Trial set for ranchers in arson case

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By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

The jury trial of two Eastern Oregon ranchers accused of illegally setting fires on public lands is scheduled to begin June 12 in Pendleton, Ore.

The federal government has narrowed the scope of its allegations since the case was filed two years ago.

Dwight Lincoln Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, of Diamond, Ore., were indicted by a federal grand jury in 2010 on felony charges of conspiracy to commit arson.

The federal government originally accused the Hammonds of setting fires on thousands of acres of rangeland since the early 1980s, alleging they were dissatisfied with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's delays in conducting controlled burns to improve grazing conditions.

In a superseding indictment filed May 17, the government reduced the number of criminal counts against the Hammonds from 19 to nine.

It shortened the time frame for the alleged crimes, accusing them of illegally lighting several fires between 1999 and 2006 and tampering with a witness.

The new indictment does not include several original counts that charged the Hammonds with threatening federal officers and unlawfully operating an aircraft to watch over the fires.

Both ranchers were released in 2010, subject to certain conditions, after pleading not guilty to all charges. They pleaded not guilty to all the counts in the superseding indictment on May 21.

The location of the trial has been a point of contention in the case because the attorneys for the Hammonds argued they would receive a fairer trial in Pendleton than in Eugene, where it was originally scheduled.

Holding the trial in Pendleton would be more convenient for the defendants and the witnesses, and "defendants are Eastern Oregonians whose fate should be determined by fellow Eastern Oregonians," their attorneys said in a court document.

The U.S. Department of Justice opposed changing the venue, arguing that evidence presentation technology and support staff are more robust in Eugene.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan ultimately agreed with the Hammonds, moving the trial, which is expected to last 10 to 13 days, to the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Pendleton.

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