WASHINGTON, D.C. — Seven Catholic anti-nuclear protesters were found guilty on charges related to entering an East Coast naval base and symbolically damaging weapons systems following a four-day trial in federal court in Georgia.
A 12-member jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia in Brunswick convicted the activists Oct. 25.
Jurors found them guilty of conspiracy, trespass and destruction and depredation of property related to their protest at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in southeast Georgia on the night of April 4-5, 2018.
The Catholic peace activists who call themselves the Kings Bay Plowshares were disappointed with the jury’s decision, said attorney Bill Quigley, a member of the legal team representing the protesters.
“They know the odds are overwhelmingly against them,” Quigley told Catholic News Service. “But they got to go court to tell the truth, to teach and to preach and witness to the dangers of nuclear weapons.”
U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, who presided over the trial, set sentencing in 60 to 90 days.
The seven were charged after entering the submarine base, the East Coast home of the Trident nuclear submarine. The full fleet of Tridents carry about half of the U.S. active strategic nuclear warheads, according to military observers.
They said they chose the date to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and to “repent of the sin of white supremacy that oppresses and takes the lives of people of color here in the United States and throughout the world.”
The group includes longtime peace activists and several Catholic Workers.
They are Elizabeth McAlister, 79, of Jonah House in Baltimore; Jesuit Father Steve Kelly, 70 of the Bay Area in California; and Catholic Workers Carmen Trotta, 56 of New York City; Clare Grady, 51 of Ithaca, New York; Martha Hennessy, 63, of New York, granddaughter of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day; Mark Colville, 56, of New Haven, Connecticut; and Patrick O’Neill, 62, of Garner, North Carolina.
During the trial, federal prosecutors and military officials neither confirmed nor denied the existence of nuclear-tipped weapons at the base, as per government policy.
The trial included testimony from the military police officers who arrested the protesters describing how they discovered them in two locations on the base. The prosecution entered as evidence a 10-foot section of cut fence and photos of the protesters as well as materials confiscated from them including a banner describing nuclear weapons as immoral and illegal, bolt cutters, prayer books and video cameras.
A facilities management specialist on the base testified that it cost $31,833 to clean and repair the damage caused by the symbolic disarmament action.
Wood allowed several items the seven defendants carried onto the base as evidence despite repeated government objections. Such items included an “indictment” that nuclear weapons are always illegal that Wood allowed Hennessy to read in court.
Hennessy described the action that she and the others had undertaken as “sacramental” and required that they enter the base rather than protest legally at its gates.
Videos made by the defendants as they carried out their symbolic disarmament action were played during the trial. In one, Hennessy, Grady, O’Neill and Colville could be heard reading biblical passages from a prayer book as they waited for the authorities to arrive.
All of the activists except Kelly, who declined to take the witness stand, told the court how their action was rooted in Catholic teaching and the Scriptures.
Trotta explained that the group, which had broken into three segments, waited, undiscovered, for nearly two hours to be apprehended.
On Oct. 18, three days before the trial opened, Wood limited the arguments the defendants could make in their defense and denied permission to four expert witnesses to testify.
Among those Wood blocked were Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of Jackson, Mississippi, and Daniel Ellsberg, a former national security analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon study detailing government decision-making during the Vietnam War to several newspapers.
Kopacz testified during an earlier court hearing on the legitimacy of faith-based nonviolent protest. Quigley said the bishop remained in Georgia to watch the trial.
“I asked Liz McAllister, ‘Do you have to win the case to be successful?'” Quigley told CNS. “She said, ‘We’re not about being successful. We’re about being faithful.”
“So the trial was part of their continuing witness to expose the evils of nuclear weapons and to live out the demands of their faith. In that sense it was successful,” Quigley said.
In August, Wood denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the charges because their actions were motivated by their faith and thus protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Supporters of the activists delivered a petition Oct. 17 to Attorney General William Barr at the Department of Justice in Washington bearing the signatures of people worldwide calling for the charges against the seven to be dismissed.
As the trial proceeded Oct. 23, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, sent a statement of support to the group, offering his prayers that justice be carried out in the courtroom.
“Those standing trial today and their supporters are the people who show that our faith is ever alive and that the Word of God cannot be silenced. They demonstrate that the prophet Isaiah’s command to ‘beat swords into plowshares’ is still true today,” Tobin wrote.
“In them we see the best of our faith, the best of the memory of Dr. King and the best of ourselves,” the statement said.
In the days leading up to the trial, supporters from around the country gathered in Brunswick. They participated in prayer vigils and church rallies before filling Wood’s courtroom to observe the trial and a neighboring room, where a television monitor carried the proceedings.
Father Bob Cushing, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Waycross, Georgia, who spent a month behind bars for protesting at the naval base in the 1980s, watched the trial for two days in the overflow room. He said he wanted to “support his friends” with his presence.
“I feel I’m a part of this because my heart has been in this place since the early 1980s,” he told CNS.
The protest was the most recent of more than 100 plowshare actions by Christian pacifists worldwide that began in Pennsylvania in 1980. Those involved have said they are motivated by the biblical call in Isaiah 2:4 to beat swords into plowshares.
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