After a short deliberation the jury delivered a partial verdict, and it was bad news for ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond.
It was 2012, and at a jury hearing the Hammond arson case convicted Steven on two counts on arson, and his father Dwight on one count. Meanwhile, there were several other charges looming, and with each count carrying minimum sentences under a 1996 law used to prosecute terrorism, the Hammonds' attorney decided it was time for a plea.
“The idea is there will be no further proceedings beyond this court and will be done at the sentencing,” Steven Hammond’s lawyer told the court.
His father's attorney agreed.
“He’s agreeable to wave his appellate rights to bring this matter to a close,” Dwight Hammond’s lawyer said. “And the parties would accept the ... sentence that’s imposed.”
The federal government’s attorney made it clear the recommendation would be the mandated minimum under the law.
“I want to make sure the Hammonds understand that under the statute the government is obligated to recommend a five-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment,” court records show the federal prosecutor saying. “I think your lawyer has told you that, but I wanted the record to reflect that your gentlemen have been so warned what the sentence is going to be that I’m going to be asking for.”
The men understood, and agreed to it. In fact, as part of the plea deal, Steven Hammond would serve his two sentences concurrently, so he would be out around the same time as his father.
As part of the plea, the government agreed the Hammonds “should remain released pending the court’s sentencing decision.”
“He wants this matter to be finished,” Steven Hammond’s attorney told the court.
After the pleas were entered, and court began the sentencing phase, the Hammonds’ lawyers argued the five-year minimum sentences were “cruel and unusual.”
“Your honor, I have known Steven Hammond and Dwight Hammond for nearly 20 years, and I think you know them as well,” said Lawrence Matasar, attorney for Steven Hammond. “I would ask your honor…that you go along with our memo." The memo argued the sentences were cruel and unusual.
Federal District Judge Michael Hogan agreed, and in an emotional sentencing hearing, ruled the mandatory minimums were “grossly disproportionate to the crimes,” saying the five-year sentences were a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
“I am not supposed to use the word ‘fairness’ in criminal law,” Hogan said during the sentencing, which would be his last after 39 years on the bench. “I know that I had a criminal law professor a long time ago yell at me for doing that. And I don’t do that. But this – it would be a sentence which would shock the conscience to me.”
Instead of five years each, Dwight Hammond was sentenced to three months, while Steven Hammond was sentenced to one year and one day.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni appealed the sentences to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Papagni – who didn’t return requests for comment – argued in court filings that Judge Hogan wrongly applied sentencing discretion, when the statutes clearly mandated the minimum time the Hammonds should serve.
The Hammonds' attorneys drew on emotion and the concept of “fairness” when they swayed Judge Hogan to their position. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was unmoved by those arguments. In fact, in response to the defendants’ arguments, the judges cited other cases that demonstrated seemingly extreme sentences for petty crimes.
“Given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense,” federal Judge Stephen Murphy wrote. “The Supreme Court has upheld far tougher sentences for less serious, or at the very least, comparable, offenses.”
Murphy then went on to cite several cases – including a California three-strikes case where a man was sentenced 53 years for stealing nine videotapes.
The court ordered the Hammonds to be re-sentenced. In October 2015, Chief U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken re-sentenced the Hammonds to five years per the minimum sentence mandated, minus the time they served.
Before she sentenced them, Aiken gave them the chance to address the court. They declined. Attorneys for the Hammonds did not object to the sentencing, and Aiken agreed to let the men spend the holidays at their home before reporting to prison.
The Hammonds reported to Terminal Island in Los Angeles on Jan. 2. Dwight Hammond’s sentence ends on Feb. 13, 2020, while Steven Hammond will be released on June 29, 2019.