(CN) – A nun and two veterans whose protest of nuclear weapons led them to break into the government’s uranium-storage facility did not commit sabotage, the 6th Circuit ruled.
Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed cut the fence at the Y-12 National Security Complex, a uranium-storage facility, in July 2012.
Rice was an 82-year-old Roman Catholic nun, while the two men were veterans of the U.S. Army, aged 57 and 63, at the time.
Once inside the Oak Ridge, Tenn., facility, which civilian contractors operate for the Department of Energy, the trio spray-painted anti-war slogans, hung banners with biblical quotes, splashed blood and sang hymns.
When a security guard arrived, they offered him bread, and read a prepared speech about “transforming weapons into real life-giving alternatives to build true peace,” before surrendering.
Their actions caused $8,000 in damages, delayed the arrival of a shipment, and caused the government to shut down the facility for 15 days while it investigated how its security system failed to detect the illegal entry.
Prosecutors initially charged the protesters with trespass and injury to government property, but the government replaced the trespassing misdemeanor with charges under the Sabotage Act when they refused to plead guilty.
A Knoxville jury convicted the defendants of both charges, the latter of which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Rice got a sentence of three years in prison on each count, while the veterans five years on each count.
A divided three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit overturned the sabotage conviction Friday, questioning the likelihood that the defendants knew their protest would temporarily shut down the facility.
Even if they had known, that shutdown does not likewise “show that the defendants knew their actions were likely to interfere with the national defense,” Judge Raymond Kethledge wrote for the majority.
The government did not even try, however, “to show that the defendants knew that a weeklong shutdown of Y-12 would impair the nation’s ability to wage war or defend against attack,” Kethledge added (emphasis in original).
No weapons are either built or stored at Y-12, nor are any military units stationed there, according to the ruling. The court rejected the government’s suggestion that the intrusion diverted resources that interfered with national defense simply because it distracted the facility’s guards from their normal routine.
“Responding to intrusions is what guards do, and thus not a ‘diversion’ at all,” Kethledge said. “To say that these guards were diverted from their duties is like saying a pilot is diverted from his duties when he flies a plane.”
Both cases that the government cited in support of its charges involve protests at military-operated nuclear-missile facilities, which are required to be prepared to launch bombs within 15 minutes of a presidential order to do so.
While a brief disruption at one of these facilities could have a serious impact on the nation’s ability to attack and defend, Y-12 is not similarly situated, the court found.
The government made no showing that the temporary shutdown had any effect on the size of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, the court added.
“So far as the record shows here, the defendants’ actions in this case had zero effect, at the time of their actions or anytime afterwards, on the nation’s ability to wage war or defend against attack,” Kethledge said.
He added: “Vague platitudes about a facility’s ‘crucial role in the national defense’ are not enough to convict a defendant of sabotage.”
The court also scoffed at claims that bad publicity for Y-12 amounts to sabotage.
“First Amendment issues aside, it takes more than bad publicity to injure the national defense,” the majority opinion states.
The court upheld the convictions for injuring government property, but vacated their sentences as interdependent on the overturned sabotage conviction.
“Indeed it appears that the guidelines ranges for their § 1361 convictions on remand will be substantially less than their time already served in federal custody,” the opinion concludes.
Judge Danny Boggs wrote in dissent that the defendants had intended to obstruct the production of nuclear weapons even if their chance of success was minimal.
“Obstructing a train carrying completed weapons to a submarine base may appear quite minimal and even quixotic – if the submarine goes to sea with twenty-three nuclear missiles instead of twenty-four, or if an extra half hour is required to move the train after removing the obstructers, it seems like pretty small beer,” Boggs wrote. “On the other hand, it is obviously obstructive.”
Boggs noted that the protesters themselves testified that they sought to directly oppose nuclear weapons and “begin the work of disarmament.”
“Their intent to obstruct and interfere, however couched and however quixotic, was thus something that a rational juror could find existed,” he wrote.
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