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 pardoned the Hammonds for setting fire to public land.
The president’s action has emboldened the anti-government extremists who occupied a wildlife refuge in protest of the sentences.
The Hammonds were convicted in 2012 of illegally setting fires on federal land in Harney County. The convictions followed decades of disputes between the Hammonds and federal authorities involving death threats and unpaid grazing fees.
Federal prosecutors charged the pair under a law designed to impose harsh punishment for domestic terrorism. The U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan said the five-year mandatory minimum sentence was unduly harsh, sentencing Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven to one year, which they served. Prosecutors appealed, and another 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. Bundy now claims then pardons prove “we were right.”
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 complete pardons.
Whether the Hammonds deserved five-year prison sentences is debatable. That they committed the crimes for which they were convicted is not.
The pardons send a message that open defiance of the law and destruction of public property are acceptable.