Appeals filed for Y-12 protesters; legal team challenges the government’s sabotage arguments


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

The legal team for three Plowshares protesters has filed an appeal with the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, challenging their convictions on a sabotage charge for breaking into the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge and taking action — such as splashing a wall of the uranium storehouse with human blood — to draw attention to the government’s plan to upgrade its weapons-making capabilities.

The protesters were convicted and sentenced on federal felony charges for the July 28, 2012 intrusion. The most serious charge was attempting to injure the national defense, which falls under the Sabotage Act and carries stiff penalties.

“It is only through a distorted and unmoored interpretation of the Sabotage Act that the Government was able to secure convictions in this case,” the appeal filed Monday night stated.

Sister Megan Rice, 84-year-old Catholic nun, was sentenced to slightly under three years in prison, and she’s currently incarcerated at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Metropolitan Detention Center. Her partners in protest, Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, and Michael Walli, 65, are housed at federal prisons in Kansas and Pennsylvania, serving sentences of five years and two months.

During their trial last year in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, the three protesters freely admitted that they broke into Y-12 during the night and cut through four security fences to reach the plant’s interior “Protected Area” — where enriched uranium is stored and where warhead parts are manufactured. However, they refused to acknowledge their actions as a crime, saying the only crime was perpetrated by the government’s National Nuclear Security Administration and its Y-12 contractor.

Federal prosecutors argued that the break-in and security response interrupted some national defense activities at Y-12 and damaged the reputation of the U.S. weapons complex.

The case received international attention, and the federal appeal for the protesters is being handled pro-bono by attorneys with Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, an international law firm based in California.

According to the legal brief filed Monday, federal prosecutors were able to convince a jury of a sabotage charge by erroneously leading them to believe the national defense was at stake when the protesters came on site and spray-painted buildings and did other symbolic acts.

“Under the Government’s interpretation, large swathes of individuals could be convicted simply for knowingly defacing government property,” the appeal states. “While that may amount to a federal offense, it does not constitute intent to injure or interfere with the national defense and certainly does not constitute sabotage. The district court recognized as much, but the prosecution was still permitted to advance these arguments before the jury.”

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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.