President Donald Trump granted pardons Tuesday to father-and-son cattle ranchers in southeastern Oregon who were sentenced to serve prison time on two separate occasions for the same charges of arson on public lands.
The return to prison of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond helped spark the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a rancher who acted as the protesters’ spokesman, was killed by a state trooper during an encounter between the armed occupation group and law enforcement — a shooting that led to charges against an FBI special agent.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said an “overzealous appeal” of the Hammonds’ original sentences during the Obama administration, which sent them back to prison, was “unjust.”
“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,” Sanders said, adding: “Justice is overdue.”
The Hammonds were convicted of crimes that require a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years in prison under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. A judge, however, initially gave Dwight Hammond three months and his son Steven Hammond a year and a day behind bars.
The government won an appeal over the Hammonds’ sentences in 2015, and the two men were resentenced to serve out the remaining years of a five-year minimum.
Their convictions have drawn sharp rebukes from the local community amid allegations that the family was aggressively prosecuted using anti-terrorism statutes because they were outspoken about public land use in rural Oregon.
News media outlets in the state — including the Oregonian — have published editorials advocating for a presidential pardon, seeking clemency for the two men.
In her statement, Sanders characterized the arson as “a fire that leaked onto a small portion of neighboring public grazing land.”
She noted that Dwight Hammond is 76 and has served about three years in prison and that Steven Hammond is 49 and has served about four years.
The pardons were Trump’s latest use of clemency power in high-profile cases — a tool he’s been inclined to use more often than his recent predecessors at this point in his presidency.
Several of Trump’s previous actions have been driven by television segments, celebrities, friends and White House advisers who have pressed their cases for pardons.
Among those on the receiving end have been controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio; conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza; and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to former vice president Richard Cheney.
Last month, Trump commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a woman serving a life term for nonviolent drug offenses, after meeting with reality television star and socialite Kim Kardashian West to discuss the case. He also posthumously pardoned heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in May after being lobbied by actor Sylvester Stallone.
The group that occupied the Malheur wildlife refuge for 41 days in early 2016 had directly tied their actions to the Hammonds’ case and the broader frustration that has been building across the West over federal land control. The federal government owns significant land in the West, which has led to anger from many ranchers over federal policies, a dispute that is often overlooked in other parts of the country.
Malheur, a remote bird sanctuary in southeastern Oregon, became the epicenter of that dispute when an armed group occupied it after a peaceful January 2016 march and rally aimed at supporting the Hammonds shortly before they reported to federal prison.
When the march ended, an armed group led by the rancher Ammon Bundy traveled to Malheur and announced plans to stay indefinitely, arguing that what happened to the Hammonds was “just one example, a symptom of a very huge egregious problem” happening nationwide.
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough, their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point that it is putting them literally into poverty,” Bundy told reporters after the standoff began.
Law enforcement officials, though, argued that the occupiers were separate from the rally that drew hundreds to Burns and came with darker intentions.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers,” Harney County Sheriff David Ward said in a statement after the wildlife occupation began. “When in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”
The Bundy family — led by Ammon’s father, Cliven — is perhaps the most well-known of the groups that have argued that expanded environmental and land regulation had infringed on their rights.
The family had sparred with the federal government for years. In 2014, Cliven Bundy had his own armed standoff with federal agents who sought to stop him from illegally grazing cattle on federal land. Authorities ultimately backed down at the time.
Federal officials have unsuccessfully sought to prosecute Bundy family members in connection with these showdowns. Ammon Bundy was among a group arrested and charged for the 2016 wildlife standoff, but they were acquitted later that same year.
Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed criminal charges against Cliven Bundy, who was arrested in 2016 when he traveled to Oregon in the waning days of the Malheur occupation.
Leah Sottile in Portland, Oregon contributed to this report.