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Function of Juries & Jury Nullification | 17 Jan 2014

-Nun and Two Others Face up to 30 Years for Peace Activism


By National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Jim Babb, we have a follow-up to our Summer 2013 report on the “Transform Now Plowshares” peace activists.

We previously brought you news that peace activists Sister Megan Rice, 83, Michael Walli, 64, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 56, were convicted this past May of willful destruction of government property and injuring national defense premises with the intent to interfere with the national defense after penetrating a government facility. The Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is supposedly one of the most secure nuclear weapons complexes in the country. Activists acknowledged cutting the fence to gain access to the facility last July and walking unimpeded by security for over two hours before being confronted by a guard.

The group adopted the name “Transform Now Plowshares” referencing a Bible verse in the Book of Isaiah, commonly cited by peace activists, that, “They shall beat swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.” Upon accessing the facility, the peace activists unfurled banners, spray-painted peace messages, hung crime scene tape, poured blood on walls representing the blood of children killed by the weapons produced at the facility, symbolically hammered on the cornerstone of a weapons manufacturing facility, and prayed for peace.

The breach resulted in Congressional hearings that were a major public embarrassment for federal officials. Numerous embarrassing security lapses were exposed and federal investigators concluded that the National Nuclear Security Administration is plagued by ineffective management and an internal culture that prioritizes cost cutting over security. Government agents argued during the trial that the group put national security at risk with their actions, by delaying operations at the plant and damaging the credibility of the facility and of the Unites States with other countries.

Protesters were originally offered deals that did not include the high stakes security-related charge, but refused. In an emphatic statement turn down such plea deals, the group stated that, “We chose to exercise our constitutional right to a jury trial and refused to bow down to their threats. We remain convinced that making and refurbishing nuclear weapons at Y-12 is both illegal under U.S. and international law, and it is also immoral. Ultimately, we are required to follow the law of love and our consciences.”

Once they turned down plea deals and made clear that they would exercise their right to trial by jury, prosecutors stacked on a sabotage count that raised the stakes from the level of trespassing and property damage to felony charges that fall under the definition of “federal crime of terrorism”. By stacking charges against the defendants, government agents punitively increased the maximum prison term for which they were at risk from 1 year to 20 or more years each when they made clear they would exercise their Sixth Amendment rights.

In a 2012 motion, government attorneys requested that the court preclude the peace activists from introducing evidence in support of certain justification defenses including those “based on necessity; international law; Nuremburg principles; First Amendment protections; the alleged immorality of nuclear weapons; good motive; religious, moral or political beliefs regarding nuclear weapons; and the United States government’s policy regarding nuclear weapons.” The motion specifically referred to such defenses as “an indirect way to suggest jury nullification” in requesting the court to preclude the defendants from presenting evidence related to them.

It should be noted that while government attorneys went to great lengths to undermine any possibility of jury nullification, they were perfectly willing to engage in prosecutorial nullification in the form of a plea bargain, conditional (among other things) on the defendants foregoing their right to the benefits of trial by jury. When the defendants did not willingly cede their rights, the prosecution and judge then took other measures to deny the defendants their full right to the benefits of trial by jury, by preventing the jurors from being fully informed.

Also of note is the similarity of prosecutors’ requests to prohibit certain defenses to the successful strategies used in the Camden 28 trial some 40 years prior in the Spring of 1973. All defendants in the Camden 28 trial acknowledged they had technically violated the law, but were unanimously acquitted on all charges through conscientious acquittal by the jurors who heard the case.

While jury nullification was not directly mentioned by name during the trial, defense attorneys and defendants alike invoked the language of conscience and of protection of defendants against abuse of power by government. Defense attorney Francis Lloyd noted that the charges were not motivated by justice, but rather by retribution, pointing out that, “The shortcomings in security at one of the most dangerous places on the planet have embarrassed a lot of people. You’re looking at three scapegoats behind me.” Defense attorney Bill Quigley urged jurors to “protect all of us from the government gone overboard,” by voting ‘Not Guilty’. “Sometimes they overreach,” Quigley pointed out. Attorneys asked jurors to recognize the difference between symbolic political protest and an actual national security threat, pointing out that the peace activists carried no weapons, never tried to break into any buildings, and that even federal officials have said there was never any danger of protesters reaching sensitive materials.

Representing himself, defendant Greg Boertje-Obed informed jurors that they are “the conscience of the community” and ended his statement with a quote from the Book of Hebrews: “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” Boertje-Obed had previously noted during arraignment proceedings the history of juries siding with peace activists: “ Juries have found [plowshare activists] not guilty and judges have ruled [so] on international law. There are precedents that juries do agree with these actions.”

Faced with the prospect of incarceration, Sister Megan Rice was not worried, commenting that “I’ve been in prison. There are wonderful people in prisons. It was really hard for me to leave after only six days with the women I was with only that time. I’ve been in other prisons for six months. And they’re wonderful people.”

All three peace activists are currently incarcerated pending sentencing, an event that is scheduled just days from now. Jim Babb passed along to us this article from Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones, who reports that this is just part of a pattern of heavy-handed government crackdowns on very minor offenses committed as acts of civil disobedience.

Nun Faces up to 30 Years for Breaking Into Weapons Complex, Embarrassing the Feds

It was the latest in a string of heavy-handed crackdowns on activists who’ve dared to engage in vital acts of civil disobedience. In 2011, for example, federal prosecutors charged internet activist Aaron Swartz with 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act carrying a maximum sentence of 35 years after he uploaded millions of papers from the scientific database JSTOR in a ploy to “liberate” publicly funded research; he hanged himself last January. Since September 2012, the journo-activist Barrett Brown has been imprisoned on a 17-count federal indictment related to his work exposing the surveillance of other activists by private government contractors. He faces a maximum 105-year prison sentence.

Even if the judge gives Sister Rice a more lenient sentence, as seems likely, she could still end up spending the rest of her life behind bars. “It’s of absolutely no consequence to her,” says her friend Ralph Hutchison, coordinator for the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. “As a nun she believes strongly that she is called to be a servant of God wherever she is.”

A consolidated sentencing hearing for the three peace activists is currently scheduled in federal court in Knoxville, TN beginning at 9:00am on Tuesday, January 28, 2014. More information on the hearing and other related activities are available from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.

Additional Information:
Sister Megan Rice Sentencing Memo
Mike Walli Sentencing Memo
Greg Boertje-Obed Sentencing Memo

United States Consolidated Sentencing Memorandum and Response to Defendants’ Motions for Downward Departure And/Or Variance