After President Trump’s pardon of former Bush staffer Scooter Libby, fresh calls are coming for the President to grant clemency, not for a D.C. insider this time, but for two ranchers caught on the wrong side of the law in remote Oregon. Dwight and Steven Hammond are a father-son team convicted of arson under anti-terrorism laws and sent to prison – for a second time, having already served the sentences handed down by a local judge.
The case renewed discussion over the property rights of rural landowners versus the feds and a petition has appeared on White House website urging President to pardon the twosome. The Hammonds own a ranch near a town in Harney County called, funnily enough, Burns. They were found guilty of committing arson on the federally owned Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. While many are sympathetic to the great value of nature reserves and national parks, members of the Hammonds’ community have objected to the case as an example of the federal government unjustly overstepping its bounds.
The Hammond Arson case
In 2001, the Hammonds set a fire on their own land ostensibly to prevent the growth of invasive plant species and prevent larger brush fires, but the fire spread on to neighboring federal land. Another incident occurred in 2006, when they set backburns in response to lightning strikes on their land, in order to save the winter cattle feed. Again, the fire spread onto federal land where firefighters rushed to put it out.
While fire-starting may seem almost unthinkable to city dwellers, it is a common practice for ranchers and highly useful to regenerate the land as well as preventing larger brush fires that pose a serious danger. These fires can spread onto neighboring ranches and are normally covered under trespassing laws, with those who set the fires liable to pay for any damage caused. That is, unless your fire spreads to federally owned land, because then you could be labeled a terrorist.
The Hammonds were prosecuted under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which contains a minimum prison sentence of five years and was designed in response to domestic terrorist incidents like Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing that targeted the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Prosecutors and several witnesses alleged that the 2001 fire was purposely set on federal lands to cover up evidence of the illegal deer poaching and the 2006 charge involved lighting fires during a fire ban, and without warning the local firefighting camp, several members of which were endangered while extinguishing it.
A feud had been ongoing between the Hammonds and federal agencies dating back to the 1990s. Malheur Refuge managers reported death threats made by Dwight in 1986, 1988, 1991, and 1994, while on the other hand the federal government has been accused of pressuring the Hammonds to sell; it already owns 75% of the county’s land and according to E&E News, 950 acres of the Hammond ranch falls within Malheur sanctuary’s approved acquisition boundary.
The Hammonds may not be blameless but nevertheless, none of these offences can be justly referred to as terrorism. The Hammonds argued that the five year mandatory minimum sentence was disproportionate and unconstitutional under the eighth amendment prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment” and the judge agreed, giving the father Dwight a three-month sentence and the son Steven a year and a day, saying:
“I am not going to apply the mandatory minimum and because, to me, to do so under the Eighth Amendment would result in a sentence which is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.”
He continued that the classification of terrorism was a poor fit for the case:
“And with regard to the Antiterrorism and Effective 8 Death Penalty Act of 1996, this sort of conduct could not have been conduct intended under that statute… And in addition, it just would not be — would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality.”
The Hammonds served their time, but this was not enough for the feds, who appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and achieved a ruling that imposed the five year prison sentence. Although the case doesn’t technically classify as double jeopardy, Susie Hammond, wife of Dwight and mother of Steven said:
“We didn’t think it could happen…We thought we lived in America where you have one trial and you have one sentencing. They just keep playing political, legal mind games with people and people’s lives.”
Enter the Bundys
If the Hammond predicament reminds you of the Bundy case – reported in detail by Liberty Nation –you are not the only one. Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and leader of an armed standoff against federal officers in 2014, turned up to protest the second sentence on behalf of the Hammond family. Whether a fervent defender of liberty or a gung-ho rogue who’s acquired a taste for well-publicized conflict, Bundy and his militia travelled up to Oregon and instigated a protest that ended up as a 40-day armed occupation at the wildlife refuge. Ryan Bundy told the Associated Press that the group’s aim was to remove the land from federal ownership and hand it over to local authorities. He said the federal government has been “tromping on people’s rights and privileges and properties and livelihoods” and that the protestors want to “restore the rights to people so they can use the land and resources.”
Despite earlier meetings with Bundy, the Hammonds later disavowed the militia, possibly due to the threat of violence. Preferring to protest peacefully with the locals, the father and son later turned themselves in to a California prison, where they remain to this day. Before heading back to the big house, 73-year-old Dwight told the local news that:
“It just seems like a little overreach for having burned 127 acres…Remember: It’s not about me, it’s about America and somehow we have to get the wheels back on this wagon because they are flying off.”
The Hammond case provides a poignant example illustrating that when we fearfully acquiesce to tyrannical laws and sacrifice our liberties in the name of security, it is always a risk that we ourselves will be classed as the next security threat.
Any law designed to protect us from enemies of the state will eventually be used against us, although residents of Harney County may now be hoping for a long-shot gift from President Trump.