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Trump Pardons Oregon Ranchers Convicted in Brush Fire Case

Steve and Dwight Hammond became a cause célèbre for angry ranchers and another example of inflexible mandatory minimum sentences.

An activists pulls sentry duty at the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve on January 15, 2016 in Burns, Oregon. Ammon Bundy and about 20 other protesters took over the refuge on Jan. 2 after a rally to support the imprisoned local ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond. // Jim Bryant/UPI/NewscomAn activists pulls sentry duty at the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve on January 15, 2016 in Burns, Oregon. Ammon Bundy and about 20 other protesters took over the refuge on Jan. 2 after a rally to support the imprisoned local ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond. // Jim Bryant/UPI/NewscomPresident Donald Trump granted clemency today to two Oregon cattle ranchers whose case became a flashpoint in Western ranchers' bitter dispute with the federal government over land management.

The White House announced it is granting full pardons to Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son, 49-year-old Steven Hammond. The Hammonds were convicted in 2012 of committing arson on federal lands after two intentional brush fires spread from their ranch to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.

"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."

According to the Hammonds, one brush fire was to clear Juniper trees from their property. The other was a "back burn" to protect their winter feed from nearby wildfires. Prosecutors claimed that the first burn was actually done to cover up an illegal deer slaughter. In any case, neither burn had been approved. In the latter fire, a county-wide burn ban was in effect, and there were firefighters in the hills above who were put at risk.

A jury acquitted the Hammonds of some charges, but they were found guilty of two counts of arson. The Hammonds then found themselves facing sentencing under the expansive provisions of the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which carried a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The judge in the Hammonds' case originally sentenced the two to prison terms far below the minimum, but federal prosecutors appealed the sentence. As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote, the case illustrates the injustices wrought by mandatory minimums:

On the face of it, those sentences were illegal, because the Hammonds had been convicted of violating 18 USC 844(f)(1), which prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum prison term for anyone who "maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive," any federal property. Hogan thought it was unlikely that Congress, which enacted that mandatory minimum in 1996 as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, intended it to cover the accidental burning of federal land "out in the wilderness." Such a sentence "would shock the conscience," he said, and violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments" because it would be "grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses."

Even the federal prosecutor who asked for the mandatory minimum conceded that "perhaps the best argument...the defendants have in this case is the proportionality of what they did to what their sentence is." He admitted that the mismatch was "troubling." The government nevertheless challenged the sentences that Hogan deemed appropriate, arguing that the law gave him no choice but to impose the mandatory minimum. In 2014 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, saying "a minimum sentence mandated by statute is not a suggestion that courts have discretion to disregard."

The Hammonds were ordered back to prison in 2015. (They had already served their original sentences.) This caught the attention of Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and his coterie of disaffected ranchers and militiamen.

Although the Hammonds had little interest in the Bundy brand of activism, Ammon Bundy and his followers organized a protest in rural Burns, Oregon, in support of the Hammonds. A small group of them then took over the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, eventually leading to the fatal police shooting of one of the occupiers.

As J.D. Tuccille wrote for Reason at the time, the entire incident was only a small peek at the long-festering resentment between western ranchers and the federal government:

Agree or not, westerners believe that they have more reason than other Americans to be angry at political leaders in Washington, D.C. The abuse of the Hammonds, with its roots in the almost colonial relationship between the federal government and the West, is a peek at why. And the goofballs occupying a cabin in Oregon, silly as they may be, are only the tip of an iceberg of discontent.

As for Ammon and Cliven Bundy, the federal case against them collapsed because of "flagrant procecutor misconduct" by U.S. Attorneys.

Photo Credit: Jim Bryant/UPI/Newscom

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  • lap83||

    The Trump war on Mother Gaia continues apace

  • Mr. Dyslexic||

    Wow you and your little club really get around Smentha!

  • What's the frequency, Kenneth?||

    OMG, what a fucking idiot!

  • Tionico||

    Mother WHO????MY Momma ain't no dirtball.

  • tzx4||

    So you are a creature who does not need O2 in the air to breathe, or plants and animals to eat? You are completely independent of the web of life on the surface or this planet?
    Economic collapse is a bitch. Ecological collapse is fatal, maybe not for you or me, but quite possibly for a few generations on down from us.

  • Just Say'n||

    This goes in the "good Trump" column.

    I can't believe how many totally pro-criminal justice reform people on the Left are upset about this pardon, because of the color of their skin and the fact that they live in a rural area.

  • prolefeed||

    I'm assuming you were being sarcastic with the "totally".

  • Don't look at me.||

    Winning.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Yeah man Trump did something good for once!!! Party time!!!

  • Libertymike||

    Oh Most Honorable Righteous Feelz, you are correct that he did something good, but, to be fair, it is not the first good thing he has done. I direct your attention to his commutation of the negress grandmother's sentence after he had listened to the counsel of Ms. Kardashian.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Cool Man Dude-Sir!!! Also he has nibbled here and there at cutting back the uber-growth of the uber-regulators...

  • Shirley Knott||

    ROFLMAO

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I now picture Trump spending his entire day following around politically-minded federal prosecutors, undoing all their work. Which then makes me wonder if a pardon erases that section of a prosecutor's resume for higher office.

  • CE||

    Usually I support eliminating government agencies and departments, but I would be all for a Department of Injustice whose mission was to undo the misdeeds of other government departments at all levels.

  • perlchpr||

    +1 third chamber of Congress dedicated to repealing laws, and requiring only a 33% vote to achieve it.

  • VinniUSMC||

    These are both great ideas.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    This seems like another good example of federal overreach. They were tried, and convicted for something I think many would agree with was a just reaction. Then the feds tried to make it a terrorism case and fuck the guys harder, and things fell apart.

  • 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed||

    You weren't clear on what part is the federal overreach.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Them trying to come down and force a longer sentence on them then they were originally convicted.

    And then there's the much larger question of federal land ownership.

    One thing I'm confused on, rereading the article, is whether the fires they made were out of control? I read that it had gotten out of control by them, but now I'm confused. Anyone want to clarify what happened for me?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Anyone got a long form article discussing the case? The wikipedia page seems a little lacking in details.

  • Just Say'n||

    Look at the previous articles at Reason (I know, no body reads the articles) or check National Review- they covered it in depth as well

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Okay, thanks.

  • Tionico||

    ALL of it. First, arson, the charge, by defintion is the burning of STRUCTURE.. shed, home barn, etc. That burn was a backburn, ONLY grass, started on their land, to burn back toward a fire deliberatey set BY ThE FEDS with the intent to burn out the Hammonds.. as they'd done to a number of their nieighbours. and was headed for some STRUCTURED on the Hammond property. They set backburns to consume the fuel between that fire and their home and outbuildings. That fire ended up buring some 35 acres or so of grassland across teh fence.... it burnd up to the fire the Feds had deliverately set... and which continued to burn around the Hammond property, up the hill and burned down the HOUSE of Hammonds' neighbour.. a STRUCTURE. Hammonds burned no structures, FEds did.

    Further, FEds set their burn to intimidate Hammonds, drive them of ftheir property, which they'd been trying to do for years, and had done to many of their neighbours. Hammonds had only the saving of their own home and barns and winter feed in mind when they set the backburn to keep their property from destruction.

  • Tionico||

    Evidence was deliberately withheld from Hammonds, they were denied bringing certain testimony, the trial was as rigged as was the Bundy trial that led to their case being tossed with prejudice. Same story here.

    Bottom line, FedGov act more treacherously that King George Three ever did. FBI, BLM, prosecutores lied, rigging the trial. Trunp is SPOT ON in fully pardoning these men. Now he needs to do the same for the few that copped pleas after arrest in the Malheur incident, which was a direct protest against the horrendous maltreatment of the Hammonds, now pardoned.

    I hope Trump more closely examines ALL Federal lands ownership/control... it is contra our Constitution. End it.

  • Oli||

    Trump spot on? That must have been a first for him.

  • darkflame||

    You have any links to back those assertions up? Not that I couldn't see the BLM doing this, its just I like proof.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    These convictions came down to arson.

    The brush fires were found to be done on purpose to conceal the Hammonds slaughtering a bunch of deer without a permit.

    The conviction was probably correct but more than a year in prison seems a bit severe.

    The 9th Circuit reversed the sentence around the same time as the Bundy's were standing up to government agencies. Obama's administration was shown to do political attacks.

  • Tionico||

    No, ONE of the backburns later was found to have a burned dead deer on the land... but NO solid evidence as to how that deer died, nor how it got there, was ever presented.. only a simple statement "we found a deer and we think the fire was to hide poaching". What a bunch of garbage. What little evidence presented in the trial was conflicting, incomplete, not specific, and no forensics were ever done on the deer. For all anyone nows, Feds could have found a deer dead of natural causes and set it into the fire. They have been known to do such things. In any event, a dead deer is NOT arson., which by definition requires a STRUCTURE to be burned. The conviction was totally bogus. They SHOULD be restored the four years they spent behind bars unjustly, AND their costs of legal help, AND out of pocket costs resulting from their unjust incarceration.AND some Fed heads need to roll.... perjury is a crime, and can be every bit as lethal as arson, Which, byy the way, the Feds actually DID, the Hammonds did not.

  • 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed||

    Good pardon, it was a bullshit conviction using a terrorism law.

  • Vernon Depner||

    Yes, it was the inappropriate charge that was the main problem here, not the sentence.

  • ||

    Good.

  • CE||

    How did the original prosecutors show a fire accidentally getting out of control was "malicious"? Seems like a key word when invoking an anti-terror statute.

  • darkflame||

    My guess would be the reasoning is because they supposedly set one of the fires to cover up illegal dear hunting. Although based off what Reason and some others reported at the time, the truth appears that this was all just the crux of years of harassment by the BLM with the intent of getting the ranchers to sell the land. Especially considering how the BLM & FBI treated the Bundies and Wildlife Refuge boys.

  • Tionico||

    If Hammonds had wanted to take deer, they'd have taken the deer, harvested the meat, put it in their freezer, fired up the backhoe or cat, and buried the bones and guns where Feds would not find them, on their own land. They're not stupid enough to leave such damning evidence lying about where the malicious FedGov agents were constantly looking to find things to stir up more trouble for Hammonds and their neighbours.. all of which they wanted GONE. A HUGE motivating factor for that "judge" and his "finding" that they needed to spend another four years in the slammer was the high hope that, with the men in the hoosegow, the likelihood the family will go broke and have to lose the property was VERY high. They managed to hang on for the first year, and were back home putting things back on track again. The judge figured once they were locked up for four more years, they'd be driven out financially. Stupid Feds have no clue the stuff of which fourth and fifth generatioin hardscrabble ranchers are made. The extra years still did not break them. The half millon dollars the Feds stole from them as "fines' needs to be returned, too. With interest.

  • Libertymike||

    Tony, OBL, Michael Hihn, Rev. Kirkland, and PB, what doth thou have to say?

  • Freddy the Jerk||

    Tony: "They're cousinfuckers! Bring out the jackboots."
    OBL: #StillWithHer
    Hihn: "Jamming it up your ass."
    The Rev: "They're bigots, so carry on clingers."
    PB: "I'm the only real libertarian here."

  • Mr. Dyslexic||

    + 1,000!

  • Libertymike||

    I agree, only more + 1,0001!

  • darkflame||

    Interesting choice for a pardon. I mean, these two definitely deserve a pardon after all the bullshit the government put them through, but that's sure to make him more popular with the ranchers out west. I know that those states mostly voted for him anyway, but they're the sort of folks who feel like they usually get ignored unless the government wants to seize something. Considering they're also struggling against the FBI like Trump is right now... its little touches like this that get Trump some diehard supporters who'll back him no matter what.

  • Rossami||

    Even assuming the prosecutor's argument, how exactly does "accidental burning of federal land" qualify as "maliciously damages"? Damages, yes. But their argument reads the word "maliciously" out of the statute and that is not allowed. I can't help but think that had this been anywhere by the Ninth Circuit, this would have been a slam-dunk during the appeals.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Good going, now pardon Bundy and his boys!

    Ok maybe one step at a time.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Oh boy was I out of the loop! Mistrial on a Brady violation. Charges dismissed. Also he said something ridiculous about slavery. What a buffoon.

  • What's the frequency, Kenneth?||

    Well, Trump is still turning out to be better than Clinton would have been. I couldn't hold my nose and vote for either, but I'm still not upset with the final result, given that we were going to have Giant Douche or Turd Sandwich anyway.

  • Rockabilly||

    Man, the progressive communists are in a lather about this.

  • buybuydandavis||

    That alone would have made it worthwhile

    Winning

  • Oli||

    After that North Korea kick in Trump's ass, a bit of pardon winning might be good for him.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Icing on the cake

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Another good move by Trump. Arpaio was bullshit but these guys deserved the pardon. I gotta say it's pretty interesting seeing a president use this power early in his first term and taking the heat for it, unlike most who pardon their buddies on the way out the door (yeah I'm looking at you Clinton). I hope he keeps it up.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Well, the difference is that he's using the pardon power for people where he thinks the pardon can be defended. So he doesn't have to wait until the day before he leaves office.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Good job, Mr. President. Trump 2020.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Trumpslide 2020

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