A federal jury in Las Vegas refused Tuesday to convict four defendants who were retried on accusations that they threatened and assaulted federal agents by wielding assault weapons in a 2014 confrontation to stop a cattle roundup near the Nevada ranch of states' rights figure Cliven Bundy.
In a stunning setback to federal prosecutors planning to try the Bundy family patriarch and two adult sons later this year, 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.
More than 30 defendants' supporters in the courtroom broke into applause after Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ordered Lovelien and Stewart freed immediately and set Wednesday morning hearings to decide if Parker and Drexler should remain jailed pending a government decision whether to seek a third trial.
"Random people off the streets, these jurors, they told the government again that we're not going to put up with tyranny," said a John Lamb, a Montana resident who attended almost all the five weeks of trial, which began with jury selection July 10.
"They've been tried twice and found not guilty," Bundy family matriarch Carol Bundy said outside court. "We the people are not guilty."
A first trial earlier this year lasted two months and ended in April with a different jury finding two defendants — Gregory Burleson of Phoenix and Todd Engel of Idaho — guilty of some charges but failing to reach verdicts against Drexler, Parker, Lovelien and Stewart.
Prosecutors characterized the six as the least culpable of 19 co-defendants arrested in early 2016 and charged in the case, including Bundy family members. With the release of Lovelien and Stewart, 17 are still in federal custody.
The current jury deliberated four full days after more than 20 days of testimony. The six men and six women returned no verdicts on four charges against Parker — assault on a federal officer, threatening a federal officer and two related counts of use of a firearm — and also hung on charges of assault on a federal officer and brandishing a firearm against Drexler. Navarro declared a mistrial on those counts.
None of the defendants was found guilty of a key conspiracy charge alleging that they plotted with Bundy family members to form a self-styled militia and prevent the lawful enforcement of multiple court orders to remove Bundy cattle from arid desert rangeland in what is now the Gold Butte National Monument.
Bundy stopped paying grazing fees decades ago, saying he refused to recognize federal authority over public land where he said his family grazed cattle since the early 1900s. The dispute has roots a nearly half-century fight over public lands in Nevada and the West, where the federal government controls vast expanses of land.
Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre declined immediate comment on the verdicts. He said he'd make a determination later whether to seek a third trial for Parker and Drexler.
Stewart became emotional and reached for tissues as the jury findings were read. He and Lovelien were later taken with their lawyers, Richard Tanasi and Shawn Perez, to be processed by U.S. marshals for release.
Stewart, 38, lives in Hailey, Idaho. Lovelien, 54, is from Westville, Oklahoma, but he led a militia group called Montana State Defense Force.
All four men were photographed carrying assault-style weapons during the standoff near the Nevada town of Bunkerville, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Each had faced the possibility of decades in federal prison if they were convicted.
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.
Defense attorneys noted that no shots were fired and no one was injured. They cast the tense standoff with more than 100 men, women and children in the potential crossfire as an ultimately peaceful protest involving people upset about aggressive tactics used by federal land managers against Bundy family members.
Drexler, 46, is from Challis, Idaho, and Parker, 34, is from Hailey, Idaho.
Parker's attorney, Jess Marchese, said he hoped Myhre will dismiss the two charges remaining against his client.
Drexler's attorney, Todd Leventhal, referred to defense teams' complaints that Navarro set such strict rules of evidence that defendants weren't able to tell why they traveled to the Bundy ranch.
The judge rejected testimony from five prospective defense witnesses, and Drexler and Parker were the only defendants to testify in their defense. However, the judge struck Parker's testimony for what she said was a deliberate failure to keep his testimony within her rules.
All four defense attorneys declined Aug. 15 to make closing arguments, a gesture of standing mute that Leventhal said may have had an effect on the jury.
"As much as we were shut down from bringing anything up, the jury saw through it," he said.