Plowshares protesters found guilty of injuring national defense, damaging government property

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Assistant U.S. Attorneys Melissa Kirby, left, and Jeff Theodore, who prosecuted the Y-12 break-in case, leave the Federal Courthouse after a jury found Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed guilty on all charges. In a joint statement, Kirby and Theodore said they appreciated the jury's verdict and "hope it sends a strong message that those who attempt to compromise the security of the Y-12 National Security Complex will be vigorously prosecuted."

After 2 1/2 hours of deliberation, a federal jury today found three Plowshares protesters guilty of injuring the national defense and damaging govenment property during their July 28, 2012 break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant.

Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed were taken to Blount County Jail, where they'll spend at least one night while the legal teams argue whether they're eligible for release until sentencing (which isn't expected to take place for at least three months).

Conviction on the two federal charges carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. The charge of willfully obstructing or injuring the national defense is the more serious charge, carrying a potential sentence of 20 years and it might also keep the three in jail for the time-being. According to the discussions with U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar, the charge apparently is considered a violent crime, based on the way the law was written, and if so being held in custody is mandatory.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Thursday morning.

Jeff Theodore, assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors in closing arguments that the evidence showed that the three protesters intended to injure or obtruct the national defense. He said Y-12 is an important part of the nation's nuclear weapons production program and, as such, an important part of the nation's defense.

"When you interfere with Y-12, you are interfering with the national defense," Theodore said.

During closing arguments, William Quigley, a Loyola New Orleans law professor, asked the nine-man, three-woman jury not to get caught up in the issues that could be blamed on poor security at the Oak Ridge plant.

Don't blame the thermometer for causing the fever.

"They were the thermometer that showed what the problem was," Quigley argued, saying that the protesters were not the problem itself and that being for nuclear disarmament is not the same as intending to injure the national defense.

Rice, Walli and Boerje-Obed all testified on their own behalf, with a desginated security expert, retired Col. Ann Wright.

Testimony began Tuesday, following jury selection on Monday.

Even though the jury returned conviction on all counts against the three protesters, Thapar still has under advise a motion by defense attorneys that seeks dismissal of the charge of injuring the national defense. It reportedly is still possible that the federal judge could dismissed a charge, even after the verdict has been returned.

Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed are also convicted of depredation of government property with damages exceeding $1,000.

During his appearance, Walli testified today the government nuclear bomb work at Y-12 amounts to government-sponsored terrorism.

Wright, retired from a career in the U.S. military as well as a stint with the U.S. State Department, testified she did not think what Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed did posed a threat to national security.

The defendants acknowledged breaking into the heavily guarded nuclear plant July 28 and throwing blood on and spraypainting structures there. They readily gave themselves up when confronted by guards responding to alarms, according to a surveillance tape shown as evidence during the trial.

On Tuesday, government witnesses testified the intruders damaged property as well as the U.S.'s reputation.

The intrusion caused $8,531.67 in physical damages, according to Y-12 officials, who Tuesday produced evidence on the cost of materials -- including 100 gallons of paint -- to cover up the spray-painted graffiti and human blood on plant structures and repair four fences.

Also, according to Steve Erhart, federal manager at the nuclear weapons plant, the security breach damaged Y-12's credibility -- in the U.S. and abroad -- as a safe haven for special nuclear materials. He indicated that has an impact on nuclear deterrence.

One of the plant's missions is to support nuclear nonproliferation efforts, and Y-12 historically has received and stored nuclear materials recovered from vulnerable sites around the globe. Erhart said it's hard to explain how protesters penetrated the plant's detection-and-assessment system to countries looking to give up their nuclear materials because of their own security concerns.

Erhart, the National Nuclear Security Administration's top official in Oak Ridge, said last summer's security breach had other negative consequences.

On the same day the protesters broke into Y-12 last summer, a convoy of specially secured trucks carrying nuclear weapons parts or materials was due to arrive at the Oak Ridge plant, the federal official said Tuesday. The convoy had to be put on hold while security at the site was assessed and assured, he said.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Kirby, Erhart said the convoy was held up by its commander while Y-12 security teams canvassed the entire site to make sure there were no other threats. He did not say how long the holdup occurred but indicated the trucks were eventually able to enter the plant and carry out the delivery mission.

Federal prosecutors were seeking to establish the harm done to national defense as a result of the intrusion to support the sabotage charges brought against Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed.

However, defense attorneys repeatedly questioned the government witnesses about the behavior of the protesters. They emphasized that the peace activists offered no resistance when confronted at the scene and that their acts -- and items they brought to the site, including white roses, bread and Bibles -- were symbolic in nature and did not pose a threat to anyone.

Countering the prosecution's argument that the trespassing was willful, Quigley, who's serving as co-counsel for Walli, vehemently argued that federal authorities had not produced evidence that showed the "intent" of the three defendants was to injure, interfere or obstruct the national defense.

Quigley said there was abundant evidence, including Tuesday's testimony by Erhart, that security at Y-12 is significantly better now than it was before the July 28, 2012 intrusion. He also said the protesters could not have foreseen the impacts.


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    Frank MungerSenior 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. Contact Frank.

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