April 13, 2017 / 12:56 AM / 9 months ago

Nevada case that pitted U.S. against ranchers wrapping up in closing arguments

LAS VEGAS, April 12 (Reuters) - Six followers of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy used “armed force, threats and intimidation” against federal law enforcement officers during a tense 2014 standoff, prosecutors said, wrapping up their conspiracy case against the men on Wednesday.

The six defendants are the first of 17 people to go on trial on charges related to the standoff at Bundy’s property near Bunkerville, 75 miles (120 km) northeast of Las Vegas in a case that has come to symbolize tensions in the U.S. West over the federal ownership of land that ranchers use to graze cattle.

Bundy and two of his sons are defendants in the second of three scheduled federal trials later this year.

The men, who prosecutors have said were associated with or had been in contact with militia groups, were among hundreds who traveled to the ranch to stand up for Bundy, whose refusal to pay $1 million in grazing fees for running his cattle on federal land became a cause celebre on the political right.

“They thought they were going to die out there for simply carrying out their duties,” Assistant United States Attorney Nicholas Dickinson said of the outgunned Bureau of Land Management rangers and National Park Service officers who were assigned to provide security for a court-ordered roundup of Bundy’s cattle.

In closing arguments, he described the tension in the days leading up to the April 12 standoff, including communication between Bundy family members and armed militia groups.

Lawyers for the defendants said in their closing arguments that the men did not pose a threat but were simply backing Bundy in a dispute over the government’s land-use policy.

“Some people protest with signs. Other people protest with guns,” said Jess Marchese, who represents defendant Eric Parker.

The men are all charged with conspiracy against the government, conspiracy to impede a federal officer, assault, threatening, obstruction of justice, extortion, interstate travel in aid of extortion, and using a firearm during a crime of violence.

The eight-week trial in U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro’s courtroom made use of voluminous audio, video and still photography that captured the drama, which ended peacefully.

Throughout the trial of Gregory Burleson, O. Scott Drexler, Todd Engel, Ricky Lovelien, Parker and Steven Stewart, defense attorneys described their clients as patriotic citizens who learned from social media and the internet of federal efforts to remove Bundy’s cattle from federal public lands.

Closing arguments for the defense were due to continue on Thursday. (Reporting by John L. Smith in Las Vegas; Editing by Sharon Bernstein, Toni Reinhold)

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