KENNEWICK - A 51-year-old man who faced spending the rest of his life behind bars instead was ordered Thursday to a five-year term for setting fire to a Kennewick apartment complex.
Richard Joseph Hammer lowered his head to the table as Judge Craig Matheson ruled that a 1984 conviction out of California didn't qualify as a strike under Washington's three-strikes law.
Hammer later thanked the judge for the decision that eventually will allow him to return to work as a union painter and pay off his court restitution.
"I still maintain that I didn't start the fire, but it doesn't matter. There were a series of events that happened and some decisions I made that obviously were not good," Hammer said. "For me to reconcile myself in my own head, I have to look at those things and take responsibility for them."
A Benton County Superior Court jury in May 2010 convicted Hammer of first-degree arson in a February 2009 fire at Kamiakin Apartments.
Hammer set the fire because he was mad at his girlfriend, who lived in one of the units.
Fire crews arrived to find three units already engulfed. Two were occupied but the residents got out safely.
The fire rapidly spread and ultimately destroyed 12 units.
Witnesses reported seeing Hammer leaving the apartment. He returned to the scene while police and firefighters still were there.
Hammer's sentencing was delayed a number of times in the past year while attorneys looked into his criminal history. At issue was a 1984 conviction in Orange County, Calif., for kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon and attempted robbery.
Deputy Prosecutor Megan Whitmire argued Thursday that Hammer's use of a knife in that case was comparable to a first-degree robbery under Washington law, and thus would give him a strike. He has a strike for a 1993 conviction in Benton County for first-degree robbery.
But Matheson ruled it was improper for him to conclude the California robbery would qualify in this state for the persistent offender law.
"My conclusion is when I read these documents I don't know what happened in California," he said. "I can only look at the documents and interpret them."
Matheson said Whitmire could take the issue before the Washington Court of Appeals for review if she strongly disagreed with his decision.
"This is an important case not just for Mr. Hammer but for the public. We want to get it right," he said, noting that's why he had insisted on extensive briefings over the months.
Hammer also has a 2000 conviction for manufacturing a controlled substance and bomb threats in Spokane.
The standard sentence range for the arson based on Hammer's criminal history was three years and 10 months to five years and one month.
Whitmire asked for the high end of the range, saying "This particular offense was somewhat more egregious than what really is required of an arson charge."
She said Hammer set the fire knowing the complex was occupied by about a dozen families and that it would lead to extensive damage.
Whitmire also asked that Hammer be ordered to undergo evaluations and follow treatment for domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health.
In September while awaiting sentencing, Hammer reportedly threatened to grab a gun and shoot the judge, his attorney and "anybody with a badge" after learning he could go to prison for life. Hammer also told a corrections officer in the Benton County jail that they would have to shoot him in the head or "euthanize" him because he wasn't going to prison for that long, a sheriff's office report said.
He apologized at a later hearing and said he had no plans to follow through on the threats and only was venting frustration.On Thursday, defense lawyer Gary Metro said Hammer knows that if he gets in trouble with the law again he is looking at a life sentence. He argued a low-end sentence would be appropriate and give him an opportunity to get back to work.
"I think that Mr. Hammer has obviously learned a very valuable lesson here," Metro said.
Hammer told Matheson he "made some bad choices that night." He said he has emotional issues and problems with seasonal affective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I need to make a plan for the wintertime because that seems to be the time when I'm in the most jeopardy," he said. "... And I guess I haven't dealt with them responsibly. I intend to make a positive plan and be proactive with that in the future."I'd like to put it behind me and start living differently ... and become a productive member of society again," he said.
Hammer has been in custody since Feb. 22, 2009, for a total of 782 days as of Thursday.
Matheson ruled Hammer should be locked up for the maximum five-year, one-month term.
"I'm taking the top (sentence) because I do think this is an aggravated arson in the first-degree because of the number of units, that people were sleeping at night and the absolute danger of this kind of conduct," Matheson said, as Hammer nodded.
"You may not accept the fact that you started the fire but the jury sure did, so it would be wrong for me to operate under any other premise."
Hammer can appeal the conviction.