Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House on Tuesday, Rep. Greg Walden called on President Trump to pardon two Oregon ranchers convicted of arson in 2012.
“It’s time for the president to review this situation and to grant a pardon to Steven and Dwight Hammond, pull them back together with their families,” Walden said. “They have served long enough.”
The Hammonds’ case was the impetus for the 41-day long occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. In late 2015, occupation leaders said they came to Harney County to keep the federal government from “taking” the father and son to federal prison.
In 2012, a jury found the Hammonds guilty of arson related to a 2001 fire on federal land. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out matches to members of a hunting party he was with and told them to light and drop the matches on the ground, “because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire,’” according to a 2015 press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The fire burned 139 acres, according to the release.
Combined, the Hammonds served around 18 months in jail. But the Justice Department appealed the case, saying the men should each have to serve the federal mandatory minimum sentence of five years for destroying public property, meaning the land.
Walden blamed the Obama administration for the longer sentences.
“This Friday, the youngest of those two ranchers will mark his fourth year in prison,” Walden said. “Fire on the range, high desert, is a management tool. They were using it for that purpose.”
Steven Hammond was also convicted of arson on federal land in connection with a 2006 fire that burned in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. During a burn ban, Hammond started several back fires to save his ranch’s winter feed.
“The fires burned onto public land and were seen by BLM firefighters camped nearby,” the Justice Department’s 2015 release stated. “The firefighters took steps to ensure their safety and reported the arsons.”
Walden decried the Hammonds’ case, noting that the federal judge who oversaw their original 2012 case declined to sentence the father and son to the five-year mandatory minimum.
The case eventually went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the five-year mandatory sentence.
“They got tried, they got convicted, they should’ve never been sentence them to this,” Walden said in his speech. “The Obama administration came back and re-sentenced them to five years for 139 acres … . The government starts fires that burn onto private land, nothing seems to happen.”
A pardon could be an opportunity for Trump connect with his base in an election year with little political risk. In Oregon, the Hammonds are controversial. But in terms of national politics, pardoning ranchers who are in federal prison could be seen as sympathetic by members of Trump’s base.
In his speech, Walden framed a pardon as a way that Trump could undo another aspect of the Obama administration.
If Trump grants a pardon, he would be sending a message that the Hammonds were victims of government overreach, likely emboldening the anti-government movement at the heart of the Malheur occupation. In a way, Trump would be further undercutting a federal government that has struggled significantly when it comes to trying to punish the leaders of this movement. Prosecutors in Oregon failed to convict Ryan and Ammon Bundy for the Malheur Occupation. A judge in Nevada threw out the government’s case against the Bundy brothers and their father.
As for how a pardon might play in eastern Oregon, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said he’s not hearing much talk about it.
In an email Thursday, Ward did question Walden’s justification for a pardon and whether it was really the Obama administration’s fault.
“As far as a pardon goes, I’m not against it,” Ward wrote. “There are number of people I would rather see in those prison beds.”
On Wednesday, Susie Hammond — Dwight’s wife — said she heard about Walden’s call for a pardon, but hadn’t yet listened to it.
“It would be so nice to have them home,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to run a ranch without any big guys.”