Why Federal Juries Have A Hard Time Convicting Bundy Cultists


Ignoring photographs of the defendants aiming rifles at federal agents, Las Vegas jury has decided not to convict four members of the Cliven Bundy cult with menacing Bureau of Land Management employees during the 2014 standoff.

Ricky Lovelien and Steven Stewart were found not guilty. The jury failed to reach verdicts for Scott Drexler and Eric Parker or found them not guilty on most charges.

It was the second trial for the four men. The first resulted in guilty verdicts for co-defendants Gregory Burleson and Todd Engel, but the jury could not decide on a verdict in their cases.

“Prosecutors characterized the six as the least culpable of 19 co-defendants arrested in early 2016 and charged in the case, including Bundy family members,” reports the Las Vegas Sun. “With the release of Lovelien and Stewart, 17 are still in federal custody.”

None of the defendants was found guilty of a key conspiracy charge alleging that they plotted with Bundy family members to form a self-styled militia and prevent the lawful enforcement of multiple court orders to remove Bundy cattle from arid desert rangeland in what is now the Gold Butte National Monument.

Even though the presiding judge struck Parker’s testimony, jurors were somehow able to overlook “images of Parker and Drexler in prone shooting positions looking down their rifles through slots in the concrete barrier of an Interstate 15 freeway overpass toward heavily armed federal agents guarding a corral of cows below.”

Eric Parker appears in this iconic photo of the standoff by Jim Urquhart of Reuters

Defendants’ counsel all declined to make closing arguments in protest of US District Judge Gloria Navarro’s decision to prohibit them from raising the Bundy cause as a defense. According to Drexler’s attorney Todd Leventhal, the act of standing mute made a decisive impression on jurors.

“As much as we were shut down from bringing anything up, the jury saw through it,” he said. He complained that “Navarro set such strict rules of evidence that defendants weren’t able to tell why they traveled to the Bundy ranch.”

Of course, Leventhal has the advantage of defending a Caucasian client. If African Americans pointed guns at federal agents, most juries would have no trouble convicting them for long prison sentences, and would take no interest in why they had traveled hundreds of miles to do it. If Muslim Americans did it, there would be an outcry for their imprisonment at Guantanamo.

Commit the same crime in defense of trespassing cows, however, and juries have a hard time reaching a simple verdict even with damning photographic evidence. Politicians are unwilling to use the word “terrorism” to describe an act that is clearly political and clearly aimed at intimidating federal employees when it is committed by white men in cowboy hats.

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Yet I suspect these hypocrisies are not the full explanation for the difficulty that federal juries seem to experience whenever they are asked to convict a Bundy cultist.

As a former federal prosecutor has explained to me, jurors have also generally been reluctant to convict so-called “sovereign citizens,” an affinity group that is well-represented within the Bundy cult.

The sovereign citizens that this particular former prosecutor saw were all charged with tax evasion. Taxes are always unpopular, so juries do not like to convict defendants of ducking the tax man. It is much easier to convict the sovereign citizens who build pipe bombs, file fraudulent liens, and so on.

If they are African Americans of the Moorish Temple — a different cult that is also soaked in sovereign citizen nonsense — then so much the better for a prosecutor’s conviction rate.

Cliven Bundy’s trespass cattle, which were being removed for nonpayment of grazing fees, seem to evoke the same sympathy. So even though it turns out that he is really, really bad at taking care of those cows, it will be hard for a jury to see through Bundy’s cowboy act. That’s also true of his militant admirers.


Featured image via Gage Skidmore Flickr under Creative Commons license

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