Appellate court reverses Oak Ridge Plowshares sabotage conviction

This article appears in the Nuclear feature series. View the full series.

A divided 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the sabotage convictions of three Plowshares protestors, one of them a nun in her mid-80s, and remanded the case to a lower court.

The three-judge panel upheld one conviction against the trio on a charge of depredation of property.

The decision was issued May 8.

Judges Raymond J. Kethledge and Jeffrey J. Helmick voted to overturn the convictions. Judge Danny J. Boggs dissented from the majority decision.

Sr. Megan Rice, a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus from Washington, Michael Walli, also from Washington, and Greg Boertje-Obed from Duluth, Minnesota – the men were Army veterans – were convicted in 2013 of the sabotage and depredation of property counts, and were sentenced in February 2014 to 35 months on each count, to be served concurrently.

All three were freed from prison late May 15 after defense attorneys in the case, filed documents with the court calling for the Plowshares activists' immediate release. The court agreed after federal prosecutors did not object.

The decision returns the case to U.S. District Court in Knoxville. Bill Quigley, a defense attorney in the case said July 8 has been set as a tentative resentencing date.

Federal prosecutors had 14 days from the original decision to decide whether to file an appeal of the circuit court's decision.

Kethledge's majority opinion said the Sabotage Act under which the three were convicted does not define "the national defense." A 1941 Supreme Court ruling, he noted, held that it was "a generic concept of broad connotations."

If such is the case, Kethledge said, the definition of national defense "is so general – and thus vague – as to be of limited use for purposes of the Sabotage Act. It is hard to determine what amounts to 'interference with' a 'generic concept.'

"It is not enough for the government to speak in terms of cut fences or delayed shipments or pens stolen from the Pentagon," he added. "What the government must establish, rather, is something functional: that the defendant's actions were either consciously meant or practically certain to impair the nation's capacity to wage war or defend against attack. . . . The government has not made that showing, or even tried."

The Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee does not make weapons, nor does it store weapons other than the arms used by Army guards and private security guards who work there, Kethledge said. "None of the guards who responded to the defendants' intrusion were building bombs beforehand. And so far as resources are concerned, guards are a sunk cost once hired," he added. "To say that these guards were diverted from their duties is like saying a pilot is diverted from his duties when he flies a plane."

Boggs, in his dissent, said, "The facility stores and makes available highly enriched uranium and other nuclear-weapons components, even though its uranium stores were not being used for manufacturing weapons right now. Interference with the facility has the potential to obstruct the production of nuclear weapons."

He added, "The existence and degree of intent to obstruct was presented to the jury, and I would not override its judgment by declaring as a matter of law that no rational jury could find the intent to obstruct, simply because the obstruction here was by disrupting the general operation of the facility, rather than destroying a specific item."

This story was updated May 18.