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Michael Swartz / July 13, 2018

A Pardon Too Late

Trump pardoned Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, who were victims of “an overzealous appeal.”

The names aren’t familiar ones, so people who read the headline about President Trump pardoning the Oregon tandem of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven may have been scratching their heads over the move. After all, arson and destruction of federal land isn’t an insignificant crime — and the pair even admitted they did it. In 2001 and 2006, the Hammonds deliberately set fires, but they were blazes originally set on their land — one to eliminate an invasive species and the other to protect against further damage from a lightning-sparked wildfire. These fires ultimately blazed beyond their control and burned about 130 acres of federal land.

However, when it’s learned that their pardon was the result of “the previous administration … fil[ing] an overzealous appeal that resulted in the Hammonds being sentenced to five years in prison,” that may make one sit up and take notice.

It began when the reduced sentence given by a judge who deemed the prescribed punishment sought by federal prosecutors to be “grossly disproportionate” wasn’t enough. Even as the pair served and completed that sentence without incident, the government appealed to the Ninth Circuit to impose a five-year sentence based on the anti-terrorism statute that the judge discounted in his sentencing. But the saga gets better: Add to this the allegation that the federal government was deliberately trying to get the Hammonds to give up their land, which lies adjacent to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and a different picture begins to emerge. “In recent years the feds have revoked grazing permits, mismanaged water to let ranchlands flood, and harassed ranchers with regulatory actions” in the area of the refuge, claims a Wall Street Journal editorial.

But while the Hammonds aren’t household names, a nation was captivated by one reaction to their resentencing. In the winter of 2016, a group of protestors described by media reports as an “armed anti-government militia” embarked on a “takeover” of a government building. (The building in question was the headquarters of the Malheur refuge, which was left vacant for a few days beforehand as a precaution because of an influx of militia members openly entering the area.) In the Malheur “standoff,” protestor spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was the lone victim, shot dead by law enforcement during the offsite arrest of five protest leaders. (In turn, Finicum’s death is leading to its own day in court, as an FBI agent is awaiting trial on obstruction of justice charges stemming from the shooting.) Included in the group arrested that fateful day were two sons of Nevada’s Cliven Bundy, a fellow rancher who had his own run-in with the federal government two years earlier.

Ironically, neither the elder Bundy nor the Hammonds wanted anything to do with the protest or takeover. “Remember: It’s not about me,” Dwight Hammond told a local news station just before he returned to prison in 2016. “It’s about America, and somehow we have to get the wheels back on this wagon because they are flying off.”

More evidence that the wheels were flying off was presented when the first militia contingent brought to trial, a group that included the Bundy sons, was acquitted on conspiracy charges in October 2016. It was a “disappointing” verdict in the eyes of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who complained the defendants “did not reflect the Oregon way of respectfully working together to resolve differences.” Vox reporter German Brown was even more caustic in his reaction, calling the Oregon verdict “white privilege in action.”

Yet where was all this reaction to an overzealous federal government prosecuting someone whose land just happened to be very desirable for the expansion of a federal refuge and who was on the hook to them to the tune of $400,000 to pay a civil settlement — for damage that the trial judge asserted “might” be $100 in value?

If you said crickets, you were close to correct. Gov. Kate Brown declined comment on the pardons, while Vox writer Libby Nelson criticized Trump’s usage of pardons “as a cudgel in the culture war.” But Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum wailed that the Ninth Circuit “followed the Rule of Law” by imposing the maximum sentences that Trump, “who has not set foot here since he was elected,” set aside with his pardon. One can ask: Where was the “Rule of Law” in deciding a fire set to protect one’s private property from a larger fire on government land was a terrorist act?

Trump’s reprieve was welcomed by the Hammonds and their supporters, who got to see their 76-year-old patriarch and his 49-year-old son after they served a combined seven years in prison. “It’s just a blessing that President Trump heard the words of the people and heard the cries of the people and looked into it and made his own decision as well. So very thankful for that,” supporter BJ Soper told a local television station. Based on “the cries of the people,” it’s an open question whether the pardon by Trump relieves at all the long-standing tension between those who wish to use their private property as they see fit and a federal government that owns or controls well over half the land west of the Mississippi River. We already know how far some people will go, so can this keep them back from the brink a little longer?

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