Federal Appeals Court Reverses Nun & Army Veterans’ Sabotage Act Convictions

Transform Now Three (Photo from Transform Now Plowshares)

A federal appeals court has reversed convictions in the case of an 85-year-old nun and two Army veterans, who broke into a United States government facility holding weapons-grade uranium, and called for nuclear weapons to be transformed into “real life-giving alternatives to build true peace.”

The activists’ sentences were vacated, and the appeals court ordered a lower court to re-sentence them.

On June 28, 2012, Megan Rice, a nun, and Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, both veterans, cut through multiple fences around the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The activists were able to get to a Department of Energy building with enriched uranium. “There the trio spray-painted antiwar slogans, hung crime tape and banners with biblical phrases, splashed blood, and sang hymns,” according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision [PDF].

The activists struck the building with small hammers, and their action effectively delayed a shipment that was supposed to arrive that afternoon.

Initially, the government charged the activists with trespassing and “injuring government property. When they refused to plead guilty, prosecutors essentially made a vindictive move and charged them with “violating the peacetime provision of the Sabotage Act,” which “Congress enacted during World War II.”

“That provision applies only if the defendant acted ‘with intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense,’ and authorizes a sentence of up to 20 years,” the appeals court explained. “A jury convicted the defendants on the sabotage count and the injury-to-property count.”

The activists argued that they had no intent to violate the Sabotage Act and could not have violated this law. The federal appeals court agreed.

By using the Sabotage Act to prosecute a nun and two Army veterans who dared to engage in an act of nonviolent resistance against nuclear weapons, the government sought to accuse them of planning to interfere with the ability of the government to maintain national security.

“No rational jury could find that the defendants had that intent when they cut the fences; they did not cut them to allow al Qaeda to slip in behind,” the appeals court declared. “Nor could a rational jury find that the defendants had that intent when they engaged in their protest activities outside the [Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility].”

True, their ultimate goal in engaging in those activities was to advance the cause of disarmament, by persuading Y-12’s employees to abandon their pursuits there. But “the ultimate end” that “compel[s] the defendant to act . . . is more properly labeled a ‘motive.’” Kabat, 797 F.2d at 587. And the defendants’ immediate purpose in hanging the banners themselves, and in otherwise erecting their shrine outside the HEUMF, was simply to protest.

Such a conclusion is a huge victory for activists, because it means the government cannot stand in court and equate an act of protest with sabotage without evidence of motive.

The appeals court also rejected the idea that the defendants meant to interfere with the national defense by creating “bad publicity” for the facility.

“First Amendment issues aside, it takes more than bad publicity to injure the national defense,” the appeals court concisely declared. (more…)