KNOXVILLE—The Catholic nun, house painter, and laborer who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in July and splashed human blood and spray-painted slogans on a uranium storage building were found guilty on two federal counts Wednesday, one charging them with property depredation of more than $1,000 and the other alleging they willfully injured national defense premises.
The three protesters—Megan Rice, 83; Michael R. Walli, 64; and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57—were taken to the Blount County jail after the verdict was read at the end of a two-day trial in U.S. District Court in Knoxville. Dozens of courtroom supporters sang softly as the three anti-nuclear weapons activists were taken into custody after about 2.5 hours of deliberations by the nine men and three women on the jury panel.
Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli have a detention hearing on Thursday morning. Each faces up to 30 years in prison.
During the trial and in media interviews, the protesters acknowledged sneaking into Y-12 before dawn on July 28 and cutting through three fences in a high-security Protected Area before vandalizing the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, where most of the nation’s bomb-grade uranium is stored. But they said their unprecedented intrusion was peaceful, religiously motivated, and nonviolent, a symbolic disarming of Y-12.
Prosecutors, however, argued that the security breach significantly disrupted Y-12 and interfered with the national defense. A secret shipment of materials that had been scheduled to arrive at the 811-acre plant on July 28 had to be delayed, and nuclear operations shut down for about two weeks, prosecutors and government witnesses said. The breach damaged Y-12’s credibility, and it cost $8,532 to repair fences and pressure wash and paint damaged walls and barricades, the prosecution and its witnesses said.
“The defendants intended to cause an interruption with Y-12 operations,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Theodore said during closing arguments Wednesday afternoon. “When you interfere with Y-12, you are interfering with the national defense of the United States.”
But defense attorney Bill Quigley of New Orleans, co-counsel for Walli, compared the protesters to a thermometer that has registered a fever-level temperature. The protesters had helped illuminate the need to make crucial security system repairs, including to a critical camera that hadn’t been working, he argued.
“Our country is not threatened by these people who can get senior discounts and walk onto this place,” Quigley said.
The defendants testified that they did not intend to disrupt Y-12 operations.
“Our intent was to bring healing and forgiveness and love,” Rice said. “I want to transform nuclear weapons by dismantling and recycling.”
“We did not intend to injure or destroy the national defense,” Boertje-Obed said.
Theodore said other demonstration locations would have been available to the protesters, including the New Hope Center at Y-12 and A.K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge.
Wednesday’s verdict came roughly nine months after the security breach, which led to staff changes, federal investigations, congressional hearings, a temporary shutdown in nuclear operations, the firing of a security guard, and the termination of a contract with former security company WSI Oak Ridge. The intrusion at Y-12, the “Fort Knox of Uranium,” surprised many and embarrassed government and contractor officials.
It’s only the fourth time nuclear weapons protesters have been charged with federal offenses at Y-12, and the first time defendants have faced felony charges, said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, which organizes regular vigils and demonstrations at the plant.
It is possible that the defendants could still be acquitted on the most serious charge, the national defense charge. That charge by itself carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. After the government rested its case Tuesday, the defense moved to acquit the protesters on that charge, saying the government didn’t have sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction. Specifically, the government hadn’t shown that Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli intended to interfere, injure, or obstruct the national defense, an intent that is required to convict them on that charge, Quigley said.
U.S. District Court Judge Amul Thapar hasn’t ruled on the motion to acquit yet.
Note: This story was last updated at 2 a.m. May 9.