Las Vegas • A federal jury in Las Vegas refused Tuesday to convict four accused gunman in a 2014 standoff with federal authorities near the Nevada ranch of states’ rights figure Cliven Bundy.
In a verdict that delivered a stunning setback to federal prosecutors, the jury acquitted Ricky Lovelien and Steven Stewart of all 10 charges against them.
Defendants Scott Drexler and Eric Parker were found not guilty of most charges against them. The jury did not reach verdicts on four charges against Parker and two charges against Drexler.
The results stunned a courtroom full of the defendants’ supporters, many of whom broke into applause after Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ordered Lovelien and Stewart freed immediately.
The judge set a hearing Wednesday to decide whether to free Parker and Drexler pending a decision by prosecutors whether to try them for a third time.
Prosecutors said the men conspired with Bundy family members and wielded weapons to threaten the lives of federal agents enforcing lawful court orders to remove Bundy cattle from public land after he failed to pay grazing fees.
Each man standing trial in Las Vegas faced 10 charges including conspiracy, interstate travel in aid of extortion, weapon possession and assault and threatening a federal officer.
Combined, the counts carried the possibility of more than 100 years in federal prison.
The four were among 19 men arrested in early 2016, nearly two years after the confrontation near the rural town of Bunkerville, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
All 19 remained in federal custody, despite pleas from family members and attorneys for the release of those who have not been brought to trial. Bundy’s attorney, Bret Whipple, notes that his client is now 71.
Bundy stopped paying grazing fees decades ago, saying he refused to recognize federal authority over public land where he said his family grazed cattle since before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was created.
The dispute has roots a nearly half-century fight over public lands in Nevada and the West, where the federal government controls vast expanses of land.
Calls for action have grown louder and more frequent in recent years with internet bloggers protesting federal agency decisions to designate protected areas for endangered species and set aside tracts for mining, wind farms and natural gas exploration.
Prosecutors characterize the standoff as an armed uprising by self-styled militia members who answered a Bundy family call to take up arms to prevent the lawful enforcement of multiple court orders to remove Bundy cattle from what is now the Gold Butte National Monument.
Defense attorneys cast the tense standoff as an ultimately peaceful protest involving people upset about aggressive tactics used by federal land managers and contract cowboys.
They point to skirmishes days earlier involving armed federal agents using dogs and stun guns against Bundy family members; the closure of a vast range half the size of the state of Delaware to collect Bundy’s cattle; and corrals set up as protest “First Amendment zone” protest areas for people.
A first trial earlier this year involved men who carried guns, but who prosecutors characterized as the least culpable of the co-defendants. It lasted two months and ended in April with a jury unable to reach verdicts for the four men, while finding two other defendants guilty of some charges.