Sister Megan Rice Exonerated After 2 Years in Federal Prison

Posted by Sean P. CecilMay 20, 20150 Comments

Sister Megan Rice, an 80 year old dedicated peace activist, was able to break into a high security enriched uranium depot by avoiding security and using bolt cutters to cut through four fences. There, she and her two companions spray-painted antiwar slogans, hung crime tape and banners with biblical phrases, splashed blood, and sang hymns. When a security guard finally arrived after a significant period of time, the group offered him bread and read a prepared message about "transforming weapons into real life-giving alternatives to build true peace." 

Originally charged with trespass and damaging government property, when the trio refused to accept a plea bargain the government charged them with violating the Sabotage Act, punishable by up to twenty years in prison. A Knoxville, TN jury convicted them of Sabotage and damaging government property, and the group received multi-year prison sentences. 

Sister Rice and her partners in crime appealed the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the Sabotage conviction, arguing that no evidence was produced of any intent to "injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States" during the trial of their protest.

Finding that no rational jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that the three acted with intent to interfere with the national defense, a Sixth Circuit panel has reversed and dismissed the sabotage charge, and ordered the trio of protesters to be released after two years in a federal prison.

This case underscores the pervasive problem of prosecutorial overreach, and the enormous discretion these lawyers wield: while trespass and damage to property charges would arguably be appropriate, (or better, a commendation for exposing a glaring threat to national security and indeed the security of humanity) as happens all too often, the prosecutor dug deep into his bag of tricks in reaction to the affront of the trio's refusal to acquiesce. Add to that the embarrassment the activists caused, and apparently some pretty adept trial lawyering by the AUSA, and these three peaceful protesters found themselves in actual prison. 

The Court of Appeals did not take a very high view of the Assistant US Attorney's position, and the ruling contained plenty of criticism. "Vague platitudes about a facility's “crucial role in the national defense” are not enough to convict a defendant of sabotage," the Bush-appointed author of the opinion wrote. "And that, in the last analysis, is all the government offers here." 

Prosecutors in the United States enjoy enormous discretion in making charging decisions that affect people's lives. Faced with the threat of onerous federal sentencing guidelines, or worse, minimum mandatory sentences, an incredibly small percentage of federal defendants (and really all defendants everywhere) choose to exercise the right to a trial by jury that is protected by the constitution. 

In this case, Sister Rice and her companions put their money where their mouth was, rejecting the plea bargain in favor of a day in court and the consequences that followed. 

Edelstein & Payne has a lot of experience counseling and representing protesters, usually pro bono. It is a good idea for any one who is contemplating a direct action protest to consult with legal counsel to avoid the onerous specter of sabotage, or indeed any felony, indictments.