By a 2-1 vote, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Knoxville, Tenn., overturned a sabotage conviction for three religious protesters on May 8.
The decision led to the release Saturday of Megan Rice, an 84-year-old nun, 59-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed and 66-year-old Michael Walli. They were arrested while infiltrating the Y-12 National Security Site near Oak Ridge National Laboratory on July 28, 2012.
Rice has been serving a 35-month sentence and the two men were working on a 65-month sentence each. Without objection by the U.S. lawyers in the case, the protesters were released based on their crime being reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor with a shorter sentence than the time they had already served.
It was surely one of the most surprising legal reversals in the history of peaceful protest. The protest was highly publicized and disruptive to some managers and employees at the nuclear facility, whose main purpose is manufacturing components for nuclear weapons.
In the aftermath, the break-in was sensationalized by powerful interests, some of whom used the July 28, 2012 incident to call for high officials to be fired while others sought a major restructuring of the Department of Energy.
The court’s rationale for its reversal is set forth in the introduction to the opinion written by Judge Raymond M. Kethledge, a Sixth District circuit judge, appointed by President George W. Bush:
In the dark of night on July 28, 2012, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, an 82-year-old nun and two Army veterans, ages 57 and 63, cut their way through four layers of fences and reached a building where the Department of Energy stores enriched uranium. There the trio spray-painted antiwar slogans, hung crime tape and banners with biblical phrases, splashed blood, and sang hymns. When a security guard finally arrived, the group offered him bread and read aloud a prepared message about “transform[ing] weapons into real life-giving alternatives to build true peace.” Then the group surrendered to the guard’s custody.
The group’s actions caused about $8,000 of damage to government property. The government eventually charged them with trespassing in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2278a(c) and injuring government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1361. When the defendants refused to plead guilty to those charges, however, the government pulled the trespassing count (which was only a misdemeanor) and instead charged them with violating the peacetime provision of the Sabotage Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2155(a), which Congress enacted during World War II. That provision applies only if the defendant acted “with intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense,” and authorizes a sentence of up to 20 years. A jury convicted the defendants on the sabotage count and the injury-to-property count. On appeal, the defendants argue that, as a matter of law, they lacked the intent necessary to violate the Sabotage Act. We agree; and thus we reverse their sabotage convictions and remand for resentencing.