A Las Vegas courtroom erupted in drama Thursday when a federal judge ordered a defendant in the Bundy Ranch standoff trial to get off the stand, struck his testimony, dismissed jurors and abruptly left the bench.
Jurors looked stunned as Eric Parker returned to the defense table with his head hung and then buried his face in his hands, according to lawyers in the case.
“He put his head down on the counsel table and appeared to be crying,” defense lawyer Shawn Perez said. “My observation of the jury was they were looking at everybody in the courtroom and going, ‘What just happened?’ ”
Perez, who represents Richard Lovelien of Oklahoma, one of four defendants being retried for their roles in the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff, said everyone in the courtroom — from jurors to lawyers to observers — was stunned into momentary silence.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he told The Arizona Republic in a phone interview Thursday. “It would not surprise me if there is a call for a mistrial.”
Parker, of Idaho, was testifying in his own defense just before 3 p.m., when U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro stopped him from talking and said she was going to strike his words from the record. She then told Parker to step down.
Parker’s lawyer, Jess Marchese of Las Vegas, said he is still trying to wrap his head around what happened, saying he’s never experienced anything remotely similar.
“I looked at some of those jurors and they looked aghast,” Marchese said Thursday. “I looked at one woman (juror), and she looked like she had just seen someone get their head cut off.”
Marchese said Parker was distraught and started crying when he sat down.
Parker was attempting to tell jurors what he saw during the standoff over a barrage of objections from prosecutors, who said he was violating court orders not to talk about what happened in the run-up to the standoff.
Defense lawyers said Navarro called them to the front of the courtroom and told them Parker could testify only about what he saw during specific moments of the standoff.
As soon as Marchese resumed questioning, prosecutors intensified objections, and that’s when lawyers said Navarro halted the testimony and shut down the courtroom for the day.
Lawyers said after Navarro removed Parker from the stand, she asked them if they were prepared to call additional witnesses. Then she ordered the parties to return to court Monday morning and told jurors they could leave.
The judge left the courtroom before jurors filed out.
“We were really trying to be careful not to violate the court order,” Marchese said. “But it was very restrictive and difficult.”
Across from the aisle from the defense, federal prosecutors appeared as troubled by the developments as the defense, Perez said.
Acting Nevada U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, who is leading the prosecution, could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for his office said Thursday the U.S. attorney would not comment on the case.
Parker, Lovelien and Steven Stewart and O. Scott Drexler, both of Idaho, are accused of conspiracy, extortion, assault and obstruction for helping rancher Cliven Bundy fend off a government roundup of his cattle in what became known as the Battle of Bunkerville.
Navarro’s rulings have severely limited defense arguments to avoid what she has described as jury nullification.
Navarro has barred defendants from discussing why they traveled thousands of miles to join protesters at the Bundy Ranch. She will not allow them to testify about perceived abuses by federal authorities during the cattle roundup that might have motivated them to participate.
Navarro also has restricted defendants from raising constitutional arguments, or mounting any defense based on their First Amendment rights to free speech and their Second Amendment rights to bear arms. In her rulings, Navarro has said those are not applicable arguments in the case.