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Judge sends Oregon ranchers back to prison

A federal judge in Eugene, Ore., gave the father and son credit for time served but ordered them to serve the remainder of their mandatory five-year sentences for burning BLM rangeland.
Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Published on October 7, 2015 1:21PM

Last changed on October 7, 2015 4:45PM

Steven Hammond

Steven Hammond

Dwight Hammond

Dwight Hammond

EUGENE, Ore. — A father and son who raise cattle in Eastern Oregon are headed back to federal prison for committing arson on public land.

Dwight Lincoln Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, 46, were sentenced on Oct. 7 to five years in prison for illegally setting fires on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property near Diamond, Ore.

The ranchers had already served shorter sentences because the federal judge originally overseeing their case said the five-year minimum requirement “would shock the conscience.”

The Hammonds were subject to re-sentencing because the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out those original prison terms for igniting fires in 2001 and 2006 as too lenient.

Previously, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, who is now retired, found that a five-year term would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because it’s “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.”

Dwight Lincoln Hammond, who was only convicted of the 2001 fire, received three months in prison, while his son was sentenced to one year, followed by three years of supervised release for each man.

Federal prosecutors challenged those sentences, and the 9th Circuit agreed that judges don’t have the “discretion to disregard” such requirements.

The appeals court rejected claims by the ranchers’ defense attorney that the federal arson statute was intended to punish terrorism, rather than burning to remove invasive species or improve rangeland.

At the Oct. 7 re-sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken said the ranchers cannot disregard the law in regard to setting fires on BLM property.

“You don’t have the right to make decisions on public lands when they’re not yours,” she said.

Aiken compared the situation to “eco-terrorism” cases in which activists damaged property in reaction to environmental decisions with which they disagreed.

“They didn’t necessarily like how the government was handling things, either,” she said.

Similarly, people who violate hunting and fishing regulations are also subject to sanctions, Aiken said.

“The rules are there for a reason,” she said.

Aiken said she would use discretion in sentencing the Hammonds if she could, but that wasn’t a possibility given the mandatory minimums and the jury’s decision to convict them of arson.

“It wasn’t a jury of people from Eugene, it wasn’t a jury of people from Portland. It was a jury of people from Pendleton — your peers,” she said.

Frank Papagni, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Hammonds, said the ranchers should be subject to the five-year sentence but disagreed with recommendations from the U.S. Probation Office that they receive even longer sentences.

The U.S. Probation Office said that Dwight Hammond should serve five years and three months, while Steven Hammond should serve six year and six months years.

Papagni said those enhanced sentences were inappropriate because the fires didn’t directly endanger the lives of nearby firefighters and hunters.

Nonetheless, the five-year terms are appropriate for the Hammonds’ actions, he said.

“These grazing leases don’t give them the exclusive right to use these lands,” Papagni said. “It doesn’t give them the right to burn the property. It’s not theirs.”

Attorneys for the Hammonds did not object to the five-year sentences in light of the 9th Circuit ruling, but asked that they receive credit for time served.

Aiken agreed to that request and said she would recommend both men serve their time together at the federal prison in Sheridan, Ore.

Before the sentencing, the Oregon Farm Bureau tried to convince the BLM to drop the arson charges against the Hammonds and replace them with charges that would not require a mandatory minimum sentence, said Dave Dillon, the organization’s executive vice president.

When that route did not yield the desired results, the organization decided to circulate a “Save the Hammonds” petition that has been signed by about 2,400 people.

“We did not make the progress we thought we should, so we’re taking a more public approach,” Dillon said.

Dillon said he recognized that the Hammonds faced slim chances of receiving less than five years, given the 9th Circuit’s ruling, but said he hoped the petition may convince the Obama administration to grant them clemency.

Not only have both men served time in federal prison, but the BLM has refused to renew their grazing rights for two years, he said.

The BLM likely does not subject its own employees to arson charges when they’ve made mistakes during prescribed burns, so the punishment for the Hammonds was excessive, Dillon said.

“To treat them as terrorists, we think, is horribly unjust and secondly, hypocritical,” he said. “Why does the federal government need to get more?”


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