Jury selection began Monday in the criminal trial of Cliven Bundy, his two sons and a supporter on felony charges related to their armed standoff with federal agents more than three years ago over cattle grazing rights.
It is the first time that members of the Bundy family — which has become a symbol for activists fighting federal land policy — will be on trial for the 2014 showdown in Bunkerville, Nev., about an hour north of Las Vegas. Some of their supporters stood trial earlier this year.
U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro told the roughly 50 prospective jurors that the Las Vegas trial could last into February.
The potential witness list includes more than 1,100 names — including Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, and Michele Fiore, a Las Vegas councilwoman and gun rights activist who was in the Nevada Legislature during the conflict and showed up to support the Bundy family.
The potential jurors filled out questionnaires about their feelings on guns, protests and the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 and wounded nearly 500 people.
Bret Whipple, the attorney for 71-year-old Cliven Bundy, questioned one juror who said she was at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas when the gunman began shooting from the hotel window down upon the crowd attending a music festival. He asked her if talking about guns and the events of the Bundy standoff might affect her ability to be impartial.
“I don’t know what would trigger something that would take me back to that day,” she said.
After she spoke, another juror began tearing up. Dan Hill, Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, asked her if she thought this might not be the right trial for her to be on.
“Probably not,” she said.
The jury pool featured a wide array of personalities, including a man who was once on “Judge Judy” over a dog dispute and another who claimed to dine regularly with Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo.
By the end of the afternoon, close to half of the jury pool had been eliminated.
The case against the Bundys starts in 1998, when Cliven Bundy was ordered to remove his cattle from federal land after he refused to pay U.S. Bureau of Land Management the grazing fees.
When he defied the order, the federal government began extracting 400 head of cattle from the land, prompting Bundy to put out a request for help from sympathizers.
Hundreds of people answered the call — many arriving with firearms, which they allegedly brandished at federal agents from an overpass on Interstate 15.
Prosecutors say Bundy led the aggression against federal agents and that he was assisted by his sons, 44-year-old Ryan and 42-year-old Ammon, and Ryan Payne. The felony charges include conspiracy in trying to stop the federal government from seizing cattle grazing on public land, carrying and using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence and threatening a federal officer.
Control over land in the West has been a contentious issue, particularly in Nevada, where 85% of the state is controlled by the federal government.
The Bundys also draw support from Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, which are also largely controlled by the federal government and feature outspoken political leaders who regularly push legislation in support of turning over the land to the states.
The trial — and those that have preceded it — has become evidence to Bundy supporters of the federal government’s abuse of power.
Outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas on Monday, a small group stood on the sidewalk with signs supporting their cause. A few watched inside the courtroom taking notes to broadcast on internet radio stations and deliver updates on social media.
They watched as the defendants, dressed in orange jail jumpsuits, took notes during the jury selection, and whispered praise for Ryan Bundy, who is defending himself in the trial.
The older son earned a small victory when he persuaded the judge to let him ask potential jurors questions while not wearing shackles — arguing it would be prejudicial.
But Bundy was also admonished for delivering a speech about his treatment in jail instead of asking a question.
“Does my incarceration make you believe I’m guilty?” he finally asked.
None of the jurors responded affirmatively. Then he told them a story about how as a child he was involved in a car accident that caused partial paralysis in his face — causing some to misread his expressions.
He asked the potential jurors if they could be impartial about that. None said they couldn’t.
“Thank you for that,” he said.
Jury trial is expected to last throughout the week, and opening statements could begin as early as next Monday.
Federal prosecutors do not have a good track record on cases involving the Bundys.
In 2016, Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy were acquitted on charges that they prevented federal workers from accessing land at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during a 41-day standoff earlier that year.
And in two trials this year, federal prosecutors failed on most attempts to obtain convictions of Bundy supporters who joined the Bunkerville standoff.