A Case of Witchcraft

       In 1692, Salem’s doctor, William Griggs, diagnosed bewitchment as the cause of the illness afflicting two village women. Forces were unleashed that ultimately led to the hanging of 19 men and women, the crushing of Giles Corey to death for refusing to cooperate, and the deaths of 17 others while in prison.

      On July 29, 1999 in Norfolk, at a probation violation hearing, Federal Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, a George H. Bush appointee, sentenced Michele Naar-Obed to an additional year in jail for returning to her community, the Jonah House in Baltimore. This matter generated a flurry of letters to the Virginia Pilot, and a local attorney may be disbarred as a result.

      Naar-Obed was a member of the Jubilee Plowshares East, four activists who disarmed a fast-attack submarine at Newport News [VA] Shipbuilding on Aug. 7, 1995. In 1996, Judge Smith convicted her of conspiracy to damage government property and sentenced the activist to an 18-month sentence and three years probation.

      It was painful to observe Judge Smith’s demeaning treatment of the Plowshares activist, which included the threat she would serve an additional three years if she received a traffic citation upon release. She reminded the defendant that she would not see Rachel, her daughter, during imprisonment.

      Probation officials would not permit Naar-Obed, upon release, to return to the Jonah House, which was considered to be promoting ongoing criminal activity. She returned home eventually, and federal marshals arrested her in 1999.

      On June 22, 1999, Judge Smith jailed her, pending the probation violation hearing. Her justification was that the Plowshares activist was a danger to the community, who flaunted probation and publicly advocated civil disobedience. The penniless peace activist was held on $50,000 bail, with a host of conditions for release, including the requirement she was not to go on talk shows. Even the prosecutor argued the defendant should be released.

      At the probation violation hearing, Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond testified on her behalf. Because of Smith’s courtroom behavior, he was moved to write a letter that appeared in the Virginia Pilot: “I myself could hardly testify in behalf of Michele because any human concern for the one who broke probation was eliminated. Judge Smith lectured her in a contemptuous manner.” The letter’s last sentence summed up his disgust: “For me, it all seemed farcical, exceedingly cruel and obviously vindictive.”

      The Virginia Pilot also published a letter from Jack Ferrebee, who served as attorney for one of the Plowshares defendants during the original trial. He focused on the judge’s behavior after sentencing the Jubilee Plowshares East. As Smith was leaving the courtroom, the hundred or so peace activists who attended the sentencing began singing. He wrote, “Rather than continue to her chambers, Judge Smith rushed back to the bench, angrily banged her gavel and held everyone in contempt. She then ordered that everyone, including all counsel, be locked in the courtroom.” I was one of those under mass arrest, even though I did not sing.

      As Ferrebee explained, “We remained locked in the courtroom for approximately 30 minutes while Judge Smith got over her tantrum in her chambers. We were then allowed to leave.” He closed: “It should not be too much to ask to be treated with dignity, respect, honesty and impartiality from a federal judge. In Judge Smith’s case, it rarely happens.”

      Paul Walker, her law clerk, wrote this retort in the Virginia Pilot: “Judge Smith patiently listened to the bishop’s nonrelevant testimony and the lengthy testimony of Ms. Naar-Obed.” He added, “Far from being ‘farcical’ or ‘vindictive,’ the hearing held by Judge Smith was eminently fair.”

      Retribution towards Sullivan is probably not possible, but Ferrebee is a convenient target. First, he was exceedingly brave to assist in the defense of the Plowshares in the militaristic Tidewater area. Then he challenged a federal judge in print.

      Walker took the offensive, possibly under orders: “As for his personal attack on Judge Smith, ...Mr. Ferrebee ought to publicly apologize to Judge Smith.” The Virginia Pilot then printed a letter signed by Montgomery Knight Jr., current president, and ten past presidents of the Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar Association that stated “Mr. Ferrebee’s letter is “unjustified and inappropriate.”

      I disagree vehemently with the bar presidents’ opinion: “Judge Smith has a reputation for competence, fairness, impartiality and honesty, and the judge’s actions in this case were consistent with this well-deserved reputation.” In peace and justice circles, Judge Smith has a well-deserved reputation for venom, spite and overbearing authoritarianism. Of course, she is extremely reactionary. However, it is her courtroom behavior which moved a bishop and an attorney to write letters.

      Michele Naar-Obed continues her suffering, as she is not yet placed in a federal prison, which would allow her to at least settle in for her term of imprisonment. Besides being berated in print, Jack Ferrebee had a bar complaint lodged by a member of the Norfolk-Portsmouth bar based on the letter in the Virginia Pilot.

      The witch trials overtaking 17th century Salem, Mass. went unabated until Gov. William Phipps disbanded the special courts. A new court refused to accept any paranormal evidence and released those awaiting trial and pardoned those awaiting execution. It is unlikely the current governor of Virginia will intercede in this latter-day witch-hunt.

      Sebastian Graber, who has been retained by Ferrebee with respect to the bar complaint, is looking for letters of support from witnesses who attended the Sept. 6, 1996 Plowshares sentencing. As others have, I will write on behalf of Jack Ferrebee.

      In Salem, apologies were offered, and restitution was made to the victim’s families. I would not expect to read of any apologies from those who defend Federal Judge Rebecca Beach Smith. The McCarthyites never expressed any regret for their behavior.

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This story was published on November 3, 1999.