The years-long effort to bring criminal charges against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons for their role in armed standoffs against the federal government ended in a stunning defeat Monday, when a federal judge dismissed the case against the Bundys with a scathing rebuke to its prosecutors.
"The government's conduct in this case was indeed outrageous," Judge Gloria M. Navarro told a packed Las Vegas courtroom Monday. "There has been flagrant misconduct, substantial prejudice, and no lesser remedy is sufficient."
It was a decisive victory for the Bundys and their supporters, a hodgepodge of anti-government extremists and militias galvanized by the family's stand against federal land ownership in the West. By bungling the case against the Bundys, the government could bolster the right-wing movements that have mobilized around the family's cause.
The government's case against the Bundys stemmed from Cliven Bundy's refusal to pay more than $1 million in fees for grazing on federally managed lands, which escalated into an armed standoff with government agents on the family's ranch. Prosecutors had charged Bundy, his two sons, and a militia leader named Ryan Payne with conspiracy and assault for their leadership in the standoff.
"This case represented the last opportunity for justice in this case of extremists who had organized in armed opposition to the government," said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors extremist groups. "The government's own mistakes meant the case was not even brought to the jury for a decision. This result can only embolden anti-government extremists, especially in Western states, and make future confrontations and standoffs with the government more likely."
Prosecutors could appeal Navarro's decision. In a statement, Acting Nevada US Attorney Dayle Elieson said the office was considering how to move forward.
"We respect the Court's ruling and will make a determination about the next appropriate steps," Elieson said.
In her decision, Navarro cited what she called "flagrant misconduct" by prosecutors, who failed to turn over evidence to defense attorneys and misrepresented to the court and attorneys information about surveillance cameras and snipers that were placed outside the Bundys' ranch during the standoff.
During the trial, prosecutors were found to have not turned over important evidence to defense attorneys, including logs about video surveillance at the Bundys' homes and information about FBI snipers positioned in the area, as well as an FBI threat assessment concluding that the Bundys probably weren't violent.
On Monday, Navarro noted that the evidence, which prosecutors kept from the court and the defense, could have had exculpatory value to defense attorneys, by backing up their central argument that the Bundys had called armed protesters to the ranch in self-defense because they believed they were surrounded by a hostile force of government "snipers."
It's the second time federal prosecutors have botched a case against the Bundys and their supporters for armed insurrections against the government. A case related to the 2016 takeover of a federally owned wildlife refuge in Oregon resulted in acquittals for two of Cliven Bundy's sons, as well as five others, while several other defendants reached favorable plea deals with light sentences.
"It's a devastating failure," said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow for the Anti-Defamation League who studies right-wing extremism. Monday's ruling was a "huge letdown," he said, "and it's made worse by the fact that it appears to have been the government's own fault."
Pitcavage noted that the prosecutorial subterfuge cited by the federal judge Monday bolsters the Bundys' anti-government arguments and their characterization of federal agents as overreaching and abusive bureaucrats.
"It's given them ammunition," he said. "It gave them the excuse for propaganda that not only the government is out to get the Bundys, but they could point to other mistakes made by law enforcement."
The Bundys' supporters exulted in Monday's decision, amassing in a cheering crowd outside the courtroom to welcome the rancher and his sons.
"This isn't just a victory for the Bundys, it's a blow to the government," said Gary Hunt, who serves on the board of a coalition of militias that formed after the 2014 standoff and supported the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. Bundy brothers' standoff in Oregon.
"It more than vindicates them," Hunt told BuzzFeed News. "It makes everything the government said for the last four years questionable."
The government's failure to successfully try the Bundys and their supporters shows that the movement's strategies are effective, he said, and could be used again to counter perceived federal overreach in the future.
Calling on anti-government militias to stand up to "militarized federal agents" is "an excellent tactic," Hunt said. In the case of the Bundy ranch standoff, he added, "it brought the attention to the world of what happened."
The government's prosecutions have had an impact on the broader movement. Hunt's militia group, Operation Mutual Defense, has been hampered by the arrest of other board members who were involved in the standoffs, he said, and one of them turned out to be a government informant.
Other militia groups orbiting the Bundys have been in a sort of holding pattern, experts said, awaiting the outcome of Cliven Bundy's trial. The movement's fervor has also been tempered by a new presidential administration that right-wing groups see as more sympathetic to their views.
Whether or not future confrontations will be led by the Bundys, who have spent the last two years behind bars or in home confinement, remains to be seen. Cliven Bundy has talked about his desire to go back to ranching, and his two sons Ammon and Ryan have also expressed a wish to return to home life.
By Tuesday, however, just one day after the charges against him were lifted, the Nevada rancher was asserting his beliefs to followers and reporters, insisting once again that the federal government has no business managing land in Western states.
“I don’t recognize the federal government to have authority, jurisdiction, no matter who the president is,” he said.
And an attorney for one of his sons told BuzzFeed News that his client, Ammon Bundy, has been undeterred by his incarceration and is eager to again speak out publicly against the federal control of western lands.
"I think there's no doubt he'll want to stay on these issues," the attorney, Morgan Philpot, said. "I don't think Ammon can walk away after what he's been through."