In a pro bono victory for Orrick, an appeals court has called for the release from custody of three peace activists, including an 85-year-old nun, who were criminally convicted for conducting an anti-war protest at a nuclear facility in Tennessee. The activists faced sentences ranging from 35 to 62 months in prison.
“This ruling is major vindication for our clients. They are peace-driven individuals who engaged in an act of civil disobedience by trespassing onto government property to protest against nuclear stockpiles. Far from being saboteurs desiring to harm the United States, our clients believe the country would be safest by adopting a policy of nuclear disarmament. We are thankful that the court of appeals saw that important distinction today,” said Marc Shapiro, an Orrick senior associate who handled the appellate oral argument in the case.
In 2012, Orrick’s clients — Sister Megan Rice and military veterans Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed — entered a nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee that did not house nuclear weapons. The trio hung banners, prayed and sang songs to protest nuclear warfare.
The trio was indicted on charges of trespass and injury to government property. Right before trial, prosecutors upped the stakes by adding new charges brought under the Sabotage Act, a century-old statute that prohibits interference with the government’s war and national defense efforts. A jury in Knoxville, Tennessee convicted the defendants on all counts in 2013.
In a decision issued on May 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the Sabotage Act convictions, finding insufficient evidence of an intent to interfere with military activities. The appeals court wrote the “defendants’ actions in this case had zero effect, at the time of their actions or anytime afterwards, on the nation’s ability to wage war or defend against attack.”
The appeals court did not overturn the activist’s related conviction for injuring government property. The court vacated the trio’s sentences under these counts, however, writing that they should be sentenced to time served (the activists have been in custody since their 2013 jury trial). The court pointed out that the guideline ranges for their sentences under these counts “will be substantially less” than the time they’ve already served.
Shapiro, a New York-based senior associate in Orrick’s Supreme Court & Appellate practice group, argued at the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati in March. Shapiro worked closely with several Orrick colleagues on the case, including partner Thomas McConville, partner Anne Elkins Murray, managing associate Judy Kwan and managing associate Andrew Ong. The defense team also included William Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.