Newspaper column: Pardon for Oregon ranchers just the first step

Etched in stone above the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington are the words: “Equal justice under law.”

The treatment of father and son Oregon ranchers by the federal judicial system makes a travesty of those words, though President Trump’s pardon this past week is a first step toward rectifying their injustice.

In 2001 Dwight Hammond and his son Steven started a fire on their own Harney County ranch to burn off juniper and sagebrush. The fire accidentally escaped their property and burned 139 acres of Bureau of Land Management land.

In 2006, lightning started several fires and the Hammonds set a backfire to try to prevent the fire from spreading to their crops and buildings. That fire burned a single acre of public land.

Hammonds return home. (AP pix)

The White House statement explaining the presidential pardon noted that the judge who originally sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months and Steven to a year had said that prosecutors’ demands that the pair be sentenced to a minimum mandatory five years under a 1996 anti-terrorism law passed after the Oklahoma City bombing would “shock the conscience” and be “grossly disproportionate to the severity” of their conduct.

“The previous administration, however, filed an overzealous appeal that resulted in the Hammonds being sentenced to five years in prison,” the statement reads. “This was unjust.”

That resentencing is what prompted the 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in protest, though the Hammonds themselves did not condone the protest and instead quietly returned to prison.

Most of the protesters, including two of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy’s sons, were later acquitted of federal charges.

The White House statement concluded, “Dwight Hammond is now 76 years old and has served approximately three years in prison. Steven Hammond is 49 and has served approximately four years in prison. They have also paid $400,000 to the United States to settle a related civil suit. The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West. Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.”

This is an understatement considering that in the five years after the passage of the 1996 anti-terrorism law at least 16 members of self-styled environmental groups ALF and ELF conspired to damage or destroy private and government property. None was sentenced to more than 36 months.

Then there were the two 2012 fires near the Hammonds’ ranch. Though started by lightning strikes, federal authorities used backfires in an attempt to contain the Long Draw and Miller Homestead fires. Instead, the fires consumed nearly 620,000 acres. No one was charged.

In 2000 the National Park Service decided to use a ‘’prescribed’’ burn to clear debris in the Bandelier National Monument area, but when winds picked up the fire destroyed 400 homes and forced the evacuation of 18,000 people in Los Alamos and shut down the nuclear weapons operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The supervisor who ordered the preventive fire, like the 2001 fire set by the Hammonds, was suspended but later retired. No charges.

A 2012 “prescribed” burn by a Colorado state agency southwest of Denver killed three people and destroyed or damaged more than two dozen homes. No charges.

In October 2016 a “prescribed” burn by a state agency in Northern Nevada consumed 2,300 acres, destroyed 23 homes and 17 out buildings and resulted in smoke inhalation injuries to four people. Damages estimated at $4 million. The state agency apologized.

A few weeks ago a “prescribed” burn in the Florida panhandle destroyed 36 homes and burned 800 areas.

Also earlier this summer, a “prescribed” burn in Emery County, Utah, meant to clear off 2,400 acres of dead timber and other fire fuel spread to cover more than 18,000 acres.

Meanwhile, after years in jail and supervised probation and a $400,000 fine, the Hammonds also lost their grazing permit in 2014.

The Hammonds have returned home, but equal justice under law will not be served until their property and livelihoods are restored.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Oregon ranchers pardoned by Trump

The Hammond family

Today President Trump pardoned two Oregon ranchers who were sentenced to five years in prison under a law intended to punish terrorists because two backfires they set to protect their property burned a few acres of public land, according to The Oregonian.

The decision frees Dwight Hammond Jr., 76, and son Steven Hammond, 49. Both were convicted in 2012 of arson.

A federal judge refused to sentence the pair to a minimum mandatory five years in prison under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which was passed following the Oklahoma City bombing. The father was sentenced to three months and son to a year, but prosecutors appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ordered the five-year sentences be imposed.

“The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement and farmers and ranchers across the West,” the White House said in a prepared statement. “Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.”

The resentencing of the Hammonds sparked the 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by protesters, including two of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy’s sons. A jury acquitted them of federal charges resulting from the takeover. They along with their fathers had charges against them dropped over the 2014 armed standoff with federal agents trying to confiscated Bundy’s cattle for failure to pay grazing fees. A judge ruled the prosecution failed to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence.

The Hammonds played no part in the Malheur protest and quietly returned to prison.

The two fires the Hammonds set burned a grand total of 140 acres. When the Hammonds were first convicted veteran federal Judge Michael Hogan refused to impose the five-year mandatory minimum, saying that was “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.”

The judge reasoned, “Out in the wilderness here, I don’t think that’s what the Congress intended. And in addition, it just would not be — would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality.”

President Obama announced in 2014 that he would use commutations to right the wrong of overly harsh sentences that did not fit the crime.

White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said at the time, “The president believes that one important purpose [of clemency] can be to help correct the effects of outdated and overly harsh sentences that Congress and the American people have since recognized are no longer in the best interests of justice.”

The Hammonds appeared to fit in that category, but Obama did not act, despite editorials calling for him to do so.

As of this month, according to The Oregonian, Dwight Hammond has served two years and eight months in prison and 31 months of supervised release. His son has served three years and three months in prison and two years of supervised release.

In 2014 the Bureau of Land Management refused to renew a grazing permit for the Hammond ranch, which has crippled the business, the family told the newspaper.

“If the Hammonds are unable to return to the ranch in the near future, the legacy and livelihood Dwight and Steven Hammond have been building for their family could truly be lost,” attorney Larry Matasar wrote in his petition. “A clemency would not only serve as a balm to the community’s angst about these sentences, but very practically, give the Hammonds a real chance to keep their ranch afloat.”

 

A suggestion for a president commuting prison sentences

Obama has now commuted the federal prison sentences of more than 1,000 prisoners, mostly non-violent drug offenders. Most have served far more time in prison than if they committed the same crime today, because previous mandatory sentencing laws have been relaxed.

Which brings us to H.R. 5815 — Resource Management Practices Protection Act of 2016 — introduced by Oregon Rep. Greg Walden. The bill would amend the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which was passed following the Oklahoma City bombing and requires a minimum of five years in prison for anyone convicted of damaging federal property by fire or explosives.

The bill would exempt from prosecution anyone who sets a fire on his own property to prevent damage — such as a backfire — or if that person is using a generally accepted practice for managing vegetation on timber, grazing, or farm land and fire doesn’t result in death or serious bodily injury.

Which brings us to Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, two Oregon ranchers now serving mandatory five-year sentences because fires set on their own property escaped onto federal land, burning 140 acres — one was a controlled burn and the other a backfire.

Even if passed, the bill would not result in the freeing of the Hammonds but could protect others from such frivolous prosecution in the future.

The bill has cosponsors from Idaho, Washington, Arizona and Utah but none from Nevada.

It was the sentencing of the Hammonds that prompted protesters earlier this year to takeover a federal wildlife refuge for more than a month. The protesters included two of the Bunkerville Bundy brothers, already notorious for their standoff with federal agents in 2014 who were trying to confiscate their cattle.

A jury earlier this year refused to the prosecute the Bundys and other protesters for the refuge takeover, but the Bundys and others face charges next year over the Bunkerville incident.

Obama announced in 2014 that he would use commutations to right the wrong of overly harsh sentences that did not fit the crime.

The Hammonds would appear to fit in that category.

The Hammond family

The Hammond family