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Lenient arson sentence appealed

Published on February 7, 2013 3:01AM

Last changed on March 7, 2013 7:49AM

Hammonds received far below minimum mandatory sentence


Capital Press

Two Oregon ranchers convicted of arson are asking a federal appeals court to reject the government's argument that they should serve more prison time.

Last year, Steven Dwight Hammond, 43, and his father, Dwight Lincoln Hammond, 70, were convicted of setting fires on public land near their ranch in Diamond, Ore.

Steven Hammond was sentenced to a year and a day behind bars, while his father received a sentence of three months -- far below the minimum mandatory five-year sentence for the crime.

The Hammonds surrendered themselves to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and began serving their time in early January, according to a court document.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan found that five years of incarceration in this case would "shock the conscience" and violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Hogan said the mandatory minimum sentence was intended to apply to terrorist acts, not the burning of rangeland "out in the wilderness" to control invasive species.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case, has challenged the more lenient sentences before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that Hogan's decision lacked legal precedent.

Attorneys for the Hammonds have asked the 9th Circuit to dismiss the government's appeal.

The motion to dismiss argues the prosecutor should be barred from the appeal because the defendants waived their own appellate rights.

The Hammonds had objected to evidence submitted by the government that could have served as grounds for an appeal, but they gave up on that possibility to finish the case, their attorneys said.

The jury had not reached a verdict on all counts against the Hammonds, so they agreed to waive any appeals in exchange for those unresolved charges being dropped, according to court documents.

At the time, the government did not dispute statements that the waiver of appellate rights would bring the matter to a close, the Hammonds' attorneys said. The prosecutor also deferred to the judge's discretion in imposing the sentences.

The government countered that the defendants' version of the case is incomplete, since the prosecutor specifically said he could not waive the government's appeal rights.

The judge also implied that the issue of a government's appeal was "a question for the Ninth Circuit," according to a court document filed by the government.

Although the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the government drops its right to an appeal when the defendant does so, the 9th Circuit should reject that interpretation, the government argued.


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