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How Did The Bundys Beat The Feds?

(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

In this Dec. 20, 2017, file photo from left, Ammon Bundy, Ryan Payne, Jeanette Finicum, widow of Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, Ryan Bundy, Angela Bundy, wife of Ryan Bundy and Jamie Bundy, daughter of Ryan Bundy, walk out of a federal courthouse in Las Vegas.

Many people are wondering about the nation's federal courts today.

A judge dismissed charges against Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and Ryan Payne, a Montana resident, Monday, in what seemed to many to be an easy case for prosecutors to win.

In 2014, agents from the Bureau of Land Management moved onto the Bundy property, some 85 miles north of Las Vegas, to seize cattle.

Bundy has for years allowed his cattle to graze on federal land, but the government said he owed grazing fees and fines totally about $1 million.

This led to a standoff between agents and the Bundys, and several people from around the country who drove with their guns to the ranch in defense of the Bundys.

Cliven Bundy was initially indicted for 16 felonies, along with sons, Ammon and Ryan, and militia leader Ryan Payne.

On Monday, a federal judge said the defendants' right to due process was violated because prosecutors withheld evidence from defense attorneys.

Attorney Brenda Weksler is a federal public defender who represented Ryan Payne. She explained that it was two key pieces of evidence that caused the problem.

First, there was the threat assessment of the family, which was done by the BLM and the FBI in 2012. Weksler said that assessment found the Bundys were "a moderate threat" to federal officials. 

That assessment was not turned over to the defense even though defense attorneys had specifically asked for it.

The second problem was evidence that there were armed FBI and BLM agents around the Bundy Ranch in the days leading up to the standoff. Weksler said the prosecution had accused Payne of making false statements about those armed agents. 

The government maintained they were 'not designated as snipers' but Weksler pointed out that while they might not have been trained as military snipers the people at the Bundy Ranch considered them to be snipers, which lead them to believe their lives were in danger.

She said the judge's decision was really about who gets to decide what evidence is given to the defense.

"What the judge said very clearly is that they don't get to decide whether the defense gets in the first place," Weksler said, "You need to turn it over and you can argue about its admissibility in court."

Weksler said the defense received the withheld materials in the second or third week of the trial, which meant they couldn't bring it up in their opening statements or question witnesses about it.

While supporters of the Bundy family are celebrating the judge's decision, those who disagreed the Bundys are outraged that government lawyers couldn't get a conviction in the case. 

Some, including the Center For Western Priorities, have said the Bundys got off on a technicality.

Ryan Norwood was also on Payne's defense team. He pushed back at the idea that the dismissal was based on a technicality.

"The Constitution is not a technicality and a fair trial is not a technicality," Norwood said, "What the judge recognized in her ruling was that the prosecutions' actions had denied the defendants the fair trial that they were entitled to."

Norwood also dismissed the idea that the dismissal of the case will embolden groups opposed to federal land policy. He said he doesn't believe it will have an impact on larger disputes.

"What's important here is that is that justice was done for these defendants," he said, "It would have been wrong for the defendants to be convicted given what the prosecutors had done." 

The defense attorney said the case has "destroyed lives" and after two years in jail, the defendants are having to rebuild everything.

Brenda Weksler, federal public defender

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.