The militia standoff in Oregon, which led several armed men to occupy a federal wildlife sanctuary, is a tale of right-wing ranchers acting out longstanding grievances against the federal government. It is also, however, a story about Dwight and Steven Hammond.
The Hammonds are not among the insurgents occupying public property. They are scheduled to return to prison on Monday and, to their credit, have indicated that they do not intend to resist the court order commanding them to do so. Nevertheless, the insurgents, including members of the anti-government Bundy family, cite the Hammonds’ pending incarceration as the motive for their current actions. They believe that the Hammonds, who were sentenced to five years for committing arson on federal land, were too harshly sanctioned.
The militiamen are not alone in this belief. A number of commentators have suggested that the insurgents have a point when they criticize what Reason Magazine called “The Absurdly Harsh Penalties That Sparked the Oregon Rancher Protest.” As The Week’s Ryan Cooper summarized this view, “Bundy douchebags aside, the sentencing of the Hammond guys is completely insane.” (It’s worth noting that the trial judge, a George H.W. Bush appointee that the New York Times describes as a “politically conservative, devoutly Christian jurist” also believed that the minimum sentence was excessive. He was reversed on appeal.)
This incident also occurs amidst an important conversation about mandatory minimum sentences, which have helped make the United States into a nation that incarcerates 1 in 4 of the world’s prisoners. Yet, if criminal justice reformers are looking for an example of the gross injustices that can result from mandatory minimums, Dwight and Steven Hammond are odd choices.
Mandatory minimums are extraordinarily unpopular when applied to many of the least dangerous offenders. A November 2014 poll, for example, found that 77 percent of Americans “agree that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders should be eliminated so that judges can make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis.” The Hammonds, however, were not convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Dwight was convicted of one count of “maliciously damaging the real property of the United States by fire,” while Steven was convicted of two counts.
The circumstances of both fires are worth examining. The first occurred in 2001. According to prosecutors, several members of the Hammond family set this fire “less than three hours after Steven Hammond illegally shot several deer on BLM land,” a claim they corroborate by citing testimony from D.H.*, Dwight’s grandson and Steven’s nephew. The fire, moreover, “consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations.”
D.H. also testified that his uncle Steven gave him matches and told him to help start the fires. Some time thereafter, D.H. says that he was separated from the rest of his family and found himself surrounded by burning flames. To escape harm, he sheltered in a creek.
Additionally, the government claims that three men were camped nearby when the Hammonds’ started these fires, and that Steven and Dwight knew about these campers when they decided to start the fires anyway.
Steven lit the second fire in 2006 — he says that he did so as a preemptive burn in order to prevent an unrelated wildfire from spreading to the Hammond Ranch. At the time, however, the federal Bureau of Land Management had imposed a “burn ban” to protect firefighters who were busying trying to stop the wildfire. A second fire, such as the one set by Steven, could have potentially spread and endangered the firefighters.
D.H. also testified that, after the first fire, “Dwight told me to keep my mouth shut, that nobody needed to know about the fire, and they didn’t need to know anything about it.” According to D.H., Steven, who was sitting next to Dwight at the time, added that his nephew should “keep [his] mouth shut.” D.H. said that he complied with these instructions because he was “afraid of Steven and Susie [D.H’s grandmother, Dwight’s wife].”
D.H. appears to have had good reason to fear his family. In 2004, D.H. told a sheriff’s deputy about several times that he says he was abused. In one incident, Steven allegedly punched D.H. hard enough to knock him to the ground and “took [D.H.’s] face and rubbed it into the gravel” during an argument over how D.H. was performing his chores. In another incident, after D.H. was cited for being a minor in possession of alcohol, Steven allegedly punished D.H. by driving him ten miles from the family ranch and then making him walk home. In a third incident, after D.H. was cited as a minor in possession of tobacco, Steven allegedly “made him eat two (2) cans of Skoal Smokeless Tobacco and then again walk from Diamond, Oregon to the Hammond Ranch.”
A fourth incident is particularly striking, however. D.H., who reportedly has been diagnosed with depression, used a paper clip to carve the letter “J” into one side of his chest and the letter “S” onto the other side. In response, Steven allegedly “told him that he was not going to let [D.H.] deface the family by carving on himself.” D.H. said that Steven then used sandpaper to remove the carved letters from D.H.’s chest — sanding each side for at least five minutes. Steven also allegedly told D.H. that “he would filet the initials off” his chest if the sandpaper did not work.
When law enforcement officers confronted the Hammond family with these allegations, Dwight admitted that he “had [D.H.] eat a full can of chewing tobacco” in what he says was an effort to “show [D.H.] that chewing tobacco was harmful to his body.” The Hammonds also admitted that the sanding incident occurred, although they would not disclose “who actually did the sanding.” Dwight, claims that the sanding occurred after he called a family meeting to discuss D.H.’s self-harm and that “when [D.H.] was not able to come up with a punishment, that it was decided by the family that the initials would be sanded off.” He added that “it was decided mutually and agreed upon by everyone including” D.H.
The sanding incident is corroborated by pictures of D.H.’s injures that were attached to the police report and included in record against Dwight and Steven Hammond at their trial for arson.
So Dwight was convicted of setting an illegal fire that burned federal land and Steven was convicted of setting two such fires. One of these fires was allegedly set to cover up evidence of a different crime; it could have endangered the lives of several nearby campers; and it did indeed endanger one of the younger members of the Hammond clan. The other fire was set despite a federal order intended to protect the lives of firefighters.
After the first fire, moreover, Dwight and Steven’s own kin says that they ordered him to keep his mouth shut — an order that was backed by fear bred by what D.H. says is an abusive household. Dwight or Steven admit to many important details of D.H’s allegations of abuse, including the claim that D.H. was forced to eat chewing tobacco and that much of his skin was sandpapered off.
There are strong arguments that mandatory minimums should not exist even for crimes such as arson. The facts of each case are different, and mandatory minimums prevent judges from taking account of the unusual circumstances of a particular case that may call for a more lenient punishment. It is not hard to imagine a case where someone set an innocent fire on their own land which inadvertently spread to federal lands, causing nominal damages. In such a case, a much more lenient sentence than the one proscribed by law may be appropriate.
But this is not that case.
*Although D.H.’s full name is disclosed in court documents, we refer to him by his initials here because of allegations that he was a victim of child abuse.