Snow delays sentencing for Tennessee nuclear facility break-in

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 28, 2014 3:17 PM

By Melodi Erdogan

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - An elderly nun and two other activists were ordered to pay about $53,000 restitution for breaking into a Tennessee defense facility, but must wait to hear how much prison time they could face after a judge suspended sentencing due to bad weather.

Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, and Greg Boertje-Obed admitted cutting fences and making their way across the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in July 2012, embarrassing U.S. officials and prompting security changes.

U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar in Knoxville on Tuesday ordered the protesters to pay $52,953 to cover repairs to the facility where enriched uranium for nuclear bombs is stored. Thapar said they could make payments in quarterly installments.

The judge said the hearing would be continued on February 18, after determining there would not be enough time to complete the sentencings before the federal courthouse closed due to a snow storm.

Rice and the others admitted cutting fences and making their way across the expansive grounds of the complex to spray-paint peace slogans and hammer on exterior walls. When a guard confronted them, they offered him food and began singing.

The three were convicted by a federal jury last May of damaging national defense premises under the sabotage act, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years, and of causing more than $1,000 of damage to U.S. government property.

Federal sentencing guidelines call for Rice, 83, to receive up to a little more than seven years in prison; Walli, 65, more than nine years; and Boertje-Obed, 58, more than eight years. The defendants have been in custody since their conviction.

Supporters of the activists filled the courtroom, some singing before the hearing began, "If I Had a Hammer," a protest song co-written by folk singer and peace activist Pete Seeger, who died Monday.

The activists wore leg shackles and were dressed in prison clothing - the men in gray and white stripes, Rice in a cream-colored uniform. Rice, who according to her attorney has suffered from the cold, also wore a knit scarf.

Supporters sang the folk song "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," and made peace signs with their hands as they exited the courtroom.

Prosecutors have asked that the defendants receive sentences in line with federal guidelines. The defendants have asked for lesser sentences.

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Bill Quigley, one of the attorneys of the defendants, said in an interview last week all three are in good health, but Rice, who turns 84 January 31, is "freezing cold in jail."

Defense attorneys argued in court documents that the three were "completely nonviolent" when they were arrested.

"They used the occasion to present symbolically their passion for nuclear disarmament," defense lawyers wrote.

The three activists have received more than 2,000 cards and letters of support from around the world.

Prosecutors contended the break-in at Y-12, the primary U.S. site for processing and storage of enriched uranium, disrupted operations, endangered U.S. national security, and caused physical damage.

"The United States believes that the defendants should be held accountable for their deliberate choices and accept the appropriate consequences for their actions," prosecutors said in court documents.

(Reporting by Melodi Erdogan in Knoxville, Tennessee and David Bailey in Minneapolis; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Eric Walsh and Andrew Hay)