Injustice: The Pardon of the Hammonds

The White House today announced that Dwight and Steven Hammond, the two Oregon ranchers who triggered the Malheur Refuge occupation, would be pardoned. In a statement, press secretary Sarah Sanders called the punishment of the Hammonds “unjust,” and went on to describe them as “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.”

Some suggested that the case of the Hammonds -- two white Oregon ranchers who rallied the support of Congressman Greg Walden, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, and Oregon Farm Bureau to their side -- might have actually provided the impetus for substantive criminal justice reform. Senator Jeff Merkley referenced this at a townhall meeting in 2016, saying "mandatory minimums that can sometimes produce more injustice than justice."

Regardless of how anyone felt about the Hammonds and their sentencing, taking a hard look at the laws and broken mandatory minimum statutes would have qualified as a victory that could apply equally to the many other individuals, predominantly minorities, serving unjust sentences.

Unfortunately, rather than pushing for reform, Walden, the Farm Bureau, Cattlemen and other supporters chose to frame the Hammonds as model citizens of the West. Rather than criticize and fix an unjust law, they looked for the loophole. With everything we know about the Hammonds - the violent threats, arsons, and child abuse - this view is incredibly concerning, and an injustice to many others serving “unjust” mandatory minimum sentences. 

For one thing, we know that Dwight Hammond routinely threatened federal officials. A series of confrontations over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1980s resulted in both men being arrested.

On March 12, 1987, Hammond came to the refuge and told Constantino that he would call him a day before his next cattle drive across the property “and that I should bring the sheriff so there would be a witness to watch him ‘tear your head off’” Constantino wrote in one document. In 1988, Hammond wrote that the fence caused “a very unlivable situation” and “we are a long way from being subdued.”

Constantino declined to comment when reached by telephone this week.

The Hammonds claimed that the fence was keeping their ranching operation from being successful — but the refuge was productively working with several other ranchers, who had the same arrangement. In 1994, Hammond’s grazing permit was canceled after he cut the fence down and allowed his cattle through to feed; the cancellation notice included a notation that "a gate was located immediately south of the cut that you made in the fence."

A little over a decade later, a jury convicted the Hammonds of a 2001 arson that destroyed federal property.

Witnesses at the trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out “Strike Anywhere” matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped to the ground because they were going to “light up the whole county on fire.” One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations. After committing the arson, Steven Hammond called the BLM office in Burns, Oregon and claimed the fire started on Hammond property to burn off invasive species and have inadvertently burned onto public lands. Dwight and Steven Hammond told one of his relatives to keep his mouth shut and that nobody needed to know about the fire.

That jury also convicted Steven Hammond of a 2006 arson for lighting an unauthorized “backburn” that threatened federal firefighters. However, that was not the entirety of the case. Here are the original charges:

And then there is the case of Dusty Hammond, Steve’s nephew and grandson to Dwight. A 2004 report from the Harney County Sheriff’s office details numerous, physical attempts by Steven, at the behest of his grandparents, to discipline Dusty, including punching him in the chest. The incident that prompted the report occurred after Dusty said he had “scratched some initials into his shoulder/chest area with a paper clip.” This upset his grandparents, who again turned to Steven Hammond to discipline the 16 year old.

“Dusty stated that Steve was very upset with him,” the report says. “Dusty told me his grandparents were present during the time.”

The report continues, “Dusty stated that Steve told him that he was not going to let Dusty deface the family by carving on himself. Dusty stated that Steve then took him and began to sand the initials off his chest… Steve sanded on each side of his chest for at least five minutes… Steve used a very coarse sandpaper to sand off the initials.”

The report goes on, “Dusty told me that the process was very painful, but that he did not cry because he knew that Steve would continue the process for a longer period of time.”

The report says that by Dusty’s account, the grandmother was in the room the whole time, but the grandfather got up and left halfway through. Steve kept sanding.

“Dusty told me that Steve told him that if the sanding did not remove the initials, that he would fillet the initials off Dusty’s chest,” the report says.

The sandpaper did the job.

“Dusty told me that after Steve was finished with the sanding process, that the areas were bleeding,” the report states. “Dusty told me that his grandmother told Dusty to clean the area up and not to have a pity party.”

The report further recounts, “His grandmother told him to shower if he wanted to, but to make sure that he cleaned the wounds with alcohol and put Neosporin on them. Dusty told me that he did as his grandmother instructed and then went to bed.”

Dusty continued to fear his uncle Steven for years. Five years later, when interviewed by federal investigators, the 21 year old “said he feared that when Steven Hammond learned he had talked to police that Steven would come to his front door and kill him.”

These are the things we know about the Hammonds. 

Regardless of anyone’s feelings on their sentencing, characterizing them as model citizens is more than worrisome. The support from Congressman Greg Walden, Oregon Farm Bureau, and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, who have stridently argued for their pardon, is concerning, and speaks to how law and order, right and wrong, matter little when you come from a position of privilege and can rally powerful special interests to your side. It speaks to a vision of the West where making violent threats to federal employees and public land, beating children, and destroying public property are seen as heroic qualities.

Despite embodying some of the worst qualities of the West, the case of the Hammonds could have been a victory for fixing laws long regarded as broken. Instead, it became something worse: vindication.

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