NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — An 85-year-old nun and two fellow Catholic peace activists who splashed blood on the walls of a bunker holding weapons-grade uranium — exposing vulnerabilities in the nation's nuclear security — were wrongly convicted of sabotage, an appeals court ruled Friday.
At issue was whether Sister Megan Rice, 66-year-old Michael Walli and 59-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed injured national security when they cut through several fences to break into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge in July 2012. A panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that they did not.
Once there, the trio had hung banners, prayed and hammered on the outside wall of the bunker to symbolize a Bible passage that refers to the end of war: "They will beat their swords into ploughshares."
"If a defendant blew up a building used to manufacture components for nuclear weapons ... the government surely could demonstrate an adverse effect on the nation's ability to attack or defend," the opinion says.
"But vague platitudes about a facility's 'crucial role in the national defense' are not enough to convict a defendant of sabotage."
The court upheld a less serious conviction for injuring government property. An attorney for the three, Bill Quigley, said he hopes they will be re-sentenced to time served and released from prison, where they have been since being convicted in May 2013. Rice was sentenced to nearly three years; Walli and Boertje-Obed are each serving sentences of just over five years.
Quigley said he had not yet spoken with them about the ruling. But Boertje-Obed's wife, Michele Naar-Obed, said in a phone interview from her home in Duluth, Minnesota, that the ruling was "a breath of fresh air."
Naar-Obed served three years in prison for previous, similar protests — known as ploughshares actions because of their connection to the Bible verse. She said she and her husband believe that "nuclear weapons are not our security. We have an obligation to transform and we're doing it through symbolic witness."
Rice wrote in a letter to The Associated Press in March that "the important message of the appeal is the illegality of nuclear weapons, which are sabotaging the planet."
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee did not immediately comment on the ruling Friday.
The three spent two hours inside Y-12, including in the most secure part of the plant. In the aftermath of the security breach, federal officials implemented sweeping changes, including a new management team and a new defense security chief to oversee all of the National Nuclear Security Administration's sites.