Federal judge Gloria Navarro slammed the FBI and Justice Department on Monday, Jan. 8, for “outrageous” abuses and “flagrant misconduct” in the prosecution of Cliven Bundy and sons, the Nevada ranchers who spurred a high-profile standoff with the FBI and Bureau of Land Management in 2014.
Navarro condemned the "grossly shocking” withholding of evidence from defense counsel in a case that could have landed the Bundys in prison for the rest of their lives. Navarro, who had declared a mistrial last month, dismissed all charges against the Bundys.
Navarro was especially riled because the FBI spent three years covering up or lying about the role of their snipers in the 2014 standoff. The Bundys faced conspiracy charges because they summoned militia to defend them after claiming FBI snipers had surrounded their ranch. Justice Department lawyers scoffed at this claim but newly-released documents vindicate the Bundys. In an interview Saturday, Ammon Bundy reviled the feds:
“They basically came to kill our family, they surrounded us with snipers. And then they wanted to lie about it all like none of it happened."
Many of the heavily-armed activists who flocked to the scene feared that the FBI snipers had a license to kill the Bundys.
Their reaction cannot be understood without considering a landmark 1990s case that continues to shape millions of Americans’ attitude towards Washington: the federal killings and coverups at Ruby Ridge.
Randy Weaver and his family lived in an isolated cabin in the mountains of northern Idaho. Weaver was a white separatist who believed races should live apart; he had no record of violence against other races — or anyone else. An undercover federal agent entrapped him into selling a sawed-off shotgun. The feds then sought to pressure Weaver to become an informant but he refused.
“Marshals called in military aerial reconnaissance and had photos studied by the Defense Mapping Agency. They prowled the woods around Weaver’s cabin with night-vision equipment. They had psychological profiles performed and installed $130,000 worth of long-range solar-powered spy cameras. … They even knew the menstrual cycle of Weaver’s teenage daughter, and planned an arrest scenario around it.”
On August 21, 1992, six camouflaged U.S. Marshals carrying machine guns trespassed onto the Weavers’ property. Three marshals circled close to the Weaver cabin and killed one of their dogs. A firefight ensued and 14-year old Sammy Weaver was shot in the back and killed as he was leaving the scene. Kevin Harris, a family friend, responded by fatally shooting a federal marshal who had fired seven shots in the melee.
The next day, the FBI sent in its Hostage Rescue Team snipers with orders to shoot to kill any adult male outside the Weaver cabin. A federal appeals court ruling later noted that:
“FBI agents formulated rules of engagement that permitted their colleagues to hide in the bushes and gun down men who posed no immediate threat. Such wartime rules are patently unconstitutional for a police action.”
FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi shot Randy Weaver in the back after he stepped out of his cabin, wounding him. Horiuchi then shot and killed Vicki Weaver standing in the cabin door holding their 10-month old baby. A confidential 1994 Justice Department task force report concluded:
“The absence of a (surrender demand) subjected the Government to charges that it was setting Weaver up for attack.”
Weaver and Harris surrendered after an 11-day siege. At their 1993 trial, federal prosecutors asserted that Weaver long conspired to have an armed confrontation with the government. The feds bizarrely asserted that moving from Iowa to a spot near the Canadian border in 1985 was part of Weaver’s plot. After an Idaho jury largely exonerated the defendants, federal judge Edward Lodge slammed DOJ and FBI misconduct and fabrication of evidence in the case.
Regardless of the judge’s condemnation, FBI chief Louis Freeh in 1995 exonerated the FBI for its actions at Ruby Ridge. That year, after I slammed Freeh’s whitewash in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, Freeh denounced my “inflammatory and unfounded allegations.” Five months later, I snared a confidential 542-page Justice Department report on Ruby Ridge, excerpting its damning findings in a Wall Street Journal piece. The coverup unraveled and the feds paid the Weaver family $3.1 million to settle their wrongful-death lawsuit. A top FBI official was sent to prison for destroying key evidence.
But the FBI sniper who killed Vicki Weaver never faced justice. When Boundary County, Idaho, sought to prosecute Horiuchi in 1998, the Clinton administration invoked the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution (which blocks local and state governments from challenging federal power) to torpedo their lawsuit. Solicitor General Seth Waxman absolved the sniper because “federal law-enforcement officials are privileged to do what would otherwise be unlawful if done by a private citizen.”
While that claim may sway federal judges, it often fails to charm jurors. A Justice Department brief in the Bundy case revealed that prosecutors dreaded jury nullification — “not guilty” verdicts due to government abuses. That specter spurred prosecutors to withhold key evidence from both the court and the defense counsel, resulting in a mistrial and dismissal of charges.
Judge Navarro rightly declared that “a universal sense of justice has been violated” by federal misconduct in the Bundy trial. Americans’ trust in the FBI and Justice Department will not be restored until those agencies are compelled to obey the law and the Constitution. Until that happens, federal prosecutors should continue fearing verdicts from Americans who refuse to convict those whom the feds wrongfully vilify.
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