Sentencing dates set for Kings Bay Plowshares nuclear abolitionists

by Felice & Jack Cohen-Joppa, the Nuclear Resister

After delays and disputes over pre-sentencing reports followed by a court closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, the seven Kings Bay Plowshares activists are due to be sentenced in separate hearings on May 28 and 29 in federal court in Brunswick, Georgia. The dates were announced on April 6, just over two years from the day the seven were arrested inside Kings Bay Naval Base while engaged in symbolic acts of nuclear disarmament.

At press time, it is not yet certain whether the defendants will appear in person or by video, whether spectators will be allowed in the courtroom or access to the proceedings by audio stream, or whether sentencing might be delayed.

The declaration of a National Emergency in mid-March led federal courts around the country to curtail business and restrict access. In southeast Georgia, the federal court put most proceedings on hold, first until April 17 and later through the end of May.

Commenting in mid-April on the uncertainty, defendant Mark Colville asked people to “all step back and consider the absurdity of sentencing people by video conference to federal prison. To tell us it’s too dangerous to be in a court and at the same time to order people to prison during this deadly virus pandemic is inhumane. People are dying in prisons right now. It shows that the prison industrial complex takes a higher priority in the eyes of this government than human life. All prisoners should be set free.”  

On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., seven Catholic activists – Mark Colville, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, Fr. Steve Kelly SJ, Elizabeth McAlister, Patrick O’Neill and Carmen Trotta – set out late at night to practice their faith and witness for peace among the people working with nuclear weapons inside the U.S. Navy Kings Bay nuclear submarine base on the south Georgia coast. Once inside, they split into three groups to hang banners, pour blood, spraypaint religious sayings, block off an administrative building with crime scene tape and hammer on replicas of the nuclear missiles deployed on the Trident submarines based at Kings Bay.

Patrick O’Neill recently wrote, “One Trident submarine carries a payload of Trident II D-5 nuclear missiles that could end life as we know it. Trident is literally a diabolical doomsday machine embraced by most Americans as virtuous and godly… We went to Kings Bay to expose the sin of Trident, specifically the sin of the D-5 missile. It is the most insidious, deadliest, horrific weapon ever built. It has no right to exist. The Trident II D-5 missile is the opposite of God.”

Following a three-day jury trial last October, the seven were convicted of misdemeanor trespass and three felonies: destruction of government property, depredation of government property on a military installation and a conspiracy to do these things.

Fr. Steve Kelly was returned to the Glynn County Detention Center following the trial. Bail was not an option due to his unresolved federal probation violation from an earlier disarmament action in Washington state. The others are out on conditional release, relieved of prior electronic monitoring but subject to nightly curfew.

When they were convicted, the court had set forth a clear timeline for the completion of pre-sentencing reports in anticipation of sentencing last winter. Those deadlines slipped by as draft reports for each of the defendants were prepared.

Continuing his position of non-cooperation, Fr. Kelly refused to be interviewed by federal probation officials for their report.  According to federal guidelines, criminal history and the nature of the offense are assigned values to produce a recommended sentencing range. The aggravating factors at play, including the value of the property damaged, were challenged by the defense before the final reports were submitted to the court.

The most consequential and unprecedented factor still remaining in all of the pre-sentencing reports is the so-called “risk of death” enhancement that increases the recommended range if the offense involved “the conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury.”

Prosecutors have sometimes tried over the years to impugn the nonviolence of activists by invoking the risk of death or injury to themselves or others when lines are crossed or critical spaces occupied. But this is the first time the claim has been made to justify harsher punishment for Plowshares activists. The government contends that because the activists were aware of the risk of confronting armed guards and had therefore prepared and practiced how to reduce that risk and act nonviolently, they were “conscious” of the risk and are therefore subject to the “risk of death” provision in the sentencing guidelines.

Another factor disputed by the defense concerns acceptance of responsibility for the acts committed. The defendants admitted to their acts, saving the government much of their burden to prove the facts of the case. But for the government, accepting responsibility also means expressing remorse.

The sentencing guidelines call for prison sentences of 15-21 months for McAlister (already served 17 months), 18-24 months for Hennessy (served 6 weeks), 21-27 months for Trotta (served 6 weeks), O’Neill (served 6 weeks), Grady (served 3 months), Colville (served 16 months), and 27-33 months for Fr. Kelly (served 25 months and counting). When sentencing the seven, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood is free to depart up or down from the guidelines.

For more information, including the schedule of sentencing hearings, visit kingsbayplowshares7.org.

Notes of support should be sent to Stephen Kelly  015634, Glynn County Detention Facility, 100 Sulphur Springs Road, Brunswick, GA 31520, on pre-stamped white postcards. See complete mail restrictions at Inside & Out. Sometime after sentencing, marshals will take Kelly to federal prison in Washington state to appear in court there. Cards received in Georgia after that time will not be forwarded. Current prisoner addresses can be found at nukeresister.org/inside-out.