Court considers overturning convictions for Recapture Canyon protest ride

DENVER -- A federal appeals court here is deliberating whether to overturn the convictions of a San Juan County commissioner and another man over a 2014 protest ride in Utah's Recapture Canyon.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday over the ride, which resulted in the federal convictions of San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and Monte Wells. Lyman -- who opted to act as his own attorney -- left court frustrated that the three-judge panel declined to let him make arguments (the judges are considering his appeal on his written arguments).

"I wanted to be able to have my own voice in this hearing," he told FOX 13 outside of court. "I'm tired of being denied the right to speak and say what actually occurred."

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman arrives at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman arrives at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Lyman had financial backing from many Utah politicians but opted to act as his own lawyer for his appeal to the 10th Circuit Court. Asked why, Lyman told FOX 13: "Because I know the facts better than the attorneys do."

Hundreds participated in the 2014 ride in Recapture Canyon, which was a protest over federal road closures. The Bureau of Land Management contends that the area was closed off to off-highway vehicles. Lyman and Wells insist it was a legitimate road and they did not trespass, but were prevented from bringing up road claims in Recapture Canyon at their trial.

"It's absurd we're charged with a trespass and you can't ever say, 'No, we didn't trespass,'" Lyman said.

The road issue and a thorny issue surrounding the judge who presided over their trial came up in Thursday's arguments that sometimes were combative, as the panel of judges peppered lawyers for Wells and the government with questions. Wells' attorney, Michelle Mumford, argued that he was a "citizen journalist" who was merely documenting the ride under the First Amendment and not engaging in any conspiracy.

ATV riders in Recapture Canyon as part of a protest over use of public lands in May 2014.

ATV riders in Recapture Canyon as part of a protest over use of public lands in May 2014.

Mumford argued that the judge who oversaw the trial -- U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby -- had a friendship with a lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and it should have led to him being disqualified from the case (Shelby did ultimately recuse himself after defense attorneys brought it up post-trial).

But the judges on the 10th Circuit Court panel pushed back.

"SUWA was not a party in this case," Judge Jerome Holmes said. "It's not entirely clear to me why the judge would recuse himself to begin with."

"The judge saw him sitting there, he was in court," Mumford said.

"As any member of the public could do," Judge Holmes responded.

Judge Harris Hartz questioned if that meant they had to recuse themselves from cases where they had friendships with attorneys who supported a particular cause that might be somewhat-related to a case. Senior Judge Martin Murphy asked why it wasn't pushed more at a trial court level.

Assistant U.S. Attorney for Utah Jared Bennett insisted SUWA had no role in their prosecution. He also argued that Wells opted not to make a claim of access to Recapture Canyon under federal RS2477 roads.

"We made our arguments, we wrote our brief and now it's the 10th circuit's job to decide whether to affirm the unanimous jury verdict against the two defendants," Bennett told FOX 13 outside of court.

Money is put on a table in support of San Juan Co. Commissioner Phil Lyman during a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 24, 2015. (Image by Pete Deluca III, FOX 13 News)

Money is put on a table in support of San Juan Co. Commissioner Phil Lyman during a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 24, 2015. (Image by Pete Deluca III, FOX 13 News)

Lyman and Wells had support in the courtroom as their cases were argued. Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, traveled to Denver to see the arguments. He told FOX 13 it may be tough to get a new trial for the men when the government limited their defense at trial.

"It's just the way the court is," Rep. Noel said. "They have to look at the record and judge on the law. I don't think it got into the record the way it should have."

Meanwhile, Utah has opened a roads claim over Recapture Canyon, which Rep. Noel said he backed.

"We're going to litigate over that road, under this (Trump) administration," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, we're going to make people accountable and hold people accountable as to what's in the record."