Anti-nuclear protesters fill a Kansas City courtroom

Defendants and friends

Judge Franco reveals her liberal heart –
No jail time for Kansas City Plant protesters

By Frank Cordaro , Des Moines Catholic Worker

Something happened in the Kansas City Municipal Court that doesn’t happen very often.  A judge revealed her true self to the court, and Judge Franco is a liberal. This came as a surprise to most of us. The last time we appeared in Judge Franco’s court she was rude and mean, showing no interest in the cause that brought us to her court, not letting any of the nuke plant protesters have a chance to speak and not even allowing some of us a chance to tell her we had no intention of paying the fines or court cost she laid on us after our pleas of guilty.

So when 25 of us co-defendants showed up in court on July 19, accompanied by friends and supporters, to answer to trespass charges from our May 2nd witness at the new Kansas City nuclear weapons parts plant, we were pleasantly surprised. The majority of Judge Franco’s afternoon docket was made up of the 25 protesters, with a few “regular”’ defendants interspersed inbetween. When the judge took the bench, she started hearing cases individually. Throughout most of the early proceedings, Judge Franco’s voice could hardly be heard, even by the individual defendants standing in front of her.

As more and more protesters came before Judge Franco, it became clear that she was not going to send anyone to jail.  She allowed individual defendants who pled guilty the option of community service instead of the $500 fine, ten day suspended jail and two year probation recommended by the prosecutor.  Those who plead “not guilty” were given a court date in late September. She made no distinction between first time offenders and those who had been arrested before.

When repeat offender Nick Pickrell went before the judge, he told her of his work at the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker in Kansas City and how he could not afford to pay the fine or do community service because his life was one of community service.  Nick told her he would prefer to do jail time instead.  The judge complied and gave him a two day jail sentence. Since Nick had done an overnight in lock up the day we were all arrested, they cut him lose three hours after court.

The last group of protesters who came before the judge were the ones representing themselves. Among these was Megan Felt from the Des Moines Catholic Worker. It was with Megan that the judge really started to show her true sympathies. Megan had spent the whole time in the courtroom trying to read the judge on a spiritual level.  All she could feel from the judge was a woman who was in a great deal of pain.

When she stood before Judge Franco, representing herself, she tried to start a conversation about the reasons that she and the other protesters were there in the first place. Megan told the judge she lived and worked at a Catholic Worker house and really could not afford the fine. The judge shared that she too had concerns about nuclear weapons and the new parts plant being built. She cut Megan’s fine to $100 plus court costs.

Then came Steve Jacobs from the Columbia, Missouri Catholic Worker. He pled guilty, with the stipulation that he would be allowed to make a statement before he was sentenced.  It was at this time we learned that, in this Kansas City Municipal Court, only defendants facing a possible jail sentence had the right to speak before sentencing.  Steve is a multiple offender and was one of the five people who had active warrants out on him on May 2 when we were arrested.  This made him a candidate for jail time.  So the judge allowed Steve to speak.  He gave a prepared statement entitled, “Your Honor: I am Guilty of This” (see Steve’s statement below).

After Steve read his statement, the whole courtroom erupted with applause.  The bailiff shouted out that there was no clapping allowed in the court and the room fell silent. The judge gave Steve the $500 fine, 10 days suspended sentence and two years probation – the same sentence the prosecutor recommended for first time offenders.  Steve was escorted out of the courtroom and sent to the clerk of courts office.

I was the last person to appear before Judge Franco.  Representing myself, I told her that I wanted to plead guilty as long as I was allowed to speak before sentencing.  She reminded me that only defendants who could be sent to jail had a right to speak.  She took a look at the computer before her and then told me that I qualified.

I told the judge that that was at least one good thing about the possibility of being sent to jail in her court.  Then she reminded me that it did not necessarily mean that I would be sentenced to jail. And I responded, “I know, and I have great hopes that what I say will persuade you not to send me to jail.”  (Unlike Steve Jacobs and Ed Bloomer, who had the same standing warrants as I for failure to pay previous fines and court costs at the time of the May 2 action, I was given only 60 days to pay the fines and court costs, while they were given 90 days. This meant I had an active warrant out for my arrest and could have been arrested at any time during the proceedings.)  The judge smiled and nodded for me to proceed.

I began by telling the judge that I agreed with everything that Steve Jacobs had said in his statement.  I, too, was not going to pay any fines or do any community service.  Then I told her, “There is yet another reason I am not going to pay any fine or court cost levied against me.  It has to do with the system, the Justice System.”

I told the judge, “This is not personally directed at you, but at the whole justice system.”

“We Catholic Workers are known for doing the Works of Mercy in our houses of hospitality; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner and housing the homeless. For our guests, doing jail time is as common as the common cold. It’s a fact of life in the lives of the poor and people of color whom we serve. The single most common reason for them being in jail is their lack of money.”

“They say you get the justice you can afford in this country.  If you have a million dollars, you’ll get a million dollars worth of justice and if you’ve got two cents, you’ll get two cents worth.  It’s even worse for the poor because the system nickels and dimes them to death with all the court costs, fees and fines levied against them.  In some cities like Des Moines, they even get charged jail fees at $48 a day! Some will never get out of debt.  When I talked to one local Kansas City attorney about representing us here in court today he said that this Municipal Court was nothing more than a ‘collection agency’.  Hardly a place where justice is served!”

“You know as well as I do, Judge, that the majority of the people locked up in your jail are poor and people of color and they are there primarily there because they don’t have enough money to get themselves out.  So I am telling you, your honor, if you sentence me to jail today, every day will be a privileged day in which I can share the plight of the poor, whom we serve at our Catholic Workers”.  The court room spontaneously filled with applause but was just as quickly silenced by the court bailiff.

Now it was Judge Franco’s turn to talk.  She leaned across the bench and her voice carried all the way to the back of the court room.  She said that before she was a judge, she was a defense lawyer for 25 years and often defended the same kind of people we serve at our Catholic Workers.  She said she knew well the demographics of the Kansas City jail and did not disagree with me on these facts.

Judge Franco was especially aware of the role of mental health in the criminal justice system, saying, “Our county jails are probably the biggest mental health facilities in this county.” She told us that she became a judge in hopes of being able to better the plight of the poor and the mentally ill.  She listed a number of programs that she help get started that served the needs of indigent inmates, homeless Vets and the mentally ill.  She told us that, as a judge, she has lobbied at the state level to prevent cutting mental health care.  She said, “It was the dumbest thing the state legislators ever did when they cut mental health funds.”

When she was done speaking, people applauded again. When the courtroom returned to silence, Judge Franco gave me the same sentence she gave Steve Jacobs and Ed Bloomer – a $500 fine plus court cost, to be paid within 90 days.

Then Judge Franco smiled and said,  “But I’m sure that you’ll eventually be found in contempt of court.” I told the judge, “I already am.”

She replied, “I know.”

Judge Franco revealed her true self to us in court that day and she is a liberal.  I say this in the best of sense of the word.  I say this because, left to my own upbringing,  history and temperament, I too would be a liberal if it were not for my radical reading of the scriptures, my life at the Catholic Worker and my encounter with the Berrigan brothers.  We faith-based, radical Catholic Worker types have common cause with good people like Judge Franco and, when we can, we should celebrate our common concerns and values. That is what happen in court that day.

Still, I walked out of the Kansas City Courthouse with an active warrant for my arrest still hanging over my head, and in 90 days another one will be issued.  Ed Bloomer and Steve Jacobs are soon to be in the same situation, along with better than a few of the folks who were sentenced with fines and court costs and will refuse to do so.

Another 25 folks will be heading back to court in Kansas City in late September for another trial. And not all the judges in Kansas City are liberals.

The nuke weapons parts plant is still being built.

It is going to take a lot more than a liberal approach to stop the continued building and maintaining of our nuclear weapons.

And it’s going to take a lot more than liberal programs to bring justice to the Justice System.

The one thing in our “radical tool box” that our liberal friends don’t seem to have or don’t want to use is a willingness to do nonviolent direct action with some measure of human equity and personal sacrifice on the line. And when such efforts bring us in conflict with our Justice System that means being willing and ready to go to jail if necessary.


Steve Jacobs’ July 19 Court Statement before Judge Franco in Kansas City, Missouri

Your Honor;

I am guilty of trespassing at the site of Kansas City’s new nuclear weapons plant. And I am guilty of knowing the difference between what is legal and what is right. Jesus tells us that the law is meant to serve humanity; humanity is not meant to serve the law. Laws are just when they serve humanity and not when they protect those who create a mortal threat to its existence. Trespass laws which protect the makers of weapons of mass destruction against nonviolent resisters have no authority over my conscience and act of resistance.

I am guilty of trespass the same way a firefighter or a policeman is guilty of trespass when entering property in order to prevent a greater crime from occurring. You may believe the danger of nuclear annihilation is not imminent or that building these weapons of mass destruction are legal, but I believe that any weapon that indiscriminately kills hundreds of thousands of innocents along with those who are targeted are immoral and have no right to exist. Creating more makes their use more imminent so we have a duty to stop their production now.

Catholic bishops tell us that these weapons are immoral because if used, they will continue to kill the innocent year after year from the effects of nuclear fallout and contamination. I am guilty of believing them.

I am guilty of believing that any city which wishes to operate facilities to manufacture weapons of mass destruction should have to put the issue to a vote before the citizens and that those who are morally opposed to these weapons cannot be made to pay taxes which enable their production because it is a violation of their conscience.

I am guilty of believing judges have a duty to protect society from criminal schemes which condemns farm land under “urban blight” laws so that WMD’s can be produced there and that they (judges) also have a duty to protect citizens from war profiteers who socialize construction of WMD’s and privatize the profits.

I am guilty of loving my planet more than I fear your jail. I cannot in good conscience pay any fines to a city that helps make nuclear weapons and I cannot do community service because I do that every day at St. Francis House in Columbia serving poor people, but I am ready to serve any amount of jail time you wish to give me.

Steve Jacobs
Columbia, Missouri Catholic Worker



Twenty nuclear weapons activists found guilty

Convictions come after Vatican diplomat calls weapons ‘no longer morally justified’

Jul. 20, 2011


Anti-nuclear weapons activists walk towards the construction site of the new Kansas City Plant May 2. (NCR photo/Joshua J. McElwee)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Twenty peace activists opposing the country’s first new nuclear weapons facility in 33 years were found guilty of trespass yesterday for a May action which saw 53 arrested for a nonviolent action here.

But the convictions, handed down by Municipal Judge Elena Franco, were just part of a two-hour court drama that saw activists place their action in the context of the continued funding of U.S. nuclear weapons and a recent statement by a key Vatican diplomat questioning nuclear deterrence.

Speaking in Kansas City July 1, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.N., said “there is no justification today for the continued maintenance of nuclear weapons.”

Steve Jacobs, one of those convicted yesterday, echoed the archbishop’s words in a statement before Franco.

Story continued here.