Hancock 38 drone resisters await verdict after 5 days in court

Most of the Hancock 38 (click on photo to enlarge)

by Carol Baum of the Syracuse Peace Council

After five long days in court, closing arguments were heard in the Hancock 38 Drone Resisters trial on Saturday, November 5. But it’s not quite over – Judge Gideon will give the verdict on Thursday, December 1 at 5 pm at the Town of DeWitt Court House (5400 Butternut Dr., East Syracuse). Please come. Dates can change, so contact SPC for updates.

Tuesday, November 1 marked the first day of the trial of the Hancock 38 Drone Resisters, activists from upstate New York and beyond who participated in a “die-in” at the main entrance of Hancock Air National Guard Base just outside Syracuse last April. The action symbolized the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan by hunter-killer reaper drones and protested the reaper here and elsewhere. The defendants also attempted to deliver an indictment to the base commander focusing on the illegality of the drones; the indictment was taken and thrown to the ground.

This was the first civil resistance action at Hancock since it became a major player in drone warfare over the last few years. Pilots stationed at the base fly drones over Afghanistan and it boasts of schools for training drone maintenance technicians as well as drone pilots and sensor operators.

In preparation for the trial the defendants made multiple court appearances, as they argued motions to join their cases together for a single trial (accepted) and for their defense to include testimony about the illegality of drone warfare, as well as the necessity of breaking a law in order to prevent something worse from happening (both denied). Eventually a court date was set and everyone was ready to go.

Several days prior to the trial, a new charge was added. The final charges were “obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic” and “refusing to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse” (both low-level violations). Thirty-two people ended up going to trial – ten represented by lawyers and twenty-two representing themselves.

From the first moment, the defendants’ goal has been to put the drones on trial. The group argued that they were innocent of the “lawful order to disperse” charge because the order was actually not lawful. It contradicted the Nuremburg Principles, which forbid wars of aggression, attacks on civilians and extrajudicial assassinations – all actions associated with drone warfare. Citizens have a duty to act where they can to prevent violations, even if the violations are committed by their government.

The defendants argued that the “obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic” didn’t hold up either because there was no vehicular or pedestrian traffic to obstruct. In preparation for the legal rally preceding the action, base security and police had shut down the main entrance and parked many police cars in the driveway – so the die-in there didn’t inconvenience anyone.

A trial highlight was the appearance of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark as a witness. At a press conference before court, Ramsey stated, “Drones inherently violate the laws of the United States and international law,” and quoted from Dante’s Inferno: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis, do not act.”

After the court spent more than two hours qualifying Ramsey as an expert witness in the principles of international law and defining what the precise scope of his testimony would be, Ramsey testified that the defendants’ actions were justified under international law as embodied in the Nuremberg Principles. Judge Gideon later asked Ramsey to address international law in relation to local action. Ramsey testified that the Nuremberg Principles are the ”supreme law of the land,” and that all courts at every level – federal, state and local – must act in the context of these principles.

Another highlight was the opening statements of the defense. From James Ricks, Jr. of Enfield, NY:

The evidence will show that it was not to engage in disorderly conduct but to uphold the law. The greatest laws we have are those which seek peace. The evidence will show any American … who commits specified crimes, including attacks against civilians, cruel or inhumane treatment, or who commits murder, or causes bodily injury onto others is subject to prosecution. The War Crimes Act defines war crimes as any grave breach of the Geneva Convention and therefore, individuals have a duty to disobey orders that could cause crimes against humanity.

From Martha Hennessy from Weathersfield, Vermont and the New York Catholic Worker:

As citizens of the United States we come to exercise our rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and of peaceful assembly, and to petition our government for the redress of grievances …Evidence will show our efforts to be a reasoned response in the face of violations of greater laws in contrast to the charges leveled against us. We are attempting to seek justice on behalf of voiceless victims.


Carol did support work and attended the entire trial. For opening statements, video, media reports, etc., see peacecouncil.net and upstatedroneaction.org.