Lawyers representing rancher Cliven Bundy’s supporters accused a judge of eviscerating their defense case Monday by effectively prohibiting several planned witnesses from testifying.
U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro’s ruling blocks defense witnesses from testifying about federal authorities’ actions in the days before the 2014 Bunkerville standoff between protesters and Bureau of Land Management agents who tried to seize Bundy’s cattle from public land. Law enforcement officers’ actions were expected to be a cornerstone of the defense case in the conspiracy trial; the ruling so affected the strategy that defense lawyers asked for an evening to reassess before they call witnesses.
Prosecutors formally rested their case Monday against the first six of 17 defendants in a three-part trial resulting from the April 12, 2014, standoff. The men are being tried on charges that they staged a massive armed assault on law enforcement officers.
Previous legal filings have revealed that defense attorneys intended to argue their clients were not the aggressors, but acted in self-defense against a militant and excessively forceful police presence. In the pre-standoff days, videos showing law enforcement officers using a stun gun on two of Bundy’s sons and tackling a middle-aged woman were circulated widely on social media.
But Navarro sided with the federal government when she ruled that testimony related to authorities’ pre-standoff behavior was “irrelevant to whether there’s excessive force or reasonable force” on the day of the standoff. A self-defense argument is permissible only if there is evidence that police’s actions were not “objectively reasonable,” Navarro ruled.
Defense attorney Todd Leventhal said the case against his client, Idaho resident Scott Drexler, hinged on “whether or not it was reasonable to go over there and think that he’d get shot.”
Drexler – who on the day of the standoff was photographed pointing a long gun through a jersey barrier on a highway bridge – argues that the officers’ excessive force made his actions defensible.
“The testimony of our witnesses would buttress that,” Leventhal said.
Defense attorney Rich Tanasi, who is representing Drexler’s friend, Steven Stewart, told the judge that defense lawyers needed at least a night to revise their strategy after Monday’s ruling.
Tanasi told the judge defense lawyers must ask themselves, “Should we call any of them, given the fact that there’s now only a few?”
Defense attorneys confirmed in court they still plan to call at least two witnesses. Closing arguments in the trial could come much sooner than anticipated — possibly by the end of this week.
One defendant hinted in court that Navarro’s ruling led him to decide last-minute to take the witness stand in his own defense.
“I would like to say that I feel like I have to testify,” Idaho resident Eric Parker said after the judge reminded him of his rights. “I feel like the court has left me no choice but to testify.”
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