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EDITORIAL: Judge bans defense arguments in Bundy retrial

Government prosecutors have a friend in U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro.

The judge is presiding over the retrial of four defendants charged with various crimes stemming from their participation in the 2014 Bunkerville standoff near Cliven Bundy’s ranch. The first trial ended in April with the jury deadlocked on all counts involving the four men.

On Monday, the judge eviscerated the defense’s legal strategy, putting off limits a whole host of issues that might make it more difficult for the government to win convictions. The defendants will be forbidden from arguing that they were exercising their constitutional rights to peaceably assemble and bear arms. They may not highlight the actions of BLM agents in the days leading up to the incident or mention federal gaffes such as the ill-advised “First Amendment” zone created for protesters.

And if imposing these restrictions on the defense wasn’t enough, Judge Navarro ruled that prosecutors may introduce testimony about the four accused men and their associations with so-called militia groups.

Judge Navarro made a similar ruling before the first trial. She is going to extraordinary lengths to address prosecution fears of “jury nullification,” in which jurors refuse to convict based on a belief that the law or potential punishment is unjust. The practice dates to 1734, when a jury ignored statutes and acquitted publisher John Peter Zenger on charges of criticizing New York’s new colonial governor, accepting arguments from Mr. Zenger’s attorney, Alexander Hamilton, that the newspaper had simply published the truth.

Federal prosecutors have encountered unexpected difficulty — both here and in Oregon — in securing convictions against those protesting federal control of Western public lands. But the issue here isn’t whether one believes the Bundy defendants are courageous freedom fighters or zealous lunatics. Rather it’s whether a judge should usurp the rights of the defendants to have a jury of their peers consider their arguments alongside the law, evidence and other testimony.

Judge Navarro’s sweeping order reflects a deep mistrust of the American jury system.

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