With Enemies Like This, Who Needs Friends?
Day Two of the Y12 Resisters’ Trial
On March 4, 2011, Judge Bruce Guyton heard arguments about the government’s motion to limit the testimony that Y12 resisters could give at their trial for crossing the line at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. On April 29, he issued his ruling—granting the government’s motion and precluding defendants from making any arguments related to international law, necessity, nuclear weapons policy, their religious faith, morals or good motives. The government got virtually everything it wanted—the judge had put a gag over the mouths of the defendants.
And then, for reasons that may never be known, the government took the gag off. The first government witness, Ted Sherry, site manager of the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex, took the stand and, in a matter of minutes, mentioned deterrence, US nuclear policy, and nonproliferation, opening the door for the defense to talk about these things. By the end of the day Tuesday, the second day of the trial, they still hadn’t managed to shut the door.
It was astonishing to see a US prosecutor, who had worked hard to make sure the defendants were not allowed to speak of their faith or religious motivation, ask Father Bill Bichsel if he was familiar with the Bible verse that spoke of plowshares. Could he quote it exactly? she asked. By the time she got another word in, Bix had quoted the verse and was halfway through the homily.
That was just one in a string of prosecutorial actions that provided opportunities for defense lawyers, and two pro se defendants, to tell the jury about the weapons of mass destruction manufactured at Y12, and their conscientious action to address this threat to creation.
Questioning the Wackenhut employee who testifed about the preparations for the demonstration, the prosecutor asked him what was hanging from the fence and he said, “I think it’s called origami.” A few minutes later, Steve Baggarly stepped to the podium to for a final cross examination.
Steve: Mr. Seals, are you aware that origami is Japanese paper folding?
Answer: I guess at some point I knew that.
Steve: Are you aware that this is a picture of a peace crane, named after a Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki, who was in Hiroshima, Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped, and…
He never took a breath to allow an objection; in three minutes Steve unspooled the powerful story of Sadako and her leukemia and her thousand cranes and how others took up her dream as a symbol of the hopes of the work for peace and, on May 10, 2011, Sadako Sasaki came into a courtroom in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was present with the judge and the jury and the federal marshals and the defendants and the lawyers and the spectators and more than one eye was full of tears. It was a moment.
There were many moments. In the morning, as the marshals brought Bill Bichsel into the courtroom (he is in custody for the Bangor, Maine plowshares action), the audience stood and sang “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” By the time we were on the third verse of “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” the marshals were in the courtroom, furious, waving arms to silence us. We finished the verse. She admonished us, at the order of the judge, and forbade future singing—the jury could hear it in its jury room outside the courtroom.
The trial began Monday with a procession to the courthouse through downtown Knoxville; led by Buddhist drumming and chanting, accompanied by giant peace crane banners and stilt walkers, the defendants made their way to the courthouse. Jury selection was long and tedious and let us know what we were facing. Of thirty-one prospective jurors, all but four said they had guns in their homes. None had ever written a letter to the editor; one had participated in a public demonstration (the Tea Party), none admitted to ever having contributed to a group espousing a political objective, one had ever written a letter to a public official (a few, over the years, but he could not recall the subject of any of them). Two or three said they believed they would have not returned slaves to their owners had they lived in the days of the fugitive slave act—the rest would hand them over. One’s answer to a question about Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to take an oath to the Reich leading to the extermination of hundreds of thousands said, “Well, if they were going to live in Germany…”
Brad Lyttle spoke of Franz Jaegerstatter who refused to serve in the Nazi Army and the prospective jurors were quizzed about the Boston Tea Party which, as it turns out, would not have ended well for Sam Adams and the others had they faced this jury, especially since the penalty for treason was death. “I never really thought about it,” was the popular introduction as each juror was polled—it would not have strained a prosecutor then to find twelve jurors and another dozen alternates to try the Boston hooligans. Some tried to think it through in terms of property, but in the end most said “Guilty; it was wrong to break the law.” One brave person declared he would have been there with them, but would have expected to have been found guilty (and executed, one presumes).
Eventually we reached the trial itself, opening statements, and the first witness, Ted Sherry, who sailed through questions, waxing eloquent on Y12’s important mission and outlined the details of the resisters’ action on a giant map which, as the defense noted, did not meet the rules of evidence. “I’ll allow it,” Judge Guyton said. Sherry’s testimony closed the day.
On Tuesday, after our pre-court singing and the passing around of a special greeting from the Nuclear Resister, we began cross examination. Within a minute of questioning about the history of Oak Ridge, the government objected. “Your honor,” said our attorney, Brad Henry, “He testified about Oak Ridge’s history yesterday.” “I’ll allow it,” said the judge, noticing, if he hadn’t before, that his carefully prepared streetcar to justice was coming off the rails. By the end of the day, when the prosecutor asked Bill Bichsel about the Bible, the judge was leaning forward, hands clasped in front of him and his chin resting on them. He glared at Melissa Milliken and said, his lips taut, “It’s. your. question. Counselor. Are you going to repeat it or withdraw it?”
Brad Lyttle’s cross examination discussed in some detail the hydrogen bomb and the work at Y12; he tried to get Ted Sherry to say whether the nuclear weapons at Y12 were totally safe or not. Sherry would not answer unequivocally. He said they were incredibly safe, due to tremendous safety features. Totally, 100% safe, asked Brad. Incredibly safe, Sherry repeated.
Steve Baggarly elicited testimony about the new $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility and the hair-trigger alert status of nuclear weapons; pursuing each topic until the prosecutor objected and was sustained.
During the testimony of the prosecution’s second witness, Wackenhut’s security office for July 5, 2010, we watched a brief video of the protest which brought the drumming and chanting of the Buddhists into the courtroom; for several minutes it was the only audible sound from the video. After viewing the video and a number of pictures, Bill Bichsel’s lawyer Mike Whalen asked Mr. Seals about a photo showing a phalanx of Tennessee Highway Patrol, dressed in heavy helmets with faceguards and truncheons ready—“If you wanted to keep people out, why didn’t you have these people at the fence before they crossed over instead of bringing them in after?” The reply was appropriately odd: the barbed-wire fence that encloses the Y12 property is not to keep people out but to make sure they are aware they are trespassing if they do.
By mid-afternoon, the first defense witness, Mary Dennis Lentsch, took the stand. She told of her life and her baptismal promises and her action at Y12, an expression of her promise to renounce and resist evil. As she spoke of her religious motivation, the prosecution remained quiet. When she finally was asked if she felt she had a choice on July 5, the objection of the prosecutor was sustained; asked if she felt she was willful, she was cut off again. Finally, her attorney John Eldridge asked her how she felt in the courtroom. “I feel happy that I did what my conscience calls me to do. And I feel sad for the court restrictions on what we can tell you,” she said to the jury. “I took an oath to tell the truth—the judge cut her off with a stern admonishment to her lawyer. John listened patiently as the judge told him to tell admonish his client to respect the court’s order. John said noncommittally, “That is a good admonishment from the court.”
Under cross examination, Jeff Theodore asked Mary Dennis if she knew she was breaking the law as she crossed the line. “I was obeying a higher law,” she said. When he asked if Mary Dennis had discussed her intentions with others, ten lawyers leaped to their feet to object. The judge sustained the objection and said, “I thought someone had called a recess when everyone stood up.”
Then Bix took the stand and spoke of the kingdom of God. “We pray the Our Father,” he said, reciting the words, “and we say ‘Thy kingdom come,’ and we forget it is possible for the kingdom of heaven to come on earth.” The judge sustained an objection to a question about the Freedom Riders, but in answering the next question Bix moved quickly to the Freedom Riders and said they did not expect to end segregation overnight, but they thought others would follow. He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that the choice now is between nonviolence or nonexistence.
At the conclusion of Bix’s cross-examination, we adjourned. Tomorrow (Wednesday, May 11) should see testimony from Steve Baggarly, Dennis DuVall, Brad Lyttle and Beth Rosdatter.