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Federal Trial Of Anti-Government Rancher Cliven Bundy Delayed


The federal conspiracy trial of a high-profile, anti-government activist was supposed to start today, but it has been delayed. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and another militiaman are accused of leading an armed standoff against federal agents back in 2014. It all started when the Bundys refused to pay fees to graze their cattle on public land. NPR's Kirk Siegler joins us now from outside the Las Vegas courthouse where lawyers were expected to give their opening arguments today. Hey, Kirk.


MCEVERS: So why the delay?

SIEGLER: Well, it has to do with this dispute, I guess you could call it, over footage from an FBI surveillance camera that was at that 2014 standoff that really hadn't been much of a focus until now. And this was a big surprise here. We had been waiting for a year and a half for opening statements to begin. And then the judge ordered federal prosecutors to provide the court with more details about this video and prove that there is nothing serious enough in it, you know, that could change the trial.

MCEVERS: Is this video - or could it be - a game changer in this trial?

SIEGLER: I mean, that's an open question. I think you could look at this as just another twist that might show that the government's case here is shaky. There's been a lot of pressure for a conviction here against the Bundys, especially since Cliven's sons Ammon and Ryan were, of course, acquitted for leading another armed standoff over public lands up in Oregon. The defense has filed motions for a mistrial which, I think, Kelly, is still unlikely. But you know, the idea that there may be this not until now disclosed footage from a federal surveillance video really plays into the hands of the Bundys and, you know, their conspiracy-theory supporters who already don't trust the government.

MCEVERS: The Bundys have been on trial before. We know that they're pretty theatrical. What was the scene like in the courtroom today?

SIEGLER: Well, we saw the 71-year-old Cliven Bundy in a red prison jumpsuit. He was wearing black reading glasses. He had a copy of the Constitution in his front pocket - his son Ammon, also in a red jumpsuit behind him. They wore these in some sort of protest. And you know, they've been in jail now for more than a year and a half. And you had Cliven's other son Ryan who is representing himself. You know, he told the judge that the men are political prisoners and that they should be freed. Now, this was, of course - at the root of this was a very tense armed standoff that happened when federal agents came to round up the Bundys' cows because they had defied numerous court orders. And they were out on public lands illegally. And you know, the judge pointed out to them that these guys, she said, don't respect federal officers, but that she might consider later this week allowing them to stay in some sort of a halfway house under supervision instead of prison as this trial goes on for - expected at least to be four months.

MCEVERS: As we said, this case started as this fight over control of federal public lands. But it seems like it's morphed into something else, no?

SIEGLER: Right. I mean, you could look at the Bundys, I think, as sort of this window into some of the anti-establishment, anti-government sentiment you can feel in parts of rural America right now - rural Nevada, no exception. You know, people who we now probably describe as the alt-right rallied to their cause out of that standoff. And lately we've seen one of President Trump's campaign advisers Roger Stone here in Las Vegas calling on them to be pardoned. But the prosecutors would point out that the facts here have gotten lost. Bundy owes more than a million dollars in unpaid grazing fees and fines. And what kind of precedent might that set if he's acquitted. So, you know, the stakes here are high, Kelly.

MCEVERS: NPR's Kirk Siegler, thank you.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.