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Mistrial declared for Bundy family in Nevada land standoff with feds

A U.S. judge has declared a mistrial in the Nevada case against a states' rights figure, his two sons and another man accused of leading a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents during a cattle grazing dispute.

Sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy, also on trial, were spared convictions in similar standoff in Oregon

Ryan Bundy, eldest son of Nevada rancher and states' rights figure Cliven Bundy, talks to a reporter on Nov. 30 outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Las Vegas. (Ken Ritter/Associated Press)

A U.S. judge declared a mistrial Wednesday in the Nevada case against a states' rights figure, his two sons and another man accused of leading a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents during a cattle grazing dispute.

Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro in Las Vegas dismissed a jury seated last month for the long-awaited trial of Cliven Bundy, his sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and self-styled Montana militia leader Ryan Payne.

It is the latest in a string of failed prosecutions in Nevada and Oregon against those who have opposed federal control of vast swaths of land in the American West.

Jurors acquitted the two Bundy sons of taking over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon for more than a month in early 2016 and amid calls for the U.S. government to turn over public land to local control.

In the Nevada case, Navarro faulted federal prosecutors for failing to turn over all evidence to defence attorneys, including records about the conduct of FBI and Bureau of Land Management agents during the standoff.

"The government is obligated to disclose all evidence that might be favourable" to the defence, the judge said.

Clockwise from top right: Ammon Bundy, Ryan Payne, Ryan Bundy and Cliven Bundy, who were all charged following the standoff. (Multnomah County, Ore., Sheriff''s office via AP)

The case stemmed from an armed confrontation that capped a decades-long dispute over Cliven Bundy's refusal to pay grazing fees. The 71-year-old rancher says his family has grazed cattle for more than a century in the area and insists public land belongs to states, not the U.S. government.

Government agents began rounding up his cattle. The four on trial were accused of enlisting armed gunmen to force government agents to abandon the effort.

"A mistrial is a very bad result for the government," said Ian Bartrum, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, law professor who has followed the case closely.

Bartrum had cast the trial as a test of whether the federal government could enforce its own land policy in Western states where it owns or controls vast expanses.

"It looks even worse because it isn't the sort of jury nullification we've seen before, but actual incompetence [or worse]by the prosecution," Bartrum said in an email. "It certainly erodes a lot of confidence in the federal government's motives."

Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre had no immediate answer about whether prosecutors would retry the case. If so, the Bundys and Payne still would face 15 felony charges including assault and threats against federal officers, firearms counts, obstruction and extortion.

Deadly Oregon conflict followed

Payne had pleaded guilty in July 2016 to a felony conspiracy charge before trial in the armed takeover of the Oregon wildlife refuge. He's now fighting to withdraw his plea and his expected sentence of more than three years in prison.

The Bunkerville standoff was a precursor to an early 2016 protest in rural eastern Oregon, where Ryan and Ammon Bundy and Payne led a 41-day takeover of a federal wildlife refuge and called for the U.S. government to turn over public land to local control.

LaVoy Finicum, Bundy sympathizer and leader of an armed anti-government group, died near the end of the takeover after a confrontation with law enforcement officers on an Oregon road.

The Nevada standoff led to charges for other men in a separate case. A federal jury in Las Vegas refused to convict the defendants in August after they were retried on accusations that they threatened and assaulted federal agents by wielding assault weapons near Cliven Bundy's ranch.

Assault-style weapons

The jury acquitted Ricky Lovelien and Steven Stewart of all 10 charges, and delivered not-guilty findings on most charges against Scott Drexler and Eric Parker.

All four men were photographed carrying assault-style weapons. Jurors saw images of Parker and Drexler in prone shooting positions looking down their rifles through slots in the concrete barrier of an Interstate 15 freeway overpass toward heavily armed federal agents guarding a corral of cows below.

Defence attorneys noted that no shots were fired and no one was injured. They cast the tense standoff as an ultimately peaceful protest involving people upset about aggressive tactics used by federal land managers against Bundy family members.

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