In the wake of a nearly complete acquittal of four defendants in the 2014 Bunkerville standoff retrial this week, a group of defendants still waiting to face a jury want a judge to release them from federal detention, where they have been held for more than a year.
Militia founder Ryan Payne stated in court papers through his attorneys Brenda Weksler and Ryan Norwood that “the arguments in favor of releasing these remaining defendants based on due process grounds have only become stronger.”
At the center of the second group of five defendants still awaiting trial is Cliven Bundy, the Gold Butte rancher prosecutors allege conspired to thwart the federal government’s roundup of roughly 1,000 cows from public land. Bundy’s lawyer, Bret Whipple, joined Payne’s motion Friday.
“Our position has always been that it’s political instead of criminal,” Whipple said, referring to this week’s verdict. “And now it seems to be subjective instead of factual. There’s a whole fairness issue that I think is overlooked.”
It’s not the first time the defendants have asked for freedom. As recently as June, after the first trial ended in a hung jury, remaining defendants made the same request.
While jurors from the first trial could not decide on charges against four men, the panel returned convictions against two standoff participants: Arizona resident Gregory Burleson and Idaho resident Todd Engel. Burleson received a 68-year prison term, and Engel is awaiting sentencing.
Dan Hill, who represents Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy, also filed court documents Friday afternoon, renewing the request for release.
Hill said that, given the recent verdict, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro, who is overseeing the case, should consider the “weight of the evidence” against those who have not faced a jury.
“The jury has definitely rejected the government’s conspiracy theme of the case,” Hill said. “It’s obvious that the government doesn’t have a strong case.”
Another of Bundy’s sons, Ryan Bundy, represents himself and also has asked to be released.
Last year, Navarro rejected a bid for freedom from Pete Santilli, who argued that he was a journalist covering the April 12, 2014, armed confrontation between the Bundy family and law enforcement. He hosts the Internet-based “Pete Santilli Show” from Cincinnati on YouTube.
In documents filed Friday, Santilli’s lawyer, Chris Rasmussen, wrote that this week’s verdict “is a demonstration of the weight of evidence against the defendants as a whole.”
Rasmussen told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Santilli showed up to the protest armed with an iPad and loud mouth to Bunkerville to record and protest the aggressive nature of the Bureau of Land Management.”
Meanwhile, lawyers for Eric Parker and Scott Drexler, who were acquitted of most charges but still face counts that carry serious prison time, have told the judge they are ready to face a third jury. They’re due back in court next week.
“At this time, Scott and I are prepared to go to trial so he can be vindicated of all charges, and so he can have his life back and have closure on this,” said Todd Leventhal, who represents Drexler. “That’s what he wants.”
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2014 Bunkerville standoff
The April 12, 2014, standoff was an armed confrontation between armed Bureau of Land Management agents and protesters over the government’s effort, under court order, to remove cattle from Cliven Bundy’s ranch near Bunkerville, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The roundup was ordered after Bundy had refused to pay government grazing fees for more than two decades.
No one was hurt during the confrontation, but the BLM agents eventually backed down.