A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed claims by three anti-nuclear weapons activists who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in July that a so-called sabotage charge filed against them in December was the result of vindictive and selective prosecution.
The defendants had asked the U.S. District Court in Knoxville to dismiss that charge, which carries a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years. They alleged government prosecutors sought the new charge because they had earlier refused to plead guilty to less serious charges.
In January, attorneys for the three protesters—Greg Boertje-Obed, Megan Rice, and Michael Walli—alleged the government had retaliated against the defendants for exercising their constitutional right to a trial.
But the new sabotage charge, which was part of a superseding indictment filed in December, is not evidence of vindictive and selective prosecution, U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar said in an order and opinion filed Tuesday. The common element of vindictive and selective prosecution is that the prosecution must have acted unreasonably or done something wrong.
Thapar said a U.S. Supreme Court case, Bordenkircher v. Hayes, held that a prosecutor does not violate a defendant’s due process rights when the defendant is openly presented with the alternatives of foregoing trial or facing charges on which he or she was plainly subject to prosecution. The Supreme Court explained that plea bargaining is an accepted practice that benefits both the prosecution and the defendant, Thapar said.
In the case against the Y-12 protesters, the prosecution offered the defendants two alternatives: plead guilty to the original indictment, which was filed in August, or proceed to trial and face higher charges in a superseding indictment, Thapar said.
“Under Bordenkircher then, the prosecution did nothing wrong, and the defendants cannot make out a claim for selective or vindictive prosecution,” Thapar said.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Jeffrey E. Theodore and Melissa M. Kirby had argued in January that the protesters’ claims that they were being punished for exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial ignored established case law and mischaracterized the plea negotiation process.
“Threatening more serious charges if a defendant will not plead guilty is not unreasonable,” Theodore and Kirby said, also citing the Bordenkircher case.
Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli are accused of sneaking 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. Besides the sabotage charge—which alleges they damaged national defense premises while intending to harm the national defense—they have also been charged with property destruction and property depredation. However, the government has asked the court to dismiss the property destruction charge, saying it has been unable to establish jurisdiction.
The trial against Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli starts Tuesday.