Published on Friday, March 24, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
'Plowshares Vs Depleted Uranium' Activists Face Harsh Jail Sentences
by David O'Reilly
TOWSON, Md. - The judge in the tumultuous trial of four Roman Catholic peace activists charged with vandalizing two A-10 Warthog bombers at a nearby military base stunned the courtroom yesterday by imposing long prison sentences.
The four, who turned their backs on the judge on Wednesday and refused to cooperate with their own defense, chose not to enter the courtroom yesterday after instructing their lawyers to make no closing arguments or sentencing pleas for them. The lawyers, who included Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, followed their instructions.
Judge James T. Smith of Baltimore County Circuit Court then sentenced Elizabeth Walz, 33, of Philadelphia, to 15 more months in the county detention center, where she has resided since her arrest Dec. 19.
Minutes before the sentencing, the state prosecutor had told the judge that state sentencing guidelines for the charges against Walz, who has no record, call for probation or one month in jail.
Smith also sentenced Philip Berrigan, 77, of Baltimore, to 30 months in state prison and Susan Crane, 56, also of Baltimore, and the Rev. Steven Kelly, 50, of New York, to 27 months, less the three months already served in jail awaiting trial.
All had been charged with malicious destruction of property and conspiracy for cutting a fence at the Air National Guard Base in Essex, Md., on Dec. 19, and afterward pouring blood, hanging a rosary and a banner, and hammering on two A-10 Warthog bombers.
Crane had also faced an assault charge for allegedly swinging a hammer over head when air-base security guards came to arrest her. The jury was hung on that charge, and it was dropped.
State's Attorney Mickey Norman, who prosecuted the case, had recommended sentences ranging from three months to one year.
"They were prepared for the worst," Berrigan's wife, Elizabeth McCallister, told a crowd of about 40 supporters outside the courthouse afterward, "and they got it."
Smith, who angrily cleared his courtroom Wednesday when the supporters burst into a spontaneous hymn of protest against his rulings, yesterday justified his long sentences: The $88,622 in estimated damage to the airplanes "takes it out of the normal range of property damage cases."
He also ordered each of the four - who call themselves "Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium" and say they live residentially in near poverty - to reimburse the government for the full amount of the damage.
The sentences and reparation amounts can be appealed, but lead attorney John Katz of Silver Spring, Md., said he did not know how they would proceed. The defendants were not available yesterday for comment.
After the verdict and prior to sentencing, Walz sent a note to the judge detailing what she said were many unpleasant aspects of Baltimore County Prison and noting that several other women's prisons were more accommodating of inmates. For that reason, she said, she asked that she be permitted to stay at the Baltimore County facility "where I might be of some comfort to the women suffering there."
The judge allowed her request.
The four claim that anti-tank bullets of depleted uranium, which were fired extensively by Warthogs in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and last year in Kosovo, pollute the ground and air with radioactive particulates that can cause birth defects and other serious ailments to civilians and military personnel.
The U.S. Department of Defense maintains that depleted uranium is only slightly radioactive and poses no significant health hazard.
When trial began on Monday, Smith said he would not allow expert testimony on the health hazards of depleted uranium ordnance, and he refused to allow the defendants to argue that their symbolic acts of vandalism - what they call "conversion" - were morally justified because of the hazards of depleted uranium.
Nevertheless, Berrigan and Walz, who represented themselves, and the three defense lawyers tried repeatedly to inject references to depleted uranium, which provoked immediate objections by Norman.
Most of those objections were sustained.
The mounting tension in the courtroom came to a head Wednesday when Smith refused to allow the defense to present witnesses to testify about the hazards of the use of depleted uranium.
Crane then read a statement asserting: "We cannot put on a defense about the dangers of depleted uranium.. . ." The judge ordered her to stop, but she continued reading: "We will not participate in what amounts to a legal gag order."
Berrigan, Walz, Crane and Father Kelly then turned their backs on the judge. Father Kelly began reading a passage about justice from the Book of Jeremiah.
Then, someone in the audience began singing an old Catholic Worker hymn: "Courage, Sister; Courage, Brother. You do not walk alone. We will walk with you, and sing your spirit home."
Smith gaveled repeatedly for silence, but when that did not succeed, shouted: "If you cannot control yourselves about how deeply you feel about the system, you must leave this courtroom."
When the singing continued, the judge sent the jury out temporarily and ordered deputies to clear the room, allowing only the press.
The audience was allowed back in today, but with strict instructions to remain silent at the verdicts and sentencing, which it did.
In his closing remarks yesterday, Norman told the jurors that the defendants had "used you" and later suggested they had been motivated by a desire for publicity, "their day in the sun."
"It's a no-brainer," he continued. "They came to preach.. . .
"If you let your feelings one way or the other interfere with your duty, that makes you as bad as them."
Some members of the audience groaned.
After the verdict, Berrigan's wife, McCallister, complained that Norman had engaged in "character rape."
Wendy Leitner-Sieber, who with her husband shares a Catholic Worker house in Germantown with Walz, said she was saddened but not surprised by the guilty verdicts.
"Our friends acted as they felt morally justified, as witnesses to the gospel of love," she said. "The verdict stands for itself."
©2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.