The Hammonds Got Five Years In Oregon? Cry Me A River (Updated)
Credit: US Department of Justice
January 5, 2016

It isn't just the libertarians at Reason magazine who think Dwight Hammond and his son Steven got an unfairly harsh sentence of five years for arson on federal land, in the case that sparked the current standoff at a wildlife refuge in Oregon -- the good liberals at Vox feel the same way:

Vox's German Lopez writes:

The Hammonds were sentenced to five years in prison for starting a fire that didn't injure anyone

... In 2001, the pair started a fire on their land to, they said, destroy invasive plants. But federal prosecutors argued that the Hammonds started the fire on federal property with a different motive: to cover up illegal deer killing. Whatever the reason, the fire spread to public land, burning 139 acres of public land and forestalling grazing for two seasons.

In 2006, the Hammonds started another fire, one that the government acknowledged was a defensive move -- to stop a lightning-caused fire from spreading to the pair's ranch. But prosecutors argued that the fire violated a countywide burn ban and was started despite knowledge of nearby part-time firefighters who could be harmed by another fire.

The fires didn't injure anyone, but they did damage federal property, a violation of federal law....

The men were convicted and sentenced for federal arson in 2012, under the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that, despite its name, also defines how the government deals with arson cases on federal property.

The law requires that those convicted for arson of federal property receive a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. But US District Judge Michael Hogan said this was too harsh, violating Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. So he sentenced Dwight to three months in prison and Steve to a year, sentences that both men served.

In a rare move, federal prosecutors appealed the sentence. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed that Hogan had illegally sentenced the Hammonds, and ordered the two men to serve the mandatory minimum sentence....

Are mandatory minimums from the throw-the-book-at-them unreasonable? Often they are. Lopez goes on to cite some decades-long sentences received by a criminals who'll never be heroes to Fox News viewers, such as this:

In another case, the law forced a Utah judge to give a 55-year sentence to Weldon Angelos for selling marijuana while allegedly possessing a gun in the early 2000s. Paul Cassell, the retired judge who tried Angelos's case, told ABC News in 2015 that the sentence still bothered him....

But five years in the pen is a hell of a lot less time than fifty-five years. So why are we only supposed to be upset at mandatory minimums now?

And whether it was a factor in the feds' decision to appeal the sentence or not, the past behavior of the Hammonds makes me think they're getting no more than they deserve. Roy Edroso found a fascinating account of early disputes the Hammonds had with the feds at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where the current standoff is taking place. This is from Nancy Langston and William Cronon's 2005 book Where Land & Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed.

So, a generation ago, Dwight and Steve Hammond were repeatedly in willful defiance of federal law to the point where they were held on felony charges -- remember, this was before the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was passed -- and the reason they were let go after spending only a couple of days in the clink was that a band of wingnut blackmailers threatened government agents (although there was also an assist from a hard-line anti-environmentalist congressman).

And Chuck Cushman, the man from whom the threats came? Here's what one critic says about him:

... Cushman has earned the nickname "Rent-a-Riot" for his ability to incite audiences to the verge of violent civil disobedience. He then carefully disassociates himself from responsibility for any threats or violence which actually result.

I'd be somewhat skeptical of this critic's characterization if it weren't for the fact that Cushman refers to himself as "Mr. Rent-a-Riot" in a bio posted by the American Land Rights Association and the Property Rights Foundation of America.

When I read all this, I find myself inclined to shed no tears for the Hammonds. They have no respect for the law, and they escaped justice years ago after a campaign of intimidation.

So screw 'em. Let 'em rot in prison.


UPDATE: Think Progress reports that Dwight and Steven Hammond abused a young member of their family (Dwight's grandson, Steven's nephew) on more than one occasion, forcing him to eat a full can of chewing tobacco, stranding him ten miles from home with no way back except to walk, and taking sandpaper to his bare chest after a cutting incident linked to the young man's clinical depression. No, these are not good people.

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