84-year-old nun who broke into Tennessee weapons plant awaits fate

An 84-year-old nun who broke into a Tennessee weapons plant and daubed it with biblical references, will learn on Tuesday whether she will spend what could be the rest of her life in prison.

Two weeks ago, at a sentencing hearing, a judge ordered Sister Megan Rice and her co-defendants, two other Catholic anti-nuclear activists, Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, and Michael Walli, 64, to pay $53,000 for what the government estimated was damage done to the plant by their actions.

All three defendants were convicted of sabotage after the break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on 28 July 2012. The charge, under a statute of the US criminal code used against international and domestic terrorism, carries a maximum sentence of up to 30 years. The government has asked for the trio to be given prison sentences of between five and nine years. They would have learned their fate in the January hearing, but it was cut short due to bad weather and rescheduled for Tuesday.

In an interview with the Guardian from Knox county jail as she awaited her fate, Rice said she hoped US district judge Amul Thapar would seize the opportunity to “take his place in history” and sentence them in a way that would reflect their symbolic, non-violent actions – actions she said that were intended to highlight the US stockpile of nuclear weapons they believe is immoral and illegal.

“I hope he will answer his conscience,” said Rice, in an interview 24 hours before the last sentencing hearing. “He knows what to do.” She and her co-defendants have been in prison, mostly in Ocilla, Georgia, for eight months, a period of time her lawyers say is sufficient punishment for the break-in.

Thapar has received hundreds of letters and a 14,000 signature petition pleading for leniency in this case, including from Rice’s religious order, the Society for the Holy Jesus, which asked for a reduced or suspended sentence given “her age, her health and her ministry”.

Lawyers for Rice, Boertje-Obed, a Vietnam veteran from Washington DC and Walli, a painter from Duluth, Minnesota, have asked for leniency and say the trio admitted have what they did.

The US government contends that none of the defendants arguments merit leniency. At the hearing on 28 January, it said they did not accept they had committed crimes, took no responsibility for them, showed no contrition and, then, during the trial, proceeded to argue against the laws they had broken. It has described the three, who have previous convictions related to their protest activities, as “recidivists and habitual offenders”.

Jeffery Theodore, assistant US attorney general for the eastern district of Tennessee, told the court that the three “pretty much celebrated their acts”. At the January hearing, he described their argument that they were trying to uphold international law as “specious and disingenuous” and said there had been no single case where international law has been seen as justification for breaking US laws.

The judge agreed with Theodore that the defendants were not remorseful and that they didn’t accept any responsibilities for their crimes, and said they would not be given downward departures for admitting responsibility.

At the January hearing, four character witnesses for the defendants gave powerful testimony about their strong Christian and pacifist principles, their commitment to helping others and their dedication to their cause. They, and the scores of supporters crowded into the courtroom, also provided an insight into the close-knit nature of the anti-nuclear faith community.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale , who has known Rice all her life, compared the nun’s use of non-violent protest to the “lineage of transformation” employed by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Tucker said: “To allow Megan to continue the work of her life, the work to alleviate suffering, outside the walls of a prison would be an invaluable gift to the world. To keep her inside, the world would be diminished for lack of her work.”

Kathy Boylan, of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker community in Washington DC, where Walli is a member, described him as a “quintessential Christian”. Under questioning from Theodore, Boylan, a plowshare activist herself, admitted that, if Walli were to be re-integrated into her community, she would not discourage him from pursuing similar protest action in the future. John Leforge, of Nukewatch in Wisconsin, also indicated he would not discourage similar protests by defendants.

Andy Anderson, 87, a veteran of the second world war and now a peace activist, spoke of Boertje-Obed and Walli, as “terrific human beings”. He said they and their colleagues were the reason he had “quit trying to kill people” and tried to help them instead.

He told the court how his world view altered when one of his friends died in his arms. “No more violence. I came home a different person and I’ve been a different person ever since.”

At one point, Anderson turned to the judge and said: “These aren’t harmful people. If you hurt people and they are a danger to society, yes, lets put them away, but if the answer is no, let ‘em go.”