LAS VEGAS -- Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons repeatedly violated court orders to remove their cattle from public lands while inciting and escalating an armed standoff with government agents near their Bunkerville ranch more than three years ago, federal prosecutors told a Las Vegas jury Tuesday.
Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre laid out the government's case against Bundy and his two sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, along with cohort Ryan Payne, during an opening statement that lasted about two hours. Defense lawyers were expected to counter with their opening remarks later Tuesday.
Myhre told jurors that the case wasn't about free speech, legitimate protest or even gun rights. Instead, he said, jurors needed to weigh whether the nation would be better governed by the rule of law or the end of a gun.
The high-profile case is expected to push into 2018 as federal prosecutors aim to prove the Bundy family and militia leader Payne tried to stop the federal government from seizing cattle that were grazing on public land by threatening a federal officer, carrying and using a firearm and engaging in a conspiracy.
Cliven Bundy, 71, has become a revered figure among those who believe the federal government has overstepped its authority in requiring grazing fees for cattle on land controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management and has raised the larger question of federal control of land in the West.
It also marks a showdown for the federal government as it looks to rebound from several high-profile losses in court to the Bundy family.
Myhre methodically took jurors through a timeline leading up to the April 12, 2014, standoff at an overpass along Interstate 15 about 90 miles north of Las Vegas. He said the conflict began in 1993 when Cliven Bundy decided to stop getting permits and paying grazing fees for his cattle that had settled on BLM land.
Bundy, the prosecutor said, had plenty of opportunities to comply with court orders and said that his violation of those lawful demands gave federal authorities the right to remove the cattle.
"Mr. Bundy interfered," Myhre said. "The level of interference escalated."
Using video projectors to show photos of the heightened tensions, Myhre supplied a narrative for jurors with the use of social media posts and a recording of a conservative California radio talk program in which the Bundys claimed to be victims of government tyranny.