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EDITORIAL: Federal prosecutors slapped down again in Bundy case

Federal prosecutors have received another — and, let’s hope, final — judicial beat down for their missteps while prosecuting Cliven Bundy.

Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro’s decision to dismiss charges against Mr. Bundy. It confirmed Judge Navarro’s conclusion that the federal government improperly withheld evidence that could have aided Mr. Bundy’s defense. That included video surveillance, maps and even an FBI interview. Judge Navarro labeled the prosecution’s behavior “flagrant” misconduct.

“We can find no grounds for concluding that the district court abused its discretion in dismissing this indictment with prejudice,” Judge Jay Bybee of the 9th Circuit wrote in the decision. “Lesser sanctions — such as a continuance to allow the defendants to review discovery or declaring a mistrial and starting over — would have given the government an opportunity to strengthen its case at the defendants’ expense.”

The federal government originally charged Mr. Bundy, two of his sons and a militia member with felony conspiracy and weapons charges. The charges stemmed from a 2014 incident in which the elder Bundy and his supporters resisted federal attempts to remove his cattle from federal land. The one-day standoff was part of a decades-long dispute between Mr. Bundy and the government over grazing rights.

The federal government ended up abandoning its plan to seize the cattle. Instead of a gunbattle, it waged a fierce legal campaign against Mr. Bundy and his allies. The 9th Circuit’s ruling confirms what has been obvious for years. Steven Myhre, the prosecutor in charge of the case and acting head of the Nevada U.S. attorney’s office at the time, appeared more interested in pursuing a vindictive political prosecution against Mr. Bundy and his allies than in operating within the bounds of judicial protocol. Mr. Bundy’s fight — and the support he received in some quarters — was an embarrassment to federal agencies.

“We respect the 9th Circuit’s decision and appreciate its recognition that its decision today to affirm the 2018 trial court dismissal does not ‘cast aspersions on the professionalism of the members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office,’” Nevada U.S. Attorney Nicholas Trutanich wrote in an email to the Review-Journal.

Mr. Trutanich wasn’t part of the bungled investigation and trial. It’s understandable and even a bit noble for a leader to want to defend his office and its employees. The brazenness of the misconduct, however, shows even this appeal was unwarranted.

“Someone in the government made a conscious choice to withhold these documents,” Judge Bybee wrote. “It may not have been a malicious choice, but it also was not a matter of simple oversight.”

Two judicial hand slaps are enough. Mr. Trutanich should resist any internal pressure and drop this matter once and for all.

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