Show Trial in Greenbelt


This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; Article II, Section 2.
     How better to honor the Catonsville Nine than to commemorate that memorable witness by taking serious action against today’s war machine? Dan and Phil Berrigan and seven other religious activists burned draft files at a Selective Service Center on May 17, 1968 to say no to genocide in Central America and Indochina
     On Catonsville’s 30th anniversary, five peace activists enacted Isaiah’s prophecy to beat swords into plowshares during the Department of Defense Open House at Andrews Air Force Base. Sr. Carol Gilbert and Sr. Ardeth Platte from Baltimore’s Jonah House, Fr. Frank Cordaro from Des Moines, Iowa, Fr. Larry Morlan from Bloomington, Ill., and Kathy Shields Boylan from Washington, D.C.’s Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, in calling themselves the Gods of Metal Plowshares, hammered and poured blood on a B-52 bomber before being placed under arrest.
     Initially, they were charged with two felonies carrying a maximum sentence of 30 years: 1) injury, over $1,000, to government property and 2) injury or attempted injury to property in a federal jurisdiction. Remarkably, though, a federal magistrate released them on personal recognizance, which they accepted, when “willing to obey” was struck from the order.
     The felonies were later dropped, and, on Sept. 22, the trial began at a Taj Mahal federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Maryland, before Federal Judge Alexander Williams, Jr. David Walsh Little, of the Sowebo Center for Justice, served as an attorney advisor for the defendants, who were now facing a misdemeanor charge of willful injury to government property, less than $1,000 damage, which carries a maximum sentence of one year.
     Judge Williams permitted Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at the University of Illinois, to testify. The judge’s strategy became evident, however, when he ruled against three other expert witnesses. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, from Detroit, was to testify the defendants were acting out of a motivation to stop war crimes. Michael True, an expert in nonviolence, was to explain the power of civil resistance in forcing governments to promote positive social change. And retired Admiral Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information in Washington intended to explain the purpose of a B-52 bomber. In effect, the judge ruled the defendants’ motivations were irrelevant, the efficacy of civil disobedience was an extraneous issue, and expert testimony as to the purpose of a B-52 was unnecessary.
     The prosecution presented but one significant witness, the plane’s navigator. He testified he was schooled in the rules of armed conflict, but that this concentrated on proper behavior as a prisoner of war. Pat DeConcini, the prosecutor, rarely objected as the defendants spoke at length as to their motivations. Of course, there was no jury, so the bench could ignore their testimony.
     The trial continued on Sept. 23, and Boyle was the final witness. Plowshares supporters, who filled the courtroom, were spellbound as the professor outlined his vast experience as an international law expert. His first point was that international law, as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, is part of the law of the land. Regarding this case, he said the defendants read and studied the 1996 World Court advisory that addressed the legality of nuclear weapons. They acted in the belief that the B-52 bomber, because its purpose is mass extermination, violates various international treaties, including the rules of war. He also concluded that the defendants did not act out of malice but with a specific intent to prevent war crimes.
     I told an Associated Press reporter, as the trial began, that the Gods of Metal Plowshares would be found guilty. Halfway through Boyle’s testimony, she approached me and asked if I still believed there would be a guilty verdict. Yes, I said.
     The activists argued their action was protected by international law, as the B-52 bomber was a weapon of mass and indiscriminate destruction. Judge Williams admitted he did not comprehend the defense or understand much of Boyle’s testimony. In reaching his decision to find the defendants guilty, he disregarded Boyle’s testimony. Instead he chose to protect the government’s nuclear arsenal, most specifically the B-52 bomber, from being declared illegal as weapons of mass and indiscriminate destruction. He set sentencing for Jan. 4, 1999.
     The activists, in response to his rejection of international law, stated they would no longer cooperate with the court, and despite urgent pleas by the prosecution to reconsider, they refused. Each defendant spoke to explain to the court her/his reasons for noncooperation. Rev. Morlan, for example, said that they do not wish to go to jail, but it was inevitable when Judge Williams, in his summation, failed to address their argument that property, like crematoria or a B-52 bomber, does not have the right to be protected by law.
     Before Sister Ardeth was in the custody of U.S. marshals, she remarked, “We need judges with courage to accept international law.” Obviously, she did not find one in this trial. As the prisoners were taken from the courtroom, Plowshares supporters began to sing “Beneath the Vine and Fig Tree.”
     The women are at the Women’s Detention Center, 531 East Madison, Baltimore, MD 21202. In writing Kathy Shields-Boylan, #1965409 and 035222037, Sr. Ardeth Platte, #1641180 and 035224037, or Sr. Carol Gilbert, #1641321 and 035223037, be sure to include both ID numbers. The priests are in the Charles County Jail, PO Box 1430, La Plata, MD 20646.
     In the defendants’ closing statement made by Sister Ardeth, she urged the judge to recognize they acted under the supreme law of the land. However, federal judges in Plowshares cases consistently ignore international law arguments. Allowing Boyle to testify, but then rejecting this testimony, was seen by the defendants as a legal sham.
Max Obuszewski can be reached at

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This story was published on Oct. 7, 1998.