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John L. Smith: Defense Is Scoring Points At Bundy Ranch Trial

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David Becker/Getty Images

Supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy camp near his ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., in April 2014. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a decades-long dispute after Bundy stopped paying grazing fees, which led to an armed standoff against the U.S. government in 2014.

John L. Smith has been camping out at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, covering the first of three trials related to a tense 2014 standoff between Bunkerville Rancher Cliven Bundy and Bureau of Land Management officers.

This week, John L. says, belonged to the defense.

They kept bringing up the name of Daniel Love, who was in charge of the operations at the 2014 standoff at the Bundy Ranch. Love is now embroiled in a controversy surrounding Burning Man. And the defense is trying to use that to discredit not just Love, but his entire operation.

"Clearly, the defense is trying to break down the question of professionalism by the BLM. How did they organize? How professional were they? How experienced are they? Were they intimidated when other law enforcement was not intimidated? Those kinds of things would be the things that tend to raise reasonable doubt issues with jurors. So, to have a guy who is either incompetent or unethical or both be the central figure for the BLM, you would see that that would be their theory to try to forward and pursued a jury," he said, "The problem is: Love is not trial. He's not in the courtroom but his name continues to come up."

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Then there is the testimony of BLM agent Logan Briscoe. He testified that he was afraid, but in fact he was 300 yards away from the protesters, and said under cross examination that he never saw a gun pointed at him. Briscoe also took a cell phone picture of the scene - a point that the defense says is unprofessional. This was all captured with body cameras.

"In my time as an observer in the courtroom, he appeared to be candid but I don't think he helped the prosecution very much," Smith said.

BLM agent Mark Brunk was closer to the action, and John L. says his testimony played better. He did see guns pointed at him and other officers.

Body cameras also captured the chaos of the scene, with quite a few protesters yelling at the BLM rangers. The prosecution says this contributed to an atmosphere of fear.

Prosecutors played video of Pete Santilli, who seemed to be riling up the crowds. Santilli is on trial later in the year for being one of the leaders of the protest.

"I covered the standoff in its early weeks," Smith said, "And Santilli was quite a character. He was extremely aggressive. He didn't seem to be terribly experienced, but he was a radio journalist supposedly. He was basically a talk show host, a really right-wing, firebrand talk show host. Who was as likely to get into the face of other journalists as he was to ask a question of Cliven Bundy."

The defense may start its portion of the trial next week.

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John L. Smith, contributor 

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