The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects Americans from being “subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” This is known as “double jeopardy,” and I’m not talking about the 1999 Tommy Lee Jones crime thriller…
Protection from Double Jeopardy is as American as apple pie. If someone is convicted and serves their sentence, they cannot be sentenced for the same crime a second time. In that Tommy Lee Jones flick, a character wrongly convicted of murder seeks out revenge by actually murdering the alleged victim. Since they served their sentence once, they cannot be punished for killing the man that they allegedly killed the first time.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump granted clemency to two Oregon ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond. Now, before we go on, it is important to say these guys were bad hombres. They were illegally poaching deer on Federal land and, in an attempt to hide the evidence of their hunting crimes, set fires that ended up burning 127 acres of Federal land and almost cost BLM firefighters their lives.
They were tried in 2012 and the jury came back not-guilty on a handful of charges. As part of a plea deal, the Hammond’s pled guilty to arson in exchange for leniency. A compassionate judge, however, decided to sentence them to three months and a year in prison instead of the mandatory minimum of five years each.
Both men served their sentences and were released from prison. In 2016, the Obama administration appealed on the basis that they were convicted of a crime with a mandatory minimum of five years. The previous judge had incorrectly sentenced them under the law. The Hammond’s were re-apprehended and sent back to prison. The only consolation was that their sentences were reduced for the time already served.
Technically, this is not double jeopardy because their original sentences incorrect under the law. But it certainly runs afoul of the concept that Americans cannot be incarcerated twice for the same crime. It also certainly runs afoul of the Constitution’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Imagine if you served a sentence for a crime only to learn that one man’s mistake meant you had to go back to prison years later. That would be beyond traumatic.
This isn’t the only time a case like this has come up. Rene Lima-Marin was convicted decades ago on armed robbery charges. In 2008, he was mistakenly released from prison early due to a computer glitch. It must have been one hell of a glitch because Lima-Marin was released 90 years early. After leaving prison, he started a family in Colorado. Six years later, government officials realized their error and reapprehended him, forcing him to serve the remainder of his sentence. A County Judge actually intervened and ruled that “it would be utterly unjust to compel Lima-Marin, at this juncture, to serve the rest of his extremely long sentence.” The government made a mistake, but that does not mean they can torment people and force them to abandon their lives and return to prison.
Liberals cheered the ruling and days later, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper pardoned the Cuban immigrant so that the Trump administration would not be able to deport him.
The judge’s decision was right on the money. It would have been cruel and unusual to force Rene Lima-Marin to serve the remainder of a sentence he believed he had already served. The difference, though, is that Lima-Marin knew he had 90 years left when he was let out but didn’t say anything. The Hammond’s went into prison and served the entirety of the sentence that was given to them.
Rene Lima-Marin was convicted of armed robbery. Hickenlooper pardoned him for political reasons in order to prevent the Trump administration from deporting him.
Liberal news outlets have already pounced on the story, since these men’s convictions sparked the Bundy family’s seizure of a Federal wildlife cabin. Media outlets have described this act of clemency as an attempt to free domestic terrorists. But, like so many articles that start out with the goal of hurting Trump, facts be damned, this narrative misses the mark.
Trump’s pardon was not to absolve the crimes per say. These men set fire to federal lands to coverup their poaching. That was criminal. But by every measure, they served the original sentence that was given to them. Trump’s pardon is to stop these men from being incarcerated a second time for the same crime.
Since the whole thing revolves around a judge’s error, this doesn’t qualify as double jeopardy. But for all intents and purposes, it is, and Trump’s pardon rights yet another judicial wrong from the previous administration.