Federal judge orders Y-12 protesters jailed until September sentencing

Y-12 Plowshares Protesters

Pictured above are the three anti-nuclear weapons protesters who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex and vandalized a uranium storage building on July 28. From left, they are Michael Walli, Megan Rice, and Greg Boertje-Obed.

The three protesters who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in July and vandalized a uranium storage building must stay in jail until they are sentenced Sept. 23, a federal judge said Friday.

The three protesters—Greg Boertje-Obed, 57; Megan Rice, 83; and Michael Walli, 64—had sought to be released until their sentencing hearings this fall. They each face up to 30 years in prison.

But U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar denied that request in a four-page order filed late Friday afternoon.

Under federal law, he said, there is a strong presumption in favor of detention in this case, and the defendants don’t meet the conditions that would allow them to rebut that presumption. To be freed, they would have to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that they aren’t likely to flee or pose a danger, and they would have to demonstrate that their motions for acquittal will be granted or that the prosecution won’t recommend prison sentences.

But federal prosecutors have said they plan to recommend a prison sentence, and the U.S. District Court in Knoxville previously denied an acquittal motion on one of the charges, willful destruction of government property, Thapar said. That charge by itself carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Thapar said Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli also haven’t shown that there are exceptional circumstances that would warrant their release.

The three protesters were convicted in federal court on Wednesday of willful destruction of government property and injuring national defense premises with the intent to interfere with the national defense. A jury found them guilty on both counts after 2.5 hours of deliberation at the end of a two-day trial.

The three defendants, all anti-nuclear weapons activists, acknowledged breaking into Y-12 before dawn on July 28, cutting through three fences in a high-security Protected Area, and splashing human blood and spray-painting slogans on the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, where most of the nation’s bomb-grade uranium is stored. They called their intrusion, or “action,” Transform Now Plowshares. They said they were peaceful protesters who were motivated by religion and on a mission to symbolically disarm Y-12, which works on components for every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal.

Government prosecutors, however, argued that the unprecedented security breach caused a significant disruption, delaying a secret shipment scheduled to arrive at Y-12 the day of the intrusion and forcing a two-week shutdown in nuclear operations at the 811-acre plant. 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.

Paul Magno, a member of a Washington, D.C., Plowshares support group who was at the trial this week along with dozens of other supporters and activists, called the judge’s decision on Friday “very disappointing but not a terrible surprise.

“Peacemakers under lock and key; nuclear terror has carte blanche,” Magno said. “What a mixed-up ‘justice’ system we have.”

Contacted earlier Friday, Sharry Dedman-Beard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tennessee’s Eastern District, said her office will not be issuing any statements on the case until after the three defendants are sentenced.

“They are all currently in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and will be placed by them as appropriate,” Dedman-Beard said.

Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli were listed as inmates in the Knox County jail on Friday evening.

Note: This story was last updated at 7:52 p.m.


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  • Carol Green

    While we continue to press on with plans to build a “new & improved” bomb plant (the Uranium Processing Facility – UPF), the peace activists’ reminder of the U.S. Constitution’s recognition of the supremacy of treaties (Article VI) was not allowed in federal court. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) went into force in 1970 to press all countries to build down, not up. Does it have to take another use of nukes to wake us up? How vulnerable to an “accidental” event we are living at Ground Zero! It’ll take many more prayers in action to Transform as prophet Isaiah called for.

    • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

      The protesters have already been granted their lives by judicious guards. They should issue a letter of thanks to the guards on duty for sparing them.

  • Ray

    The protesters are now paying part of the price for their Civil Disobedience. The guards understood immediately that they posed no threat, although the one who had previous experience with nuclear protesters was later sanctioned for not taking somewhat harsher security measures with them. Apparently, his understanding of and trust in their motives was well-founded; They didn’t try to attack anyone, resist arrest, or escape. They wanted to make, and are making, a statement. One that each of us is free to agree with or not to the degree that our beliefs and conscience dictate.

    What would make sense here? Allow them to state their arguments, then prosecute them for their crimes–damage to fences and buildings, trespassing. Give them the average of similar sentences for similar crimes. Ask them to perform the repairs themselves or to pay for the repairs. Their conscience may require them to not do that, and then they may be fined, have wages or pensions garnisheed, or jailed as needed to recuperate reasonable costs.

    The inflation of charges to create [in name only] terrorists of peaceful activists is unfortunate, serves only the purpose of trying to dissuade and deter criticisms of government policies, and ultimately is costly to all of us. According to the Congressional Research Service, the cost per person in federal jail “increased …to $26,094 in FY2011.” I’m sure it hasn’t gone down from there. You and I will be paying roughly $78K a year to keep these three nonviolent offenders in jail, for how long?
    Somehow it seems to me a miscarriage of justice, and a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, at least some of which are mine.

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