U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has been granted his request to have Harney County rancher Dwight Hammond Jr., and his son, Steven, pardoned by President Donald Trump.
“Today is a win for justice and an acknowledgement of our unique way of life in the high desert, rural West,” said Walden on Tuesday morning when news broke that President Donald Trump had granted full pardons to the Hammonds.
“I applaud President Trump for thoroughly reviewing the facts of this case, rightly determining the Hammonds were treated unfairly, and taking action to correct this injustice,” said Walden.
He said Dwight, 76, and Steven 46, were given a sentence that was established for terrorists, something he wants to prevent in the future.
“Moving forward, I’m encouraging the House Judiciary Committee to act on my legislation to prevent this situation from happening to other ranchers,” he said. “House Resolution 983 ensures farmers and ranchers are not prosecuted as terrorists for using fire for range-management purposes.
“For now, though, I am pleased that Dwight and Steven Hammond will return to their families and ranches. I look forward to welcoming them back home to eastern Oregon. It’s time for them to be reunited with their families.”
The Hammonds were imprisoned in connection with a fire that spread onto neighboring public grazing land.
The evidence at the 2012 original trial regarding the Hammonds’ responsibility for the fire that consumed about 126 acres was conflicting and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges, according to a White House press release.
Walden said the Hammonds were multi-generational cattle ranchers and it became clear in their trial that the family was well respected in the community.
The judge in their case, Michael Hogan, noted that imposing the mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence would “shock the conscience” and be “grossly disproportionate to the severity” of their conduct.
He imposed significantly lesser sentences after noting that the 1996 Anti-Terrorism & Effective Death Penalty Act was never meant to apply to ranchers trying to protect their land.
“The previous administration, however, filed an overzealous appeal that resulted in the Hammonds being sentenced to five years in prison. This was unjust,” stated the White House.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the original lighter sentences, reasoning that “given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense.”
Dwight and Steven called the five-year terms unconstitutional and fought them in court. But the full sentences were imposed in October of 2015, months after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the family’s petitions for review.
Protesters rallied to support the Hammonds and initiated a standoff with the U.S. government over its management of rangelands at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. Most of the people connected to the standoff were later exonerated of criminal charges.
Dwight has served about three years in prison. Steven has spent about four years in prison. They have also paid $400,000 to the United States to settle a related civil suit.
“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,” stated the White House.
After learning that Walden had requested the pardon, his challenger for the Second Congressional District seat, Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner, said she believed the sentences given the Hammond were “over the top” but that they needed to be held responsible for their actions.
“When someone breaks the law, there needs to be accountability to maintain an even playing field,” she said.
She questioned why it took Walden so long to step forward with the pardon request for what he clearly saw as an injustice. She also questioned why he had not taken steps sooner to amend a law he felt was unjust.
“Fix the law, don’t just randomly pardon people for political reasons,” she said.
Walden said President Barack Obama was not sympathetic to the Hammond family’s plight, so a request for clemency had to wait for a new administration. He said in recent weeks, Trump has pardoned other people sentenced unjustly, so the timing was right to ask for that consideration on behalf of the Hammonds.
“This was the appropriate time to encourage the president to act,” said Walden. “I talked to the vice-president about a month ago and I felt we had gotten the support we needed to move forward.”