The long legal saga of the Bundys and their armed opposition to federal land management in 2014 has come to an abrupt end. Federal district court judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial last month over violations of discovery rules by prosecutors, who then filed motions to retry the case. Navarro put her foot down this afternoon, ordering the charges to be dismissed with prejudice — meaning that the Department of Justice cannot retry any of the defendants:
U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial in the case last month, saying federal prosecutors willfully withheld evidence that lawyers for the Bundys and alleged co-conspirator Ryan Payne should have had access to while mounting their defense.
She said the attorneys were in violation of the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose evidence that could be favorable to a defendant, and told them it wasn’t possible to proceed with the case.
On Monday, she dismissed the case “with prejudice,” meaning the government cannot retry the defendants. “The court finds that the universal sense of justice has been violated,” Navarro said.
It’s the second big loss for the DoJ in three months. In October, a jury in another federal court acquitted two of the Bundys in charges brought after the standoff, a surprising outcome in that case. The mistrial, in this case, was seen as a setback rather than a defeat, with prosecutors arguing that they did not intentionally withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense. Rather, they argued that witness security led them to “cull the database” of potential witnesses.
Navarro was having none of that:
Navarro, who declared a mistrial last month, cited prosecutors’ multiple withholding of evidence from defense lawyers and other evidence violations in dismissing the case.
She told a packed courtroom in Las Vegas that the violations prevented a fair trial and amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.
Bundy family members wept in the spectators’ section of the court after the ruling. Prosecutors appeared stunned by Navarro’s rebuke.
Everyone gets to go free, in other words. The Bundys and their supporters will no doubt claim vindication, and it at least applies in the sense that prosecutors cheated enough to warrant a permanent sanction from the federal court. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bundys acted properly in the standoff; the earlier acquittals might make a better argument for that. While this is more than just a “technicality” — the Brady rule and discovery go to the heart of ensuring a fair trial for defendants — it also doesn’t touch on guilt or innocence, either.
From the beginning, the Bundy standoff was a complicated matter, made even more fraught by unnecessary escalation on both sides. Neither side operated in good faith, which is why it came down to a show of arms and seizure of property by both sides in 2014. In court, however, the government is required to operate in good faith when it comes to discovery, which makes this a just outcome. Perhaps the current administration can reform the BLM and its grazing operations to avoid these issues in the future — but the DoJ had better clean up its act tout suite regardless.