President Trump on Tuesday issued full pardons to Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond, Oregon cattle ranchers convicted for arson who became a cause célèbre among the anti-government far-right.
“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,” the White House said in a statement. “Justice is overdue.”
The Hammonds’ case inspired the weeks-long 2016 armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a federal national preserve in rural Oregon, by “sovereign citizen” militia activists led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy. Hammond supporters viewed the sentencing of the father-son duo as proof of federal government overreach.
Their case dates back to a series of fires they set on public lands that prompted warnings from the Bureau of Land Management. In 2012, they were convicted for a massive 2001 fire they set that burned 139 acres of public land and interrupted production on the lands for two growing seasons. The Hammonds claimed that they were trying to burn off invasive species, but the Justice Department maintained that the fires were set to cover up the Hammonds’ illegal slaughter of deer on BLM property.
Their convictions became a flashpoint in Oregon’s ranching community, with some resenting that the Hammonds were convicted under a 1996 law targeting domestic terrorists.
At sentencing, an Oregon federal judge imposed limited sentences of three months imprisonment for Dwight Hammond and a year and a day for Steven Hammond, who faced separate charges for another fire he had set in 2006. The judge said that imposing the law’s five-year mandatory minimum would “shock the conscience” given the charges.
But the DOJ appealed the sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which, in 2015, ordered that the pair be re-sentenced. In her subsequent re-sentencing, Oregon federal judge Ann Aiken upheld the mandatory minimum, with time served, noting that arson is a dangerous federal crime that places human lives in jeopardy, and she sent the Hammonds back to jail.
It was that decision that sparked the uprising at Malheur. The Bundy brothers—already versed in clashes with the BLM from the 2014 armed standoff over cattle grazing rights that their father, Cliven, led on their family’s Nevada ranch—decamped to Oregon to take control of the wildlife refuge.
During the dramatic 40-day standoff, one of the militia members, LaVoy Finicum, was fatally shot in a standoff with law enforcement, sparking anti-government conspiracy theories. The Malheur takeover ended with some 26 people being charged with felony conspiracy to prevent federal workers from doing their jobs, among other charges.
Most have since been acquitted by federal grand juries.
In its Tuesday statement, the Trump White House blamed the Obama administration for taking an “overzealous” and “unjust” approach towards the Hammonds’ case.
The Hammonds had filed paperwork with the DOJ formally requesting a pardon, and their petition received some 8,500 signatures.
Trump’s decision to grant the pair executive clemency is the latest in a string of pardons for high-profile conservatives. The administration has also granted pardons to controversial figures including far-right pundit Dinesh D’Souza, former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, and former George W. Bush White House official Scooter Libby.
Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.