LAS VEGAS (AP) — In the latest chapter of the long-running dispute over Western U.S. land policy, lawyers were set Wednesday to make their closing arguments in the trial of six men accused of wielding weapons to stop federal agents from rounding up cattle near Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s property in 2014.
After two months of testimony, a federal jury will hear prosecutors and defense attorneys summarize their cases on the third anniversary of the standoff involving federal Bureau of Land Management agents and states’ rights advocates who dispute federal control of vast tracts of public land in states from Montana to California.
Prosecutors characterize the defendants — Gregory Burleson of Arizona, Richard Lovelien of Oklahoma, and Idaho residents Todd Engel, Scott Drexler, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart — as followers of a Bundy plan to prevent the agents from removing Bundy cattle from scenic and environmentally sensitive rangeland northeast of Las Vegas.
A second federal court trial could start June 5 in for Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and two other defendants characterized by prosecutors as leaders of a conspiracy to defy court orders to corral the cows. Trial for another six defendants would follow in the fall.
Defense attorneys have said the trial is not about cattle, and that the government has not proved conspiracy, weapon, assault on a federal agent and other charges. If convicted of all the charges, the six defendants could each face more than 100 years in federal prison.
Jurors have seen photos of each defendant wielding a weapon during the tense noontime April 12, 2014, confrontation outside the small town of Bunkerville.
The prosecution presented 40 witnesses since the trial started in February. Three witnesses have testified for the defense. Parker, a 33-year-old electrician, was the only defendant who testified.
Parker testified that he and Drexler and Stewart drove to southern Nevada after seeing social media posts, news reports and cellphone video about scuffles in the days before the standoff between agents with dogs and stun guns and Bundy family members and supporters.
One of Bundy’s sons was arrested during one protest, and another was shocked with a stun gun after agents said he blocked a convoy of vehicles in the round-up. The family patriarch’s 57-year-old sister, Margaret Houston, was knocked to the ground in another confrontation.
Parker said he was incensed by images of a corral set up by the government with signs designating it as a protest area and free speech zone.
“I was not looking for a fight, but I was not going to be bullied into not exercising my First Amendment,” he said.
Parker was famously photographed during the standoff — prone on the pavement of an Interstate 15 overpass, looking with his AK-47 style rifle through a seam in a concrete freeway barrier on a high arching freeway overpass toward the federal agents in a U-shaped dry riverbed below.
The scene had flag-waving riders on horseback and more than 100 unarmed protesters including women and children facing about 30 heavily armed federal agents near a gate of a corral in the riverbed.
The crowd demanded the release of cows that had been rounded up by and the agents insisted that the protesters should disperse.
The local sheriff finally brokered a truce, and the cows were released.
The dispute has roots in the Sagebrush Rebellion launched more than 40 years ago over grazing rights in Nevada by people who wanted more state and local control over federally owned land.
The dispute has grown as federal officials designate protected areas for endangered species and set aside tracts for mining, wind farms and natural gas exploration.