KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - A federal jury convicted an elderly nun and two other peace activists on Wednesday for damage they caused in breaking into a defense facility where enriched uranium for nuclear bombs is stored.
Sister Megan Rice, who was 82 at the time of the incident, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed admitted cutting fences and making their way across the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in July 2012, embarrassing U.S. officials and prompting security changes.
Jurors deliberated for about 2-1/2 hours before reading the verdict in Knoxville federal court. Rice stood straight up and smiled when it was read. Supporters of the three gasped and some began to cry before singing a hymn as the judge left the courtroom.
All three were convicted of damaging a national defense premises, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years, and of causing more than $1,000 of damage to U.S. government property, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
A detention hearing was scheduled for 9 a.m. on Thursday before U.S. District Court Judge Amul Thapar. They will be detained overnight.
Prosecutors contended that the break-in at Y-12, the primary U.S. site for processing and storage of enriched uranium, disrupted operations, endangered U.S. national security, and caused physical damage that cost more than $8,500 to repair.
“We are a nation of laws. You can’t take the law into your own hands and force your views on other people,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Theodore had said in a closing argument that called the facility “a critical part of our national defense.”
The activists admitted cutting several fences, walking through the complex for hours, spray-painting slogans and hammering on the walls of the facility. When guard Kirk Garland confronted them, they offered him food and began singing.
Defense attorneys said the activists, who belong to a group called Transform Now Plowshares, had taken part in a symbolic break-in that did not harm the facility. They had no intent to harm the facility and the damage cost was overstated, they said.
“Our country is not threatened by three people who get senior discounts walking onto their (base),” Walli’s attorney, William Quigley, told jurors in a closing argument in federal court in Knoxville.
Walli was 63 and Boertje-Obed 57 at the time.
Boertje-Obed testified on Wednesday that it was “a miracle” that they could walk from a church parking lot over a ridge and reach the building deep inside the facility grounds.
In closing, Boertje-Obed said the defendants had “exposed that the emperor does not have real security. Nuclear weapons do not provide security ... our actions were providing real security and exposing false security.”
The breach sparked investigations by the U.S. Congress and the Energy Department, which oversees nuclear facilities. An Energy Department inspector general report in August found “troubling displays of ineptitude” at the complex.
Shortly after the incident, the top security official at the National Nuclear Security Agency and two other federal officials were reassigned. Also, top officials at WSI, the international security company that provided security at Oak Ridge, were removed and officers were fired, demoted or suspended.
Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Scott Malone, Alden Bentley and Tim Dobbyn