If you plan to commit crime against the U.S. government, consider changing your name to Bundy. It’s practically a get-out-of-jail-free card that the Department of Justice needs to figure out.
The patriarch of the Bundy family, rancher Cliven Bundy, illegally ran his cattle on federal land in Nevada for more than 20 years. He racked up than $1 million in grazing fees and fines that he didn’t pay. When federal officials showed up to impound hundreds of his cattle in 2014, he and his family put out the call to militia activists nationwide. In the armed standoff that followed, the feds backed down and left without arresting anyone but also without igniting a shootout.
Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan followed up by leading the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for nearly six weeks in 2016. During the occupation, they and their followers damaged and destroyed federal property.
Only someone blinded by pathological disdain for the federal government could dismiss the criminal acts in both incidents. America is a nation of laws, and those laws frown on stealing public resources, threatening federal officials for conducting lawful enforcement and seizing public facilities at gunpoint.
The Bundys left behind abundant video and digital communications documenting their moves. Prosecutors could not have asked for more. These should have been slam-dunk convictions.
Yet prosecutors blew it – multiple times. First, in Oregon, juries acquitted the Bundy brothers and most of their fellow occupiers.
Then in Nevada this month, a judge declared a mistrial in the standoff case because prosecutors concealed evidence from the defendants. Cliven and his sons are free pending a hearing in January not likely to go well for the government.
In the Oregon case, legal analysts have pointed to the charges that prosecutors chose. Simpler cases based on more direct charges might have led to convictions that put dangerous people behind bars.
In Nevada, the mistakes were egregious and nefarious. Withholding evidence is a cardinal sin for prosecutors, and the judge in the case issued an appropriately stern condemnation.
These cases demanded the highest level of prosecutorial integrity and skill. The defendants and their supporters share deep distrust of government. Prosecutors only confirmed their suspicions in Oregon with failure and in Nevada by breaking the rules against people who feel oppressed.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered an investigation into what went wrong with the discovery process in Nevada, but the investigation needs to be more comprehensive. Start with a look at the prosecutors. Nevada’s was an interim U.S. attorney because President Donald Trump and the Senate have not yet put a new permanent one in place. Trump has nominated Oregon’s to keep his job despite the blunders.
These sorts of politically-charged, media-intense cases must end successfully. When they do not, the message to bad actors is that armed insurrection has no consequences.
America was lucky that the Bundy incidents ended with minimal bloodshed. Eventually that luck will run out, though, if anti-government ideologues continue to push their agenda with weapons and without fear of punishment.