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

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.

What is remarkable is that in this case the government argued the activists had entered Y-12 ‘to further their goal of nuclear disarmament[,]’ which if realized would interfere with the national defense.” The same government that has both belligerently and sternly pressed for Iran to not even consider the development of nuclear weapons capabilities argued this in court.

If an empire like the US does not think it can keep itself “secure” without enriching uranium for nuclear weapons, then how does the US expect Iran to maintain its national security? How does it expect any country, for that matter, to maintain national security? Is this not some kind of message to various other countries that they might want to maintain their own nuclear arsenals?

Such a position on the national defense of the United States would seem to fuel a very dangerous world filled with nuclear weapons that could threaten the lives of millions.

The government had to prove that that the activists’ actions “consciously meant” or were “practically certain to impair the nation’s capacity to wage war or defend against attack.”

There was little to no evidence for the government to make such a claim:

Y-12 houses not a single weapon of any kind (other than the guards’ firearms, presumably), much less any weapons whose brief incapacitation would affect the nation’s ability to wage war or defend against attack. Nor does the facility manufacture any weapons. Instead it manufactures only components for them; and the government does not even venture to assert that the 15-day shutdown that resulted from the defendants’ actions—much less the brief shutdown that was the foreseeable result of those actions—had any effect upon the size or effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Nor, so far as the record reveals, were there any military units stationed at Y-12, much less any “fast reaction” ones whose distraction for an afternoon would have impaired the national defense.

The reasons for this protest were made clear by Rice on August 2, 2013.

“We were doing it because we had to reveal the truth of the criminality which is there, that’s our obligation,” Rice stated. “We have the power, and the love, and the strength and the courage to end it and transform the whole project, for which has been expended more than 7.2 trillion dollars. “The truth will heal us and heal our planet, heal our diseases, which result from the disharmony of our planet caused by the worst weapons in the history of mankind, which should not exist. For this we give our lives — for the truth about the terrible existence of these weapons.”

The three are part of a group called Transform Now Plowshares.

These individuals are Christian pacifists, not terrorists, who carried out an action in the best tradition of anti-nuclear protest in the United States. Fortunately, the court understood that when they heard their appeal and reversed their convictions under this antiquated law.

Image of “Transform Now Three” from Transform Now Plowshares’ website.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

  • markpkessinger

    A very just decision. The attempt to prosecute these folks under the Sabotage Act was malevolent and vindictive on the part of Obama’s Justice Department.

  • Pluto

    The intensity with which the US criminalizes the protests of its own citizens sends a loud and clear signal to the rest of the world that it is a floundering nation-state and experiencing internal political collapse.

    I especially liked this part:

    What is remarkable is that in this case the government argued the activists had entered Y-12 ‘to further their goal of nuclear disarmament[,]’ which if realized would interfere with the national defense.”

    If an empire like the US does not think it can keep itself “secure” without enriching uranium for nuclear weapons, then how does the US expect … any country … to maintain national security? Is this not some kind of message to various other countries that they might want to maintain their own nuclear arsenals?

  • kaki58

    I find it absurd that the Obama/Holder DoJ is so hell-bent on
    prosecuting protesters and whistleblowers, but the banksters and other
    economic criminals who have brought our economy and workforce to its
    knees have yet to answer for their crimes, and they never will.

  • JamesJoyce

    “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.”

    Kings have always equated protest with sabotage. This is why we have a first amendment and due process. The motive was quite clear here. An act of civil disobedience to make a political statement concerning “nuke” within the protective envelope of this biosphere.

    A nun ad two vets representing a national security threat is an absurdity given the facts here.

    Nice overcharging in this case? Dumb and a waste of money. Go after wall street losers and monied schmoozers, if you want to nix some real threats to a republic’s national security and long term welfare!

  • JamesJoyce

    “….financial institutions or standing armies?”
    Rings true. Just wondering how an American can compete with .56 cents and hour. It is like me competing with “Dred Scott” for a job!

    Even play a soccer game on a pitched soccer pitch? I have…. Many times

    Not fun running uphill to score a goal after your legs have taken a pounding running downhill to keep the ball out of your net.

    I’m a midfielder, no fat here… Six yard box to six yard box. My responsibility…

    In fact, the pitched field ensures an incredible waste of potential energy while running, fighting gravity. It is a losing proposition even with a pair of Nike Soccer Cleats at $250.00 a whack! No Vietnamese making .56 cents an hour will being playing soccer in a pair of Nike’s after working 13 hours a day in a listing Nike factory unless stolen. This would be little justice for what has certainly been taken from folks at a .56 cents an hour rate of pay! I’m going to burning my Nikes in protest instead of my copy of the Koran….

  • jane24

    This decision by the appeals court is good news! Reason still exists.