President's pardon of Oregon ranchers sparks concern, jubilation

Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned OR cattle ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son after both were convicted on arson charges, sparking the 2016 occupation of a wildlife refuge, according to a White House statement.

They were convicted by an OR jury in 2012, but the judge who oversaw their case agreed with the Hammonds that the mandatory five-year sentences for arson on federal land was overly punitive, and the two served short sentences instead.

"The evidence at trial regarding the Hammonds' responsibility for the fire was conflicting, and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges", the statement said. The Hammond family and their supporters insisted they started a "prescribed fire" to burn off invasive species, and the case became a symbol to some conservatives of government overreach in rural parts of the American west.

A White House statement released Tuesday announced the pardons for both Hammonds, stating they were "imprisoned in connection with a fire that leaked onto a small portion of neighboring public grazing land".

The White House's decision aligns with the judge's original sentence, which gave both men less prison time than the mandatory minimum. Steven Hammond is 49 and has served approximately four years in prison.

The Hammonds have been locked up since January 4, 2016, after they were re-sentenced following their 2012 conviction for arson on public lands. But they send a message that Trump also delivered with his previous pardon of lawless Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio: which is that when a certain kind of (white) frontier-justice renegade decides to defy the federal government, it's the offender, not the government, who gets the benefit of the doubt.

After the government's appeal in 2016, a different federal judge ordered the pair back to prison to serve the full five years, sparking protests and the refuge occupation.

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"It's also not clear yet if other ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands might decide to openly defy federal laws, [with] the Hammonds being pardoned", Kirk says. "As ranchers across eastern OR frequently tell me, the Hammonds didn't deserve a five year sentence for using fire as a management tool, something the federal government does all the time".

The occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge ended shortly after occupier LaVoy Finicum was shot to death by Oregon State Police at a roadblock and Ammon and Ryan Bundy were arrested.

Bundy and his supporters were eventually arrested, majority during a confrontation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state police on a snow-covered roadside where a spokesman for the group, Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, was shot dead.

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