Federal prosecutors may have gone too far when they insisted on five-year prison sentences for Eastern Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, but President Trump went too far when he granted complete pardons to the Hammonds for committing arson on public land.
Predictably, the president’s action has emboldened the anti-government extremists who occupied a wildlife refuge and their supporters who oppose federal ownership of public land.
The Hammonds were convicted by a jury in 2012 for illegally setting fires on federal land in Harney County where they had grazing rights for their cattle. Dwight Hammond Jr., now 76, and his son Steven, now 49, both were convicted of setting a fire in 2001, and the son was convicted of setting a second fire in 2006. The Hammonds said the fires were back-burns that got out of hand; prosecutors said they were deliberately set, and one was done to conceal evidence of deer poaching.
The convictions followed years of disputes between the Hammonds and federal authorities dating to the 1980s and involving death threats and refusal to pay grazing fees. Federal prosecutors charged the pair under a law enacted in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing designed to impose harsh punishment for domestic terrorism. Under that law, arson committed against federal property carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.
The Hammonds argued that sentence was unduly harsh, and U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan agreed, sentencing Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven to one year. They served that time and were released, but prosecutors appealed the sentences, and an appeals court found Hogan did not have the authority to deviate from the minimum and another federal judge ordered the Hammonds to prison.
That prompted Ammon Bundy to lead the 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, although the Hammonds said they did not want the help and reported to prison as ordered.
The Hammonds’ attorney asked Trump to commute (shorten) the men’s sentences on the grounds they were too harsh. Trump could have done that and left the convictions intact. He chose instead to issue a complete pardon. While a pardon does not legally declare innocence, it implies forgiveness for the crime committed, and unlike a commutation, allows felons to vote, sit on juries and possess firearms.
Presidents customarily have waited until the end of their terms to grant pardons, and the review process can take years. Pardons also are usually granted after someone already has served their prison time. Trump, however, has made it a point of pride to ignore customary niceties and act impulsively, and this case was no different.
Whether what the Hammonds did deserved five-year prison sentences is debatable. That they committed the crimes for which they were convicted is not.
Issuing complete pardons sends a message that open defiance of the law and destruction of public property are acceptable behavior.