White roses, Bibles, bolt cutters and quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr. are the tools of sabotage—at least that’s how the prosecutors and jury in East Tennessee saw it when it came time to pass judgement on Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed in the Transform Now Plowshares case.
The prosecutor asked for and received a guilty verdict from the jury on both counts—damaging federal property in excess of $1000, and intentionally injuring the national defense. The two charges carry a combined sentence of 30 years. The latter charge is commonly known as the sabotage charge.
After the jury rendered its verdict, the prosecutor moved for the judge to revoke their pretrial release and take them into custody. “The law requires it,” he said, citing chapter and verse that mandates imprisonment for violent crimes. The judge wasn’t sure, but to be on the safe side, he had Michael, Megan and Greg taken into custody to be held in jail over night. He scheduled a 9:00am hearing to sort things out from here. Ultimately, sentencing is likely to be scheduled for several months down the road.
The day began with an hour of legal wrangling the public was not allowed to hear. Just before 9:00 am the lawyers emerged to report the judge would not allow testimony about nonviolence (to explain the state of mind of the defendants) from Jim Sessions. The judge would allow testimony from Colonel Ann Wright about the national defense. And the judge would take under advisement the defense request to dismiss the sabotage charge because it had not been proven—he indicated the parties had two weeks to file motions and he would make a decision.
After that, the public was allowed in, the jury was re-seated, and Megan Rice’s questioning picked up where it left off. Melissa Kirby, Assistant US District Attorney opened her cross examination. “What do you think about what they do at Y12?” she asked. “They spend a huge amount of money,” said Megan. “Do you want to get rid of nuclear weapons?” asked Kirby. “I was to transform them,” answered Megan. “I want them dismantled.”
Megan described the mission of the Transform Now Plowshares action as a ministry of truth.
“Do you want to stop nuclear operations?” asked Melissa Kirby, setting a trap she hoped Megan would try to weasel out of in front of the jury.
“With all my heart—” said Megan. “—if you mean the use of highly enriched uranium to manufacture nuclear bombs.”
The parrying went on like that, with Megan proclaiming her guilt. “I am guilty of having waited seventy years too long before I came here. I’d never been there. Never tried to heal it.”
“Why does it need healing?” asked Kirby.
“Because they are manufacturing that which can only cause death,” said Megan.
Later Kirby tried to turn the conversation to the use of nuclear bombs near the end of World War 2.
“Do you believe the use of nuclear weapons is wrong?” asked Kirby.
“Yes, with all my heart,” said Megan.
“Do you think there is ever a time to use them?” asked Kirby.
“Never.” said Megan.
“You don’t believe deterrence keeps us safe?” asked Kirby. “I believe it is a threat to each of us,” said Megan.
“You know what you did on July 28 violated the law. Is that correct?” Kirby said.
“No!” said Megan. “I was keeping the law of the land as it is under the Constitution.” The prosecutor was trying to cut her off even as she answered. “Your honor, I believe she has answered the question!” The judge simply said, “You asked the question.”
When Kirby tried to brand Megan as a socialist because she had mentioned Seymour Melman, Megan’s lawyer intervened. But before the judge ruled, Megan said, “I don’t understand what you mean by socialist. But Melman was extremely concerned for society.”
“Do you still want to object?” asked the judge
“If Mr. Melman continues to be put on trial in his absence, I will,” said Francis.
Eventually Kirby gave up on questions altogether. After asking Megan if she had received permission from the bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville before she undertook her action, she said, “I’m a Catholic myself, and I think…” Francis Lloyd rose to object and it was sustained.
Michael Walli’s testimony followed, though it started off on a rocky note as Michael demurred when the oath was offered. “To the extent that I am permitted,” he said, referring to the judge’s decision to put some testimony off limits. The prosecution objected and there was a brief quibble session between the parties (except for Michael) and the judge, exasperated, finally said, “Do you swear to tell the truth?” Michael agreed and he was on.
Michael leaned into the microphone. “Test. Test. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. My name is Michael Robin Walli. I am a citizen, born in a farm family. I didn’t get along so well with the books, so eventually I dropped out of school.” He described reaching age 18 with few job qualifications which led him to “employment as a terrorist for the United States government in the US Army for over three years. I spent two years in Vietnam and was discharged at age 21.”
Bill Quigley interrupted to ask Michael to explain terrorist and Michael replied with more of his story. “That was before I was born again,” he said. “I was not listening to Jesus and the Jesus gospels that call us to have life and have it more abundantly; I was not listening to the great prophet Martin Luther King, Jr who condemned the war in Vietnam in 1967, a war in which more than one million non-combatants were murdered.”
Did you participate in that war, Quigley asked.
“Yes. There were atrocities. Innocent noncombatants were killed.”
When did you change your perspectives, your beliefs?
“I had misgivings. I listened some to the radio broadcasts from Monkey Mountain. I heard on the news that the southern agitator, Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain, right here in Tennessee, in Memphis. The reports talked a lot about his values—it contributed to my misgivings. You know he once said the United States was ruled by misguided men with guided missiles.
“My change was incremental. Bit by bit misgivings came into my mind. I learned about troops refusing to fight, suicide, criminal activities.”
Where is your home? Quigley asked
“I was referred to by one report as a drifter,” Michael said. “As a Christian, I am a citizen of heaven, belong to Jesus Christ, and I travel here and there. I told the reporter I am a missionary, but he insisted. I’m not complaining. You can call me anything but late for supper.”
Michael told of living at the Catholic worker, said he did manual labor, “like Jesus. I move things from here to there. I carry drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry, and I do lawn and garden work.”
He recounted coming to Oak Ridge in 2010, for the thirtieth anniversary of the Nuclear Resister, Nukewatch and the first Plowshares action, when he was arrested for crossing the fenceline at Y12. “Why did you decide to go on?” asked Bill Quigley. “Because of the need, despite the work of Dr. King and Dorothy Day, a need to institute the rule of law and also my obligation under the Nuremberg principles.”
Do you remember, asked Quigley, if Dr. King was ever called a socialist?
“He was called many things, by many people,” Michael said, “but judging by his girth, late to supper was not one of them.”
Before Michael was finished the jury had reviewed the items carried on to the site, including four Bibles, heard details of his service in Vietnam, and heard his determination to live animated by the Holy Spirit and following the rule of law, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. “We’re frail vessels,” said Mike. “We prayed a lot, even as we prepared our statement. All of it was to accomplish the rule of law.”
Asked to explain the Swords into Plowshares banner, Michael said, “It was God who introduced the idea of total global demilitarization. We didn’t invent God’s will. We were just doing it.”
Michael restated his opposition to nuclear weapons “wheresoever they may exist,” and affirmed his “benign intention and desires for all my fellow human beings.”
Asked to explain his many arrests over the last ten years, Michael said, “I have made common cause with many people who have what I call ‘the mind of Christ,’ who believe that all life is sacred, and that everyone has the right to live free of fear…all violence, all taking of life is illegal, whether it is by the United States government, or the Klan, or Al Qaeda or a radical group in Michigan—it is all illegal.”
He noted that cutting the fence at Y12 was the moral equivalent of cutting the fence at Auschwitz. By the time he came to a high point—the US violation of the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty—the prosecution jumped to object. The jury could not be allowed to hear those words. The judge sustained.
Under cross examination, Assistant DA Jeff Theodore began to review Michael’s past arrests and the judge interrupted, telling the jury they were only allowed to use the information to judge his credibility as a witness, not to judge his innocence or guilt.
As Michael responded to the questions put to him, the prosecutor stopped him and noted that he seemed to be reading answers from a paper. “Does it offend you?” asked Michael. “I want spontaneous answers,” said the prosecutor. “I am mindful of my oath. I was to read this one statement. The paper I have here is one you entered into evidence. It is the statement we took on to the site. So if you ask me what we wanted to accomplish, I want to read this statement that explains it: that all criminal activities might cease immediately.”
“Then you want all activities to stop—”
“All criminal activities,” said Michael. “We wanted to institute the rule of law”— the prosecutor interrupted him. “My intention,” Michael said, “was to institute the rule of law.”
When Theodore asked Michael if he wanted unilateral disarmament, Mike said he was not the one to determine the way Isaiah’s prophecy would come to pass; he only knew neither Jesus nor Mary had nuclear weapons in heaven.
“But just disarm? Regardless of what other countries do?”
“The United States is the leader of the free world,” said Michael, “I think we should lead the way in compliance with the rule of law.”
“I am asking for a Yes or No. It’s not complicated.”
“I am not a politician,” Michael said. “I just try to do Jesus’ will, not siding with this political faction or any other.”
The prosecutor tried to box Michael in to say he had legal options to protest nuclear weapons. “You don’t have to break in”—
Michael said. “I have an obligation to Jesus to proclaim his good word on either side of the line. Until God’s purposes are accomplished, we must persist.”
When asked if he had any remorse, Michael said, “I could never do enough to be servicable to Jesus and Mary.”
Under redirect, Michael explained to the court that some of the blood they took in was the blood of the late Tom Lewis who donated the blood to be used in other Plowshares actions. (Tom Lewis was arrested at Oak Ridge in the mid-2000s). When asked to explain the blood Michael did perhaps the best job of anyone of attaching a label to his life. “I am born again,” he said. “I live mystically.”
The next witness to take the stand was Colonel Ann Wright who came to speak about her expertise with security at US facilities. In 29 years in the Army, 13 on active duty and sixteen in the reserves, she served in NATO’s submarine command on bases around the globe. While on active reserve she worked in the state department in Nicaragua, Grenada, Kyrgystan, Uzbekhistan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia.
She described helping securing highly enrich uranium in Afghanistan for shipment to the United States (Project Sapphire in 1994). She detailed her decision to resign for reasons of conscience as she watched the Bush Administration march toward invading Iraq. She spoke of exhausting channels to express her concerns, including sending a dissent channel cable directly to Colin Powell; when she got a perfunctory reply, she realized the fix was in and resigned.
Col. Wright testified that neither protests nor vandalism harm national security, and that Y12, rather than being harmed, is more secure now than it was on July 28, because of the Plowshares incursion.
Under cross examination, Melissa Kirby extracted the fact that Col. Wright is opposed to assassination drones and has protested them.
After the lunch break, Greg Boertje-Obed took the stand, wearing an OREPA T-shirt with the Stop the Bombs stylized peace crane logo on the front and the words LOVE LIFE in large red letters on the back, just under the “Citizen Inspection Team” banner—it was a T-shirt from an action at Y12 twelve years ago.
Greg described being born in Iowa, spending high school, college and graduate school years in Louisiana, and entering the military. He spoke of his wife, Michelle, who was in courtroom throughout, and Rachel, 18, who was finishing her freshman year of college.
In the military, Greg said, he was trained to fight and “win” a nuclear war. He was trained in the effects of radiation. It was the beginning of his embrace of the anti-nuclear weapons mission that would animate his life.
Greg’s elbow counsel, Bobby Hutson, walked him through his testimony, the planning for the action, the decision to bring hammers, banners, roses and literature, including the book Christian Idolatry, Christian Revival which helped Greg understand how nuclear weapons can be an idol. He also carried his Veterans for Peace card, and recited for the jury three points on the back of the card that are read at every VFP meeting where veterans commit themselves to work to:
• end the arms race and abolish nuclear weapons
• abolish war as an instrument of international policy
• leave a legacy of real security for future generations.
Quigley walked Greg through the events of July 28, noting their determined (and successful) attempt to be nonviolent, the respect they showed the guard, their cooperation throughout the arrest process, the fact that the guard did not draw his weapon.
Prosecutor Theodore cross-examined Greg. He got Greg to admit that nuclear weapons are a false God and that having them is a reflection of idolatry, that people who build them suffer a kind of psychological blindness—“our goal was to open their eyes to allow them to come out of the way of death,” he said. “We wanted transformation. We wanted somehow to change how Y12 operates, to stop the cancers that spread around the world and even affect the workers.
Theodore referred Greg to a snippet of tape heard in a phone call he made from the jail. “You mentioned the UPF,” he said. “Why?”
Greg talked about the desire to build a new bomb plant. “You were hoping to stop that?” Theodore asked.
“With activists around the world, we hope to stop nuclear weapons production,” Greg said. “We want to transform to life-giving work.”
“Should the US, on its own, get rid of all its nuclear weapons?” Theodore asked.
“We should follow our treaties, including the Nonproliferation Treaty in which we promised to negotiate to disarm at an early date.”
Theodore tried in vain to steer Greg toward an admission that he had alternatives to the Plowshares action. “Have you ever gone to a public place?”
“Interesting you should ask that,” said Greg, and he began to tell how the government put up a fence to deny OREPA and others access to the long-standing public protest area.
“But there is the New Hope Center,” said Theodore, ever the loyal government foot-soldier. “But you have to pay a fee,” said Greg.
When Theodore quizzed Greg about the use of nuclear weapons, Greg talked about Depleted Uranium weapons. “But a thermonuclear explosion?” said Theodore. “Well, we used them in World War 2,” said Greg.
“The only time—“ said Theodore.
“Well,” said Greg, there were a lot of explosions in above ground testing.
Theodore decided he had plumbed that subject enough.
“You don’t believe in a nuclear deterrent, do you?” he asked.
“We’ve signed a treaty,” said Greg, “and promised to eliminate nuclear weapons.”
“But do you believe in deterrence?”
“Do you have any remorse for what you did?”
“Are you glad?”
Theodore returned to an earlier theme, asking Greg if there were not other places, like New Hope Center, to protest legally.
“You have to pay,” said Greg.
“A minimal fee,” said Theodore.
“No, there is insurance,” Greg said.
Theodore gave the wheel a sharp turn, but the wrong way.
“In fact,” he said to the quietest, most unassuming Plowshares activist ever, “you want as much media attention as you can get. You sought it out.”
“I wouldn’t say we sought it out,” said Greg.
“But you are going out to do interviews—“
“When we are approached,” said Greg.
We had lunch. When we returned, the judge charged the jury, going through a series of instructions and explaining the jury forms, how they had to find every element of the charge in order to convict.
Then came the closing arguments. Theodore said they had proven their case, and he replayed pieces of the grainy video they had seen earlier.
“They had a clear purpose,” he said. “They were anti-nuclear protesters. Activists. They don’t want nuclear weapons. They want disarmament.”
“They left messages. Disarm; Transform, painted on the wall. You heard Sister Rice,” and her voice came through the speakers from a radio interview: “to try to hear it, and begin the work of disarmament.”
If the goal of the Transform Now Plowshares team was to proclaim their message to the court and the jury, and through them to the media and the world, they succeeded completely, and the prosecution helped them repeatedly.
Bill Quigley’s closing remarked were impassioned. “They were the thermometer,” he said. “They didn’t cause the fever; they exposed it. Don’t blame the thermometer.”
A moment later he said, “Your job is serious. It is to bring law and justice together.”
At 2:35 we took a break.
When Greg Boertje-Obed rose to give his closing statement, he asked the jury to reflect on two stories: first was the Good Samaritan, a story told by Jesus. “The three of us were compelled buy our consciences,” he said, “because we see and hear the victim by the side of the road. We see victims of nuclear weapons and victims of empire in great multitudes.
“The United States is the lone remaining superpower. We have 700 military bases around the world. We are the only country to use drones to kill civilians. These are weapons we use every day.”
The second story was the Emperor’s New Clothes. “We did not attempt to injure national defense,” said Greg. “No real defense or false defense. We exposed the emperor does not have effective fences. Nuclear weapons are not real security; they are terror and killing.
“We took our action to promote real security and to expose false security. Real security is justice among nations. Isaiah said that.
Francis Lloyd rose at 2:54. Francis ticked off the weaknesses in the government’s case; the failure to prove intent to harm or injure being the chief one.
“When officer Garland arrived on the scene, he correctly assessed the situation. The one who recognized what he had and did his job doesn’t have his job any more. The guy who put them face down in the gravel and held them there does.
“The government is asking you to figuratively put thee people face down on the ground and handcuff them. I ask you to resist the call of your government.”
Finally, prosecutor Theodore rose to offer the last word. His review was dispirited and matter-of-fact. He reviewed the obligation of the government once more and asserted they had met their burden of proof. Then he got ugly.
“Right after 9/11, you notice how much better security got. If you had to take a flight, you know. That was a good thing, that security got better. Does that make 9/11 a good thing? No.”
He hurried to add, “Now I’m not saying they are terrorists or anything,” though he had, in fact, drawn a direct line between Megan, Michael and Greg and the 9/11 terrorists. To darken it, he said, “But what they did was not a good thing.” Then he drew to a close. “These people are not beyond being held accountable,” he said.
The judge gave the jury its final instructions and dismissed them. It was 3:35.
Francis Lloyd immediately stood to object to the use of the 9/11 analogy. “We got through the entire case without terrorism or terror,” he said, “and then in the closing…I move for a mistrial.”
The judge overruled. “He was making a point,” he said. “Using it as an example.”
At 5:55 the lawyers were summoned back into the court. It was not clear whether the jury had reached a verdict or merely had a question the court would have to address. As we were seated in the courtroom and the overflow room, we heard there was verdict. At 6:00pm the jury returned.
“Guilty on all counts,” said the foreman.
Moments later, the jury left while the audience sang, softly, “Peace, peace, peace, peace; people what we need is peace. Peace that passes understanding; we need it now.”
The judge called the courtroom back to order. The prosecutor stood to request Megan, Michael and Greg be jailed and a discussion ensued. The judge indicated he believed the statute might require them to be held, and he might have no leeway.
In the end, after twenty-five minutes, he said he would, to be on the safe side, hold them overnight and reconvene in the morning for additional arguments. “That’s the safest course,” he said. “We can all research it overnight. They we can all be comfortable.”
Well, almost all of us. At 6:30 we stood and sang as Greg, Megan and Michael were escorted from the courtroom to be taken to the Knox County Detention Center.
— Postscript : Thursday, May 9, 9:00am
The spectator area was packed full well before 9:00am, and Megan, Michael and Greg shuffled in, shackled hand and foot, wearing khaki jumpsuits and orange crocs.
The discussion was a bit disjointed and more than a bit arcane legal groping for some clarity and certainty about the key question: were the defendants guilty of committing a violent crime? If so, they could not be released; if not, the judge would have some discretion and hear further arguments.
The first question was never completely answered; as it began to come into focus, additional cases were cited and a new haze fell. Finally, the discussion bled over into the second part of the judge’s decision, and eventually to the hypothetical, with a brief pause for Michael, Megan and Greg to huddle and discuss, apparently, whether they would just tell the court to stop bickering and hold them. At the end of the discussion, they sat back down. As Michael shuffled to his chair, one of the federal marshals moved quickly to pull it our for him.
Then there was a discussion about whether or not the defendants were a flight risk or likely to commit similar crimes if released. The government pushed the judge to consider their record, but the judge rightly said, “It’s not about whether they will do this again, it’s whether they have violated terms of release when they were on pre-sentence release.”
Chris Irwin pointed out the Michael Walli had been under pre-sentence release in this very court in 2011 and had not violated the terms. “That is very persuasive,” said the judge.
Persuasive, but only if the defense attorneys clear the first two hurdles.
With that the judge took the matter under advisement, giving the parties until next Tuesday to sort things out and provide him with everything they had, including reports on pre-sentencing history for each defendant. He had earlier suggested he would make his decision on detention by Tuesday.
Other parts of the schedule were also mapped out. The defense renewed its rule 29 motion (for dismissal) and the judge said the defense would have a trial transcript by June 7; By June 24th, they would have to file motions; the government would reply by July 15 and the defense make its final reply by July 29. “If I want argument, I’ll let you know,” said the judge.
Sentencing was set for September 23.
1:00pm for Michael Walli
2:30pm for Megan Rice
4:00pm for Greg Boertje-Obed
Any briefs or memos would be due 14 days before, and any witnesses to be presented would require advance notice to the court.
After bows and waves (and the judge refusing to allow hugs by family members), the Megan, Michael and Greg were taken out as the audience sang “Down By the Riverside.”
Moments later, out in the courtyard, we spoke with the media, circled and sang. In the afternoon a convoy traveled to the jail for a solidarity vigil and to arrange visitation for out-of-town family—it should take place Friday evening.