CAMDEN, N.J. - Anthony Giacchino had just started as a producer at the History Channel in 1996 and was looking for a topic for his first documentary film.
During a chance meeting at a church service, his former high school history teacher told him about a group of anti-war activists who, 25 years earlier, were caught red-handed breaking into a draft board office in Camden. Remarkably, they won a rare and momentous legal victory for the anti-war movement.
The teacher brought up the story because the pastor of the Sacred Heart parish in Camden, where Giacchino's parents worshipped, was the Rev. Michael Doyle, one the 28 activists who came to be known as the "Camden 28."
"How come I've never heard about this thing?" Giacchino recalled asking at the time. "It seemed a subject worthy of trying to help save."
Giacchino spent the next 10 years turning the history lesson into a film. The result, called "The Camden 28," is scheduled to air nationally Tuesday on PBS' "POV" series.
The film's plot begins early in 1971.
A group of anti-war activists from the Camden area, many of whom were devout Roman Catholics, were inspired by raids of draft boards in cities across the country. Some of those raids were led by the so-called "Catholic Left."
They knew their criminal actions _ breaking into a draft office to destroy records _ could be punished by decades in prison.
That summer, Camden, an industrial city near Philadelphia, was at a low point as it continued to lose industrial jobs and cope with growing poverty. Even Sears Roebuck & Co. moved its store to the suburbs. And in August, race riots engulfed the city.
On Aug. 21 _ just after the riots _ the activists carried out their elaborate plan, which involved faking a car breakdown to divert police officers while others scurried up the back side of the federal building that housed the draft office.
They did not know that through a government informant, the FBI had paid for most of the tools to be used in the operation.
Criminal cases against 11 of the 28 were resolved with dropped charges and plea bargains over the next year and a half.
The trial for the remaining 17 began in February 1973, about a week after a cease-fire was declared in Vietnam, the draft was ended and an exchange of prisoners of war began.
Still, the defendants were bracing for at least a few years behind bars.
Before the trial resumed each morning, the Rev. Ned Murphy, a Jesuit priest, was saying, mantra-like, "We're right, they're wrong and we're going to win." But in an interview last week, he acknowledged that he also was thinking about how he would use his time in prison to make sense of the Bible's Book of Revelations.
But the defendants caught a major break. In an unusual case, U.S. District Judge Clarkson S. Fisher decided to allow a trial that did not follow the usual rules.
In similar cases, judges did their best to make the cases focus on the break-ins. Fisher allowed the Camden trial to focus on the war.
The defendants spoke for themselves. Some represented themselves; some were co-counsel along with lawyers. They didn't deny breaking the law, but they explained why they did.
Also, jurors were allowed to ask questions of the witnesses, including the historian and social activist, Howard Zinn, who was called to explain the broader context of the war and protest.
Father Doyle showed slides of the war and of a burning Camden to support his argument that the government should have been spending its money not on war, but to save troubled cities.
The main defense was known as "jury nullification," which gives juries the option not to enforce laws that they believe are wrong. The defense also argued that the government, through the informant, enabled the raid.
"We conspired to reveal the truth about the situation," Murphy said. "The government was conspiring to lie about it. Choose your conspiracy."
As the trial unfolded, the defendants caught another break: Distrust of the government was growing as the Watergate break-in case in Washington grew into a major political scandal.
After hearing almost four months of testimony, the jury sided with the defendants, and all were acquitted.
When Giacchino first contacted the activists about the film, they exchanged fiery e-mails among themselves about whether they should let an outsider _ a man so young he was in diapers at the time of the break-in _ be the one to tell their story.
Eventually, many of them agreed to help him.
The film relies on interviews with members of the Camden 28 and their lawyers as well as complex characters on the government's side: the informant, the FBI agent who was his contact and the prosecutor.
The documentary has received good reviews from critics at film festivals where it's been screened over the past year and in a two-week theatrical run in New York this summer.
Michael Giocondo, one of the defendants who now lives in Chicago, said he's happy with Giacchino's work and hopes people can learn from the film.
"I hope that the message is that war itself is not the solution to our problems," he said.
Joan Reilly, who was a 20-year-old college student when she was arrested, said that as time wore on, she did not think often about being one of the 28.
She went on to become a mother of four, a community organizer in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood and has spent the last decade running the Philadelphia Green program for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
Since the filming, she has thought a lot more about how her time in Camden have guided the rest of her life.
"The lessons of Camden have sort of grown in me," she said. "The film has helped me to remember from whence I came."
© 2007 The Associated Press