Pre-trial hearing for Nevada nuclear test site arrests

photo by Casey Carter


Many thanks for the prayers, messages of solidarity, concern and curiosity about Monday’s (April 10) pre-trial hearing in Beatty, answering to charges of trespass at the Nevada National “Security” Site, formerly the Nevada Test Site, back in October. We were good company with some of the holdovers from the Sacred Peace Walk that finished a few days before.

It was a strange morning in Beatty “Justice” Court. The only truths, even on the most mundane level, spoken there Monday morning were spoken by me and John. Likewise, while Deputy DA John Friel and Judge Gus Sullivan occasionally and vaguely referenced Nevada law, John and I seemed the only ones in the room actually familiar with or concerned about the statutes in question.

John was called up first- He asked Judge Sullivan for a ruling on the motions “in limine” that he and I filed last month, asking the court to allow testimony and evidence concerning the rightful owner of the site of our alleged trespass, and allow us to enter our Western Shoshone permits into evidence, to allow us to argue the illegality and public danger of DOE operations there that necessitated our action, and how our actions were in conformity with the “peaceable assembly to address grievances” protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Judge Sullivan refused to rule on our motions. “I don’t feel that I have jurisdiction” to rule on the motions, he said, and went on “This Court has taken judicial notice. We have done many many many of these trespassing cases at the test site over the past 20 years or so. So, we feel we do (not) have jurisdiction, the judge before me has ruled that way and I am going to rule the same.” Contrary to Judge Sullivan’s obfuscation, the laws of Nevada unequivocally give a judge jurisdiction to rule on such motions. It should be noted, too, that as reported in the Nuclear Resister, there has been only one such case in Beatty Justice Court in the last 36 years- “In January and February of 1987, the arrests of more than 500 people threatened to bankrupt the county’s law enforcement budget. Demonstrating the power of nonviolent direct action and jail solidarity, the Nye County docket was overflowing. Dozens of their early trials ended with individual defendants choosing to serve six-to-24 days in jail in lieu of paying substantial fines…On April 30, 1987, District Attorney Philip Dunleavy… dismissed all outstanding Test Site trespass charges and instituted a new policy that held firm until 2018: Nye County would continue to issue citations for crossing the line at the Test Site, but would not prosecute those cases.” It might be noted ,too, that “the judge before me” that Judge Gus Sullivan invoked, the one who presided over the hundreds of test site protest trials before 1987, was Judge Bill Sullivan, the current judge’s father.

Our friend Pegasus was the first test site protestor to be charged and tried for trespassing under the new protocols in 2018. Since then, despite lower numbers due to COVID concerns, there have been several more protests at the test site where people have been cited with trespass, all of them ultimately dismissed until the present case.

John made a motion to have our cases consolidated to have one trial. Nevada law allows the court to consolidate trials to “avoid unnecessary cost or delay,” but Judge Sullivan deferred to the DA, who started to say “no reason to keep them…” but stopped himself and said that we are “two different people, two different trials.”  Judge Sullivan, as in every other question, deferred to the DA and ruled that we are to be tried separately, despite the fact that we were cited in identical circumstances, at the same time and place and issued identical citations.

We asked for a jury trial, which Judge Sullivan said was not within his purview to grant- “You are not entitled to a jury trial for trespassing. The only time that we do jury trials in this state is for domestic battery, in justice courts,” a position again at odds with Nevada statutes that make no exception for domestic battery but require that “in a justice court, a case must be tried by jury only if the defendant so demands.”

Two bench trials for me and John, one after the other, are presently scheduled in Beatty Justice Court for July 10.

John and I will be making a jury demand and addressing other of Judge Sullivan’s rulings in coming days. My own approach to the courts, after some 200 arrests, mostly for trespass, is usually comparatively minimal. In this case, I am taking closer care. I am an anarchist who finds himself at times arguing for the rule of law against its sworn defenders.

John noted at our hearing that this is no ordinary trespass case, as opposed to Judge Sullivan’s puzzling assertion that it is one of many, many, many such cases the court has handled in recent years, suggesting that our coming trial will be merely going over old ground, a rehash of past litigation.

A simple misdemeanor trespass trial in Beatty, Nevada, in 2023 brings together issues of indigenous rights, the growing threat of nuclear annihilation, of degradation of the environment and the responsibilities of citizens of a nation bent on global destruction. Much as transpired, at the test site, in Nevada, in the United States and in the world, these last 36 years since such cases were the routine in Beatty Justice Court. In 1987, the world was disarming nuclear weapons and today, lead by the U.S., more nuclear weapons are being produced, supported by research at the NNSS.

On Good Friday, April 7, at the end of the Sacred Peace Walk, eight more activists were arrested and cited for trespass at the NNSS and they will need to decide how to proceed. The powers that be are determined, it seems, to make our trials into perfunctory, boring, routine and meaningless affairs that will inspire no one, making a little money for the county out of protestor’s fines on the side. My hope is that against all efforts to keep things dull, we can bring some of the loving determination and creativity of our protests from the streets and the desert, even some of the pageantry and drama, into the courtrooms.

Brian Terrell

I glanced into the chamber where the judges were talking

Darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb

I was ready to leave, I was already walking

But the next time I looked there was light in the room

– Bob Dylan, Day of the Locusts