The Oregon ranchers whose conviction for arson became the catalyst for 40 days of protests at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 were pardoned by Donald Trump today.
Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son Steven Hammond, 49 were convicted in 2012 of setting a fire on their own property that then spread to federal land. The Hammonds disavowed the protesters at the wildlife refuge where Robert LaVoy Finicum, one of the occupiers, was slain by federal authorities.
In a statement Tuesday announcing the pardon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized uncertainties in the case and the prison terms and fines the Hammonds had already paid.
“The evidence at trial regarding the Hammonds’ responsibility for the fire was conflicting, and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges,” the White House said. “The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West. Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.”
Both men are currently in prison on five-year sentences, thanks in part to a 1996 antiterrorism law that imposed a mandatory minimum sentence on certain crimes on federal land. The length of their prison terms, in part, fueled outrage at their convictions.
Federal Judge Michael Robert Hogan originally gave the Hammonds reduced sentences in 2012, arguing that the mandatory minimums were unjust. But the Obama administration appealed, and federal Judge Ann Aiken in 2015 imposed the full five-year sentences.
“This was unjust,” Sanders said in her statement. Dwight Hammond has served about three years of his sentence and Steven Hammond has served about four of his. Trump’s pardon will set them free.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who represents the area that includes the Hammonds’ ranch, cheered Trump’s pardon as a win against federal overreach.
This episode was typical of the Obama administration's insensitivity to the concerns of citizens who believe the Bureau of Land Management constantly oversteps its authority and is hostile to their communities.
Five years for a fire that was accidentally set on private property and that accidentally spread to federal land? True, the Hammonds did not get a burn permit to set the fires, but five years in jail for a misdemeanor?
There's much more to this story, including threats against federal authorities made by the Hammonds throughout the 1990s. But three years in jail for this crime was plenty long and Trump was right to grant them executive clemency.