The Bundy verdict, the government, and American justice

Perhaps it is not too much to say there is no other event in America today more polarizing than the standoff at Bunkerville.  Liberty-minded folks who wish to dial back the reach and power of the federal government see Bunkerville as a touchstone.  Others, however, see the case of the United States v. Cliven Bundy et al. as a bunch of vigilantes and a law-breaking cowboy out make their own rules and ignore those the rest must follow.

Yesterday, a jury in the first of several trials reached a partial verdict regarding six men who joined Mr. Bundy in his fight against the federal authorities in the 2014 standoff.  Each defendant faced ten charges, including obstruction, extortion, weapon violations, threatening and assaulting a federal officer, and conspiracy.

Prosecuted in this case were Eric Parker, Scott Drexler, Todd Engel, and Steven Stewart, who are all from Idaho, while Richard Lovelein hails from Oklahoma.  Greg Burleson, a defendant who was also named during the trial as a longtime government informant, is from Phoenix, Arizona.

Amid a heavy media and law enforcement presence outside the courtroom, the following verdicts were made public, according to reporter Jenny Wilson of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Gregory Burleson, former FBI informant, is guilty of eight counts – but not of the conspiracy charge.  Todd Engel was found guilty on two charges, obstruction of justice and interstate travel to aid extortion, and the jury is hung on the rest.  Federal judge Gloria Navarro has reportedly sent the jury back to deliberate further on the other counts.

At its core, this story is about land rights, ownership, and power.  It is a long, complicated, and winding tale that began back in 1989 over a desert tortoise.  Designated as an "endangered species," the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated "hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land" for conservation, as reported by The Washington Post.

This did not sit well with Cliven Bundy, whose family homesteaded his ranch back in 1877 and called the move a government land grab.  As well, others were upset and felt the heavy hand of the federal government on their backs.  But it was Mr. Bundy who ultimately became the unmovable object that ignited a militia of freedom fighters out to stop the U.S. government.

Artist Micah McGuire* illustration used by permission

Thus, the existential question "What happens when an unstoppable object collides with an immovable object?" became a reality as an armed citizen resistance met up with armed federal officials in April of 2014, and the standoff at Bunkerville ensued.  Observers of the event say it was nothing short of astonishing that no one was killed.

Though the standoff ended without fatalities, the legal battle had just begun.  The U.S. government wields an enormous amount of power that is nothing with which to be trifled.  Weapons may have been put down, but sides were drawn up, with the first of several controversial court cases coming to an end yesterday.

Freedom fighters who stand with Mr. Bundy are labeled fringe conspiracy theorists the likes of which critics say hearken back to places like Ruby Ridge and Waco.  On the other side stand federal officials armed with the law and the sheer force and power of the U.S. government.  Some see it as the classic David versus Goliath.  Others see this as a case of a vigilante trying to get his way.

The complexity of the case came to a head in a Las Vegas courtroom, where witnesses to the proceedings cried foul, citing prosecutorial and judicial misconduct.  One courtroom observer was removed from the proceedings crying, "Treason, treason!"  Indeed, there do seem to be legitimate concerns of just how the trial was conducted and if lawyers for the accused were truly able to mount a reasonable defense on behalf of the six men involved in this first Bundy trial.

Author Kit Perez recently captured the spirit of the debate when she wrote:

The real story here isn't about grazing fees, taxes, ranches, or anything else. At this point, the story is that a vengeful federal government – forced to back down from their illegal, unconstitutional and immoral activities – decided to seek vengeance in a courtroom against the people who had the guts to stand and say no.  If that's not a government out of control, what is?

Increasingly, many across this country view the authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty of the government as oppressive.  They do not plan to suffer it or surrender what they believe to be their God-given rights.  Their defiance will continue to develop into confrontation.  Their struggle and resistance will persist unabated.  Today's verdict will do nothing to stop it and may indeed do much to propel it forward.

If this does amount to a metaphorical David and Goliath story, it seems Goliath has won the first battle.  But the question remains: who will win the next campaign in a war that is not likely to end anytime soon?

Leesa K. Donner is editorial director of

*McGuire is an upcoming defendant in the Bundy Trial

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