In the end, U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar showed some leniency to the Y-12 protesters, handing out lower-than-recommended sentences to the three, but he emphasized Tuesday that no matter how much he admired their conviction to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, the law comes first.
“In our country I firmly believe that breaking the law is not the answer (to making change). The political process is,” Thapar said before sentencing Sister Megan Rice, the 84-year-old Catholic nun, and her co-defendants, Michael Walli, 65, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 58.
He refused to grant the nun’s request for a sentence that would keep her in federal prison for the rest of her life. He sentenced her to 35 months — only half of the low end of the government’s recommended sentencing range — saying he hoped that when she was released she would use her “brilliant mind” to make a difference in Washington, D.C., rather than commit crimes in Tennessee.
Walli and Boertje-Obed were each sentenced to 5 years and 2 months in prison. Those sentences also were significantly lower than the government’s recommended punishment for the pair, each of whom has been arrested dozens of times for protest actions.
All three of the protesters will be placed on three years of supervised probation after release from prison. Collectively they are responsible restitution of $52,953, the reported damages done by their actions at Y-12 — which included cutting through multiple fences, splashing human blood on the plant’s uranium storehouse, and spray-painting messages.
“No man or group is above the law,” Thapar said.
During final statements, the Transform Now Plowshares protesters showed no remorse for breaking into the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge on July 28, 2012.
The three were convicted nine months ago on charges of sabotage and destruction of government property. But Thapar made it clear early in the hearing that he did not believe the government’s sentencing guideline for those charges was appropriate for nonviolent protesters, noting that — even though they caused harm at Y-12 — they were unarmed and did not plan to disrupt operations by force.
He compared it to a would-be bank robber who shows up with a “note and hope” versus one who arrives with guns loaded and ready for action.
One goal of sentencing is to deter criminals from repeating their crimes, and during the five-hour hearing Thapar repeatedly asked defense attorneys and the federal prosecutor to recommend sentences that would serve as a deterrent.
No one ever did because they all seemed to agree there’s a likelihood that the activists will continue their protests once free and able.
William Quigley, a law professor from Loyola New Orleans University, who worked pro bono for the peace activists, said the defense team will likely appeal the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney, Jeff Theodore, who specializes in national security cases, said the protesters hurt the nation’s defense by their actions and argued that they should have received stiffer sentences within the recommended guidelines. Boertje-Obed, for instances, has been arrested more than 40 times, Theodore said, and the three have a history of recidivism and show no respect for the law.
After the hearing, however, Theodore said the federal judge had many complicated factors to consider.
“We respect the sentences he pronounced today,” he said.
Thapar quizzed Theodore a couple of times about how the nation’s defense was actually damaged by the protesters. The federal prosecutor cited previous testimony that the Oak Ridge plant’s credibility was damaged by the incursion by protesters.
Chris Irwin, an attorney representing Walli, said the Plowshares protesters considered it a miracle from God that they were able to enter the plant and find their way all the way to uranium storage facility, where they had a picnic. They never expected to be able to accomplish that and had no intention of taking down operations at the national-security plant, he said.
Irwin said Walli is “many things, but he is not a saboteur.”
Francis Lloyd, attorney for Rice, said the protesters stopped well short of doing what people with really bad intentions could have done.
The courtroom was packaged with members of the news media and peace groups supporting Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed. An adjacent courtroom was opened for the overflow.
After making her prepared statement, Rice asked the judge if she could lead the court in a song to lighten the mood, and he granted that request. She sang, “Sacred the Land,” with supporters quickly joining in. As the defendants were led from the courtroom in shackles, their supporters sang, “Rejoice in the Lord Always.”
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