President Donald Trump has pardoned two Oregon cattle ranchers whose criminal prosecution and imprisonment by the federal government sparked the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in 2016.
The pardons, issued on Tuesday, erase the felony convictions of Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were tried and found guilty in 2012 of intentionally setting fires on public lands, according to the Associated Press. The Hammonds, father and son, had been serving five-year federal prison sentences and will be immediately released.
“The Hammonds are multi-generation cattle ranchers in Oregon imprisoned in connection with a fire that leaked onto a small portion of neighboring public grazing land. The evidence at trial regarding the Hammonds’ responsibility for the fire was conflicting, and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.
According to court records, the Hammonds are cattle ranchers in a rural Oregon county where cattle outnumber people 14-to-1. About three-quarters of the county’s land is owned or managed by various federal agencies. Conflicts between cattle ranchers and federal officials have a long history that stretches back generations.
In 1999, 2001 and again in 2006 the Hammonds set fire to their land as part of an effort to protect it from wildfires, they said, an accepted fire-control practice known as controlled burns. But the fires escaped onto public lands, where permits are required for burns -- permits the Hammonds had not obtained.
In 2012, the federal government prosecuted the Hammonds for the 2001 and 2006 burns and they were acquitted of some charges but convicted of federal arson charges. The crime carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, but the judge presiding over the case said: “I am not going to apply the mandatory minimum and because, to me, to do so under the Eighth Amendment would result in a sentence which is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.”
The court sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison, and Steven Hammond to a year and a day -- which they completely served.
But the government appealed the judge’s sentencing decision, and convinced a federal appeals court to vacate the sentences and remand for the imposition of full five-year minimum sentences required by federal sentencing guidelines, enacted as part of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
When the Hammonds were sentenced in October 2015, and sent back to federal prison, they instantly became a cause celebre among anti-government, right-wing activists, who thought the Hammonds’ resentencing to five-year terms was an unjust overreach of federal power, according to the New York Times.
To call attention to the federal government's treatment of the Hammonds, Cliven D. Bundy and his brother Ammon inspired dozens of people to occupy the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near the Hammond ranch from Jan. 2 to Feb. 11, 2016. Many of the occupiers were members of self-styled militias who carried firearms.
Bundy was arrested during a Jan. 26 traffic stop and Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, another key occupation organizer, was fatally shot by Oregon State Police after authorities say he reached for his gun during an encounter with police. Several other arrests followed, and on Feb. 11 the occupation ended when the last four militants surrendered to police, according to the Oregonian.
The Bundys and four other occupiers were acquitted of federal charges in connection with the occupation, while several others pleaded guilty and received relatively light sentences, the Oregonian reports. Only three people received prison sentences longer than one year.
The Hammonds are the sixth and seventh people to be pardoned by President Trump. In all his pardons, Trump bypassed the traditional process for granting pardons by not involving the Justice Department, which has customarily been used by presidents to vet pardon applications, according to the New York Times. In doing so, Trump has passed over the more than 10,000 pending pardon and clemency applications, the Times says.
Before the Hammonds, President Trump pardoned Alice Johnson, a woman serving a life sentence for drug offenses whose case had been championed by Kim Kardashian West, the reality television star. He was especially pleased with the news coverage that pardon produced, the Associated Press reports, repeatedly referencing the emotional video of her being released from prison and running into her family’s arms.
Trump says he’s considering pardoning thousands more people, famous and not, according to the Associated Press.
[Photo: U.S. Dep't of Justice]