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Four activists face prison time

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Towson, Md.

Not much has changed about Philip Berrigan since 1968 when his anti-Vietnam War protests landed him on the cover of Time magazine with his brother, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan. At age 76, Berrigan welcomed in year 2000 from a Baltimore County jail cell.

By his own account, Berrigan has spent more than nine years in jail and prison for acts of civil disobedience. On March 23, Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. made sure Berrigan will spend at least another New Year’s Day - perhaps two - in a Maryland prison. He sentenced the former Josephite priest and three other Catholic pacifists for using hammers and blood to damage two Air National Guard A-10 Warthog warplanes last December to protest the United States’ use of depleted uranium in recent wars against Iraq and Yugoslavia.

Smith, who was once named “Man for All Seasons” by the St. Thomas More Society of Maryland, a Catholic lawyers group, sentenced Berrigan to 30 months in prison for malicious destruction of property and conspiracy. Smith far exceeded the 6-to-12 month guidelines the prosecutor, assistant state’s attorney Mickey Norman, requested for Berrigan.

In addition, Elizabeth Walz, 33, a Catholic Worker from Philadelphia, was sentenced to 18 months, exceeding the guidelines’ 0-to-1 month sentence. Susan Crane, 56, of Baltimore, and Jesuit Fr. Stephen Kelly, 50, of New York were sentenced to 27 months each, exceeding the guidelines’ 2-to-9 months.

Smith also ordered the defendants to share in paying $88,622.11 in restitution for the damage. The large damage total justified stiff sentences, Smith said. The judge imposed a cash bail of $90,000 each, “to be paid by the defendants only,” in the event the four seek appeals.

Calling themselves “Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium,” the four admitted to using bolt cutters to gain access to Warfield Air National Guard Base in Middle River, Md., during the predawn hours of Dec. 19, 1999. Citing Isaiah 2:4 (“They shall beat their swords into plowshares”), the activists hammered and poured blood on two A-10s, which use Gatling guns to fire various types of depleted uranium shells.

“This criminal plane fired 95 percent of the depleted uranium deployed by the U.S. during the Gulf War ... poisoning humans and the elements in Kuwait and Iraq,” the four wrote in a statement.

During his opening argument, prosecutor Norman said the four had taken hammers to property not belonging to them, something you couldn’t do “unless of course there is a legally justifiable reason. The defendants might believe there is a moral justification, but this is a court of law. There wasn’t a legal justification.”

Smith agreed to Norman’s pretrial motion prohibiting “the defense from introducing evidence and/or propounding argument concerning depleted uranium.” The motion, upheld for most of the trial, prevented the defendants from using a defense based on international law or necessity. The motion also kept the defense from calling various expert witnesses to bolster their case.

On the third day of the four-day trial, the defense called depleted uranium expert Doug Rokke as a witness. Rokke, a Jacksonville State University professor and Army Reserves major, himself stricken from exposure to depleted uranium, was only permitted to give his name and academic credentials. Immediately following Rokke’s limited testimony, the defendants stood and turned their backs on the bench as Crane, one of the defendants, read a statement.

“We cannot put on a defense about the dangers of depleted uranium and our rights and duties under international law,” Crane said. Smith ordered her to cease and desist, but Crane persisted. “We have been denied our right to testify about these topics,” she said. “We have been denied our expert witnesses. Therefore, we can’t go forward. We will not participate in what amounts to a legal gag order.”

Earlier in the day Crane had refused to answer the prosecutor’s questions about who drove the van that let the four activists off outside the base gates the morning of the action.

During the disruption a woman in the gallery stood and yelled out, “I drove the van.” Seconds later, others joined in shouting, “I drove the van.” Soon, more than 100 spectators were openly proclaiming conspiratorial ties to the four as Smith called for order. When Crane was finished, Kelly, a former missionary in Sudan and Central America, began reading aloud the day’s scripture passage from Jeremiah.

Smith ordered sheriff’s deputies to clear the courtroom of everyone except reporters. After a recess, only Berrigan returned to the courtroom to tell the judge the four intended no disrespect for Smith or Norman, but they would no longer participate in an unjust trial.

“The courts of this country are identified with the Pentagon and the government,” Berrigan said outside the presence of the jury. “There’s no way that nonviolent resistance can get a serious hearing in this country.”

On the final day of the trial none of the defendants was in the courtroom when Norman made his closing arguments. The jury deliberated more than four hours before reaching verdicts.

Crane had been charged with assault because a guard said he felt threatened by her hammer, but the jury could not reach a verdict on the charge and it was dropped. Crane’s defense against the assault charge was probably bolstered by the character testimony of Detroit Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, who said Crane “had a deep commitment to nonviolence. Her integrity to me is beyond question.” When Norman asked the bishop if destroying property was evidence that Crane was violent, Gumbleton replied: “I don’t see damaging property as a violation of peacefulness.”

After sentencing, Berrigan’s wife, Elizabeth McAlister told supporters: “They were prepared for the worst and they got it.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000