First Bundy ranch trial ends in mistrial, few convictions; judge criticized for rulings

First Bundy ranch trial ends in mistrial, few convictions; judge criticized for rulings

This won’t be a comprehensive commentary on the “Bundy trials” issue, by any means.  Just a couple of initial reactions to the end of the first Bundy ranch trial on Monday in a mistrial for four of the defendants, declared by Judge Gloria Navarro of the U.S. District Court of Nevada.

Two defendants were convicted by the jury: Todd Engel of Idaho on two charges, and Greg Burleson of Arizona, who in fact was acting as a federal informant throughout the Bundy ranch standoff in 2014.  Burleson was convicted on eight charges, including assault on a federal officer, threatening,  two counts of “firearm in relation to a crime of violence,” and interference with interstate commerce by extortion.

The federal government reportedly has charges pending against a total of 17 defendants, including Cliven Bundy and other members of his family.  There are two additional trials to go.

But this first trial won’t help federal prosecutors get the other convictions they’re after.  In spite of Judge Navarro’s best efforts, the jury simply wouldn’t return convictions for conspiracy in the cases of any of the defendants.  Nor would the jurors find four of them guilty of firearm offenses and assault charges.

Instead, the jury, which began deliberations on 13 April, deadlocked on all four of the other defendants: Eric Parker, Scott Drexler, and Steven Stewart of Idaho, and Richard Lovelien of Oklahoma.  Judge Navarro sent them back for more deliberation last week, but they were still unable to come to agreement.

It sounds as if that is a good thing for the integrity of the federal justice system.  There has been a lot of reporting that Navarro ran the trial in a remarkable manner, in many cases refusing to allow the defense to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, while also allowing those same witnesses to sit in the courtroom for the trial when they weren’t on the stand.  (Yet prospective defense witnesses were required to leave the courtroom, except when they were on the stand.)  Defense lawyers, it is reported, were prohibited in at least some instances from making their own objections.  Navarro silenced them and objected on their behalf.

Even professional media outlets recorded the serious questions raised about Navarro’s decisions.  The Arizona Republic acknowledged these concerns:

Judge limits witnesses, arguments by defense attorneys

Navarro would not allow the defense to argue about constitutional protections to the jury.

Navarro also prevented the defense from calling a string of witnesses about what happened in the run-up to the standoff, ruling they could only testify about what happened on the final day of the standoff.

But this brief summary doesn’t fully convey the reality.  The defense team originally planned to call as many as 30 witnesses.  Navarro prohibited them from calling all but four (one of whom was defendant Eric Parker).  The prosecution was permitted to call 35.  In fact, the prosecution completely dominated the proceedings: in a two-month period of witness questioning and argument, the defense got two days to bring its witnesses and make its case.  (According to one observer — link below — the jury was present for only 15 minutes of that two-day period.)

The limitation in scope of testimony for the defense certainly looks like something an appeals court would have found astonishing, if any of the men had been convicted of conspiracy.  Conspiracy was what the prosecution was trying to prove.  And yet an AP story had this to say about Navarro’s ruling on the scope of defense testimony (confirming the point made by the Arizona Republic, above):

Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ruled that any testimony should focus on the standoff itself, not incidents preceding it.

If she wanted to have conspiracy convictions overturned on appeal, Navarro could hardly have found a better method.

Obviously, none of us was in the jury room.  But it’s hard to imagine watching the unbalanced trial proceedings described by observers — and acknowledged, elliptically, by the mainstream media — and thinking that the defendants were getting a fair shake.  It sounds like if I’d been on that jury, I would have had a hard time convicting even Greg Burleson of anything, as unsympathetic as he undoubtedly was.

The four on whom the jury deadlocked will have to face a new trial before Navarro, starting on 24 June.  Frankly, Navarro shouldn’t get to hear this case again.  Apparently, she regards the mere sight of a pocket version of the U.S. Constitution as incendiary:

Other spectators confirmed Lamb’s account and more.  Many of those in the courtroom carried pocket-sized Constitutions; Judge Navarro subsequently ruled that the Constitution was not allowed in the courtroom unless it was turned face-down.  On April 10, a man named Neil Wampler was escorted out of the courtroom and his things collected by a U.S. marshal because he had a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket that was visible to the judge.

I’m sure Navarro was having to deal with unusual circumstances (e.g., defendant Todd Engel representing himself, and failing on at least one occasion to obey her instructions during a cross-examination).  But it’s her job to uphold the constitutional rights of defendants, period.  And if she wasn’t allowing cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, and she outright prohibited a defense geared to creating reasonable doubt about conspiracy, in a conspiracy trial, then she was failing in her job.  There’s no excuse for that.  The taxpayers’ time should not be wasted on judges who can’t deal with unusual defendants, except by mistreating them.

And yes, Navarro was appointed by Obama in 2010.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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