his livestock be returned. Outnumbered law enforcement officers ultimately retreated rather than risk bloodshed. No shots were ever fired.
The face-off marked a flashpoint in long-simmering tensions over federal control of public lands in the West and a precursor to Bundy’s two sons leading an armed six-week occupation of a federal wildlife center in Oregon two years later, in 2016.
Defense lawyers have generally argued that the Bunkerville defendants were exercising constitutionally protected rights to assembly and to bear arms, casting the showdown as a patriotic act of civil disobedience against government overreach.
Prosecutors have argued that armed gunmen were using force and intimidation to defy the rule of law.
Jury selection in the latest trial began on Monday morning in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, following a three-week postponement after an unrelated mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 in which 58 people were killed.
Standing trial with Cliven Bundy, 71, are his sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who also led last year’s Oregon occupation, and a fourth defendant, Ryan Payne, a Montana resident linked by prosecutors to a militia group called Operation Mutual Aid.
All four men chose to appear for Monday’s proceedings in red jail garb instead of civilian clothes, in what a defense lawyer said was a show of unity. The courtroom was packed with about 75 Bundy family supporters.
Judge Gloria Navarro said she expected a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates to be seated by early next week and for the trial to run through late February.
A would-be fifth trial defendant, internet blogger and radio host Peter Santilli, pleaded guilty on Oct. 6 to conspiracy and faces a possible six-year prison term.
Six lesser-known participants in the Nevada ranch showdown went on trial as a group earlier this year. Two men were found guilty, one of them sentenced to 68 years in prison. The other is awaiting sentencing.
Two of the four remaining defendants from that group were retried and acquitted, and two others pleaded guilty last week to obstructing a court order. Those two each faces up to a year in prison when sentenced.
Yet another group of six defendants, including two more Bundy sons, Dave and Mel Bundy, are due to stand trial 30 days after the current trial ends.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, along with five other people, were previously charged with criminal conspiracy in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. That trial ended with the surprise acquittal last year of all seven.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney