Evolving scene on sentencing for Y-12 protesters


The Transform Now Plowshares, from left, Greg Boertje-Obed, Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli. (KNS photo/Saul Young)

Today’s sentencing hearing for the Plowshares protesters has been shifted from noon to 1:30 p.m., with all three to be in court at the same time, and there seems to be renewed optimism in the defense camp for reduced sentences by U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar.

The cause for optimism relates to a “friend-of-the-court” brief that was filed late Monday by Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. The federal judge had requested the legal brief, which deals with the flexibility in sentencing individuals under the felony convictions for sabotage, and it appears that Berman’s interpretation would give the judge some additional ability to distinguish between terrorists and anti-nuclear weapons activists and perhaps consider other “good works” in possibly departing from the sentencing commission’s recommended guidelines.

The attorneys for the Y-12 protesters — Michael Walli, Greg Boertje-Obed and Sister Megan Rice — filed a response Monday night at the judge’s request to address Berman’s brief and to provide additional arguments for a possible reduction in sentences for the Walli, Boertje-Obed and Rice.

“I think the peace community is very hopeful that this will liberate the judge, to either sentence these folks to time served, in which they would leave today, or do some sort of minimum additional imprisonment — perhaps an additional year,” William Quigley, a law professor at Loyola New Orleans University who’s is working pro bono for the peace activists.

Quigley said the essence of Berman’s brief is that there is no mandatory minimum sentence and that the judge is not restricted to ruling in any particular way.

“These are peace protesters, very much not what you would think of as saboteurs,” Quigley said.

Thapar earlier had set up individual sentencing hearings for the three protesters, but he now has agreed to consolidate them again. So Walli, Boertje-Obed and Rice will all be in the courtroom at the same time, although the judge will sentence them individually.

It’s been nine months since the faith-based activists were convicted on federal charges associated with the July 28, 2012 break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge and nearly a month after the first attempt at sentencing got snowed to a halt.

The previous sentencing hearing on Jan. 18 was consolidated so that the three defendants could share common witnesses. But that portion of the hearing was completed before snow forced the early closing of the courthouse.

Walli, Boertje-Obed and Rice will each have a last chance to state their case before the judge and make an argument as to why they should received a reduced sentence and perhaps to elaborate on the reasons for their actions.

The peace activists, who referred to themselves collectively as the Transform Now Plowshares, never denied any of the actions taken at Y-12. They openly admitted, before and during the trial, that they cut through fences, spray-painted messages on structures inside the government facility, and tossed human blood on the walls of the plant’s storehouse for bomb-grade uranium.

The protesters maintained that their actions were necessary in order to protect humankind from the possibility of nuclear destruction. They also suggested that the real criminal activity is Y-12’s continued production of warhead parts.

They were convicted of sabotage and depredation of government property, both serious felony charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Theodore has argued for the court to follow the recommended sentencing guidelines for the felony convictions. He stated that the three activists have shown no remorse for their actions and, in fact, have “reveled” in their destructive acts at Y-12 and likely will do it again in the future if freed.

The still-unanswered question is whether Thapar will follow the government’s recommended sentencing guidelines for the three or accept any of the arguments for a “departure” from those recommendations.

Rice, who turned 84 years old on Jan. 31, faces a recommended sentence between 5 years, 10 months and seven years, three months. The sentences recommended for Walli, 65, and Boertje-Obed, 58, are higher, based on the number of previous convictions and other factors.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.