NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — On Thursday, an 85-year-old nun and two fellow Catholic peace activists will ask a federal appeals court in Ohio to overturn convictions for sabotage and destruction of government property. Attorneys for Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed (bohr-CHEE' OH'-bed) argue in court documents that the sabotage charge was government overreach that should not have been applied for the activists' symbolic, nonviolent actions. They also object to a prosecutors' invocation of 9/11 during closing arguments.
WHAT DID THE ACTIVISTS DO?
Early on the morning of July 28, 2012, Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed illegally entered a secure area where the U.S. keeps most of its bomb-grade uranium. Despite setting off alarms, they were able to spend more than two hours inside the restricted area before they were arrested.
They spray-painted slogans such as "the fruit of justice is peace" on the exterior walls of the $548 million Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge. They also splattered the walls with blood from a baby bottle, meant to symbolize the deaths of innocent children from nuclear weapons. And they hammered on the wall, as a symbolic representation of Isaiah 2:4, "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
WHO ARE THEY?
Rice is a sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She became a nun when she was 18 and served for 40 years as a missionary in western Africa teaching science. At sentencing in February 2014, Rice said the nine months she spent in jail had opened her eyes to the suffering of prisoners. She asked the judge to have no leniency on her, saying, "To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me." She was sentenced to nearly three years in prison.
Boertje-Obed is a 59-year-old house painter from Duluth, Minnesota, who served in the Army. Walli is a 66-year-old activist from Washington, D.C. He served two tours in Vietnam before returning to the U.S. Boertje-Obed and Walli each received sentences of just over five years.
WHAT ARE THEY ARGUING?
In a brief to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, attorneys for the activists argue that trespassing and vandalism do not amount to sabotage. They also try to differentiate the acts at Y-12 from similar acts of vandalism at military facilities, where even symbolic acts could actually have hindered the U.S. military's ability to respond to a threat.
"Y-12 does not play any active role in the deployment or potential deployment of nuclear weapons," the brief argues, pointing out that the facility is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy, not the Department of Defense.
WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT'S ARGUMENT?
The government argues in court documents that the activists can be charged with sabotage because they "intended to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense." Prosecutors say the activists own statements attest to this. At trial and at sentencing, they said their goal was nuclear disarmament, and they hoped their actions would somehow bring that about.
Prosecutors also argue that Y-12 is critical to the national defense. Because of the break-in, all nuclear operations at the site were suspended for 15 days. In addition, the intrusion damaged Y-12's reputation as the "Fort Knox of uranium."