I have just returned from the sentencing hearing of our three Transform Now Plowshares (TNP) friends in Knoxville, Tennessee who were given prison terms ranging from 35 months to 62 months, three years supervised release and nearly $53,000 in restitution. From the Festival of Hope the night before the sentencing to the witness Mike Walli, Greg Boertje-Obed and Sr. Megan Rice offered in court at their sentencing, this was a deeply inspiring hope-filled time despite the heavy sentences that were given. The spirit of community, the loving welcome and special hospitality offered by friends of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), and the speaking of truth by our three friends in the empire’s court was, for me, an infusion of hope!
This was Part II of the sentencing of the TNP that began on January 28 but was suspended due to a snow storm and continued to February 18. The bulk of the hearing, which began at 1:30 p.m. and lasted to nearly 6:00 p.m., included legal arguments by attorneys for the TNP and the government about how to apply the federal sentencing guidelines. Greg and the defense lawyers urged a significant downward departure from the guidelines referring to previous Plowshares cases of Sicken and Platte where judges had done so. But Mr. Theodore said that because these cases were in another district they did not apply. The heart of the hearing though occurred late in the afternoon when our three friends, looking pale and thin, dressed in black striped jail uniforms and wearing leg shackles and handcuffs (it should be noted that the court ordered one hand to be uncuffed during the hearing), but full of the Holy Spirit, addressed the court. They did not hold back and gave eloquent stirring statements. It was truly a sacred time and an extraordinary moment of grace for all present. The truth, so powerfully spoken by Mike, Greg and Megan in court, not only amplified the moral and legal justification for their action but also exposed, once again, the crime and sin of nuclear weapons and how the U.S. is blatantly violating God’s law, international law and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The legal exchanges that occurred between the judge and prosecutor about how long a prison sentence was warranted to deter the TNP who, they said, had no remorse for their action and utter disregard for the law, was absurd and illustrated how the law is used to sanction weapons of mass murder. It was a another reminder of how the law, as Phil Berrigan used to say, is the real obstacle to justice.
Judge Thapar received some 16,000 letters from TNP supporters encouraging leniency for our three friends. He acknowledged receiving these letters and affirmed the good works and the intentions of the three. Ultimately though, he could not grasp or accept the truth our three friends offered: that in an empire that legalizes nuclear weapons and thereby imperils all life on earth, nonviolent resistance is not only necessary but a duty under God’s law and international law to help bring about disarmament and nuclear abolition. Instead Judge Thapar asserted: “If all that energy and passion was devoted to changing the laws, perhaps real change would’ve occurred by today.” He said repeatedly that as a judge, he has to judge the actions and not viewpoints of the defendants and that he was not in a position to judge what God’s will is. He also quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens several times saying that “no person is above the law.” While declaring that he could not give the three a sentence of time served (eight months), he also said that he could not go along with U.S. District Attorney Jeff Theodore strong recommendation that the three, who Theodore described as “incorrigible” and “habitual offenders,” should be sentenced under the strict federal guidelines. Theodore also remarked that he was a Catholic himself and that while he respected the three, they are not above the law. Seeking to reconcile the sentencing guidelines with the character and personal history of the three, Judge Thapar said the guidelines do not distinguish saboteurs who truly mean harm from peace protesters who intend change. In the end, Judge Thapar, showing that he understood that the TNP were indeed peace activists, rightfully chose a sentence that was below the federal sentencing guidelines. But let’s be clear: Michael, Greg and Sr. Megan should never have been arrested, tried, convicted and given a prison sentence in the first place. And, clearly they should have been granted a sentence of time served; for their action at the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex at Oak Ridge was in accordance with God’s law and international law. They acted to prevent a crime, not to commit a crime. Thus, the real crime of nuclear war preparations at the Y-12 facility, the so-called “Fort Knox of Highly Enriched Uranium,” continues and the truth-tellers are locked up!
Here is an excellent article about the sentencing by Patrick O’Neill that was published in the February 19 National Catholic Reporter On-Line Edition. For further info about the sentencing and where to write our three friends in jail please go to this web site.
Let us all continue to keep our eyes on the prize as we strive to create the Beloved Community and a nonviolent disarmed world. And let us be filled with the same joy and hope of our three imprisoned friends. As Mike, Greg and Sr. Megan were taken out of the courtroom in chains our gathered community sang: “Rejoice in the Lord Always.”