President Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned two cattle ranchers convicted of arson in a case that sparked the 2016 armed occupation of an Oregon national wildlife refuge, The Associated Press reported.
Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted in 2012 of intentionally and maliciously setting fires on public lands, the AP said, adding that the crime carried a minimum five-year prison sentence. But the outlet said “a sympathetic federal judge, on his last day before retirement, decided the penalty was too stiff and gave the father and son much lighter prison terms.”
But after prosecutors won an appeal, the Hammonds were resentenced to serve the mandatory minimum, the AP said, which sparked a protest from Ammon Bundy and many others — as well as an occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near the Hammond ranch in southeastern Oregon from Jan. 2 to Feb. 11, 2016.
“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,” the White House said in a statement. “Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.”
The White House’s statement added that the “previous administration … filed an overzealous appeal that resulted in the Hammonds being sentenced to five years in prison. This was unjust.”
Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son Steven Hammond, 49, were convicted of setting a fire in 2001, and Steven Hammond was convicted of setting a second fire in 2006, OregonLive reported, adding that the incidents occurred on Harney County land where they had grazing rights for their cattle.
The father and son served time and were out of prison when prosecutors challenged the shorter terms and won, OregonLive said, adding that another federal judge in 2015 sent the ranchers back to complete the full sentences.
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Dwight Hammond set a prescribed burn on about 300 acres of his own land that then traveled onto Bureau of Land Management property and burned an additional 139 acres, his lawyer wrote. The elder Hammond said he was trying to fend off invasive species.
Prosecutors argued the fire also was to cover up illegal deer poaching and got out of control, placing firefighters who had to be airlifted out of the area in grave danger.
The federal pursuit of the Hammonds followed years of permit violations and unauthorized fires, and they never accepted responsibility, said Oregon’s former U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall. Her office appealed the lighter sentences because she said the trial judge didn’t have discretion to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence. The Hammonds could have faced less than a year in prison under a plea offer they declined, she said.
Prior to the standoff’s conclusion, LaVoy Finicum — one of the wildlife refuge occupiers — was fatally shot by law enforcement. The incident that was captured on video. FBI agents were under investigation in connection with the shooting, and a related trial is underway. The leaders of the refuge takeover were acquitted in October 2016.