80-year-old nun sentenced for nonviolent Plowshares action at Trident base in Georgia

For more information about Liz McAlister and the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, see www.kingsbayplowshares7.org

The following news came out on June 8, 2020, from Ralph Hutchison, a great leader in a nonviolent grassroots group opposing nuclear weapons, the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA, www.orepa.org).

The peace movement has been waiting anxiously for the sentencing of Elizabeth McAlister, who has long history as a Catholic nun, and who was held in prison pending the sentence.

Now the sentence came out:  basically, time served with no additional prison time, and a huge financial penalty that she can pay out slowly.

Here is the report that Ralph Hutchison provided today (June 8, 2020):

 

It came from a non-profit organization Thirty-seven years after she first stood before a federal judge to hear the court render a sentence for her nonviolent direct action protesting nuclear weapons, 80-year-old Elizabeth McAlister appeared via video before Judge Lisa Godbey Wood to hear another sentence, maybe the last in the long career of indefatigable hope and courage and unrelenting opposition to nuclear weapons.

Last October, Liz and six others were found guilty of trespass and destruction of federal property, three felonies and a misdemeanor in all, at the Kings Bay Naval Base in St. Marys, Georgia, where they had the audacity, in the middle of the night, to deface a shrine celebrating US nuclear weapons and to protest the preparations for omnicide—the death of everything. Kings Bay is home to nuclear-weapons armed Trident submarines.

The world has changed since activists gathered in October, 2019, for the trial of the Kings Bay Plowshares seven in Brunswick, Georgia, to hear testimony and watch video describing their incursion into the naval base, and heard the defendants explain why they chose April 4—the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination—to carry out their act of faithful obedience. They described hanging banners that read, “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide,” painting messages of peace and spreading blood on the naval base.

In the intervening months, while federal marshals prepared pre-sentencing reports for the Kings Bay 7, the pandemic COVID-19 virus rose up to take more than 400,000 lives—reminding us all, if we have ears to hear, of the peril of complacency in the face of low-probability/high-risk events. It is no exaggeration, and not meant to diminish the suffering of those who have been ravaged by or lost loved ones to the novel coronavirus, to say that a nuclear war would make the current struggles look like a paper cut by comparison.

In quiet, quintessentially southern, all-American Brunswick, Georgia, the spotlight that shone briefly on nuclear weapons during the trial in October shifted abruptly in May when the pandemic of racism re-entered the public’s line of sight and the world learned that Ahmaud Arbery, a young African-American man, was hunted down by three white armed white men—Arbery, out for a morning jog in February, the men in pickup trucks—and was shot and killed. By May, none of the men had been indicted or faced any charges at all. They had, literally, gotten away with murder.

So, instead of a gathering of activists and supporters, complete with a festival of hope and a celebration of community on the night before sentencing, we gathered in spirit, more than 230 people listening on a conference call line. The night before, friends, family and supporters had gathered for a virtual blessing and liturgy via a facebook event.

On Monday, June 8, Liz was at home in Connecticut; her attorney, Bill Quigley, was in New Orleans. Judge Godbey Wood was in Brunswick. Joining the listeners on the phone were five of Liz’s co-defendants (Steve Kelley remains in jail in Brunswick) listened—they requested in-person sentencings which are currently scheduled for June 29 and 30, dates subject to change depending on the virus activity.

The proceedings went as expected. Following the April 4, 2018, action, Liz spent nearly eighteen months in jail; we expected the judge would not sentence her to additional time in prison. The state sought 3-5 years probation and restitution of just over $30,000.

At 9:15 am, Judge Wood called the court to order. Greg Gilluly spoke for the United States and Bill Quigley for the defense. Judge Wood first talked with Liz about the remote arrangements; she was interrupted by static as her voice bounced back from the speakers in Connecticut.

“Because of the virus it is not safe for all of us to be together in the court. We have given defendants the opportunity to proceed by way of video conference. Entirely their option. You have the right to be here in person. You can wait until it is safe to be here in person. Do you understand, Ms. McAlister?”

Liz. That’s fine. I understand. Let’s proceed.

J. Have you discussed that with Mr. Quigley?

Liz. Yes.

J. Very important that you hear and see everything that happens. And if you lose either video or audio contact, speak up or raise your hand and we’ll have the tech people cure that as soon as possible.

Lis. It’s very hard to hear what you say. I am not getting all of what you are saying. Can you hear me?

J. I hear you, but I wear an earpiece, because I am hearing challenged.

BQ. Judge, we can hear a lot of static when you are speaking.

J. Only me? Ms. McAlister, have you heard anything that has transpired thus far? Any gap?

Liz: I don’t believe so.

J. No need to rush. This is a very important day for you. This is your option, whether to proceed by video. Entirely your decision. I want to make sure that you have discussed this decision with your attorneys—you related that you have. I emphasized how important that you hear and see everything that is said, and called upon you to speak up and raise your hand if you’ve lost audio or video.

xxxxxxxxx

J. I believe we have lost video of the probation office. (You did). To probation: Can you hear us at all? Let’s see if we can get Probation back on.

—- B R E A K for technical issues —–

As the court sorted that out, those listening heard a private conversation, a discussion about doing household chores with someone on the line who said, “I’m in the middle of something. Maybe you can cut the grass. Up to you.”

This apparent breach of court security precipitated a recess at 9:30 to reset the audio connection as a secure connection.

9:53. Court reconvened and all connections were checked.

J. I believe we fixed Liz’s audio. And we got ATT to mute the public line.

J. Ms. McALister, it is important that you realize this is your decision, to do this via video. Or we can wait, and it’s important you discussed this with attorneys; you indicated you have done so. If you ever desire to consult with your attorneys in public, let me know, because you have the right to do that. So stop me, and let me know, and we’ll make sure you have the ability to talk to them in private without anyone else hearing.

L. I do. Thank you.

J. My finding: You have made a knowing and voluntary waiver of your right to proceed by personal appearance, and after consult with attorneys’ proceed with video. It is my further finding, given coronavirus, that it is necessary to go forward by video. So that is what we’ll do. Mr. Quigley, Mr. Clark, any reason to not proceed? No. Government? No.

J. One housekeeping matter. Motion on docket by Liz seeking to dismiss one count as duplicative. I deny that motion and we’ll proceed to the body of sentencing. Ms. McAlister, you appeared before me on October 21, 2019, accompanied by Mr. William Quigley and Jason Clark.

On October 24, you were found guilty by a jury on count 1, Conspiracy; count 2, Destruction of property; count 3, depredation of government property, and finally count 4, trespass. I directed probation to prepare pre-sentence report. Have you had the opportunity to read report and addendum and discuss with attorneys?

Yes.

Any objection to guidelines or factual materials?

BQ: Only what we have filed with the court and we will rest on those.

J. Probation is audio only. Ms. Shreve are you on the line, audio only? Yes.

J. Mr. Quigley and others, any objection to just being able to hear her? (Okay all around).

J. I received numerous letters on behalf of Ms. McAlister from members of the public in support of her personally and her endeavors. I had the opportunity and took the time to review each letter and took them into consideration. Also received the sentencing memorandum from her attorneys—read and contemplated. And I received the sentencing memo from gov’t in response, and I have read and considered that.

The objections raised in the addendum. Basically three objections.

1. Offense conduct. The nature of that objection: Ms. McAlister has proposed five paragraphs she would like inserted offense portion of the presentence report. Probation has declined to insert. I agree with probation officer and overrule the objection. Nevertheless, I will keep those in mind as I approach an ultimate sentencing resolution.

2. More substantive. Object to loss and restitution calculation contained in the Probation recommendation. Pointed at 4 paragraphs that deal with restitution recommendation and loss amount. Mr. Q, anything further? No. I will overrule the objection; I agree with probation officer’s response.

3. Finally, an objection with regard to acceptance of responsibility—probation officer has not included a two level decrease in offense level for acceptance of responsibility; Ms. McAlister argues she should get that decrease. Anything further Mr. Q? No. I overrule that objection and find there has not been a clear demonstration of acceptance of responsibility for the offenses of conviction.

I should note there is a fourth objection I want to take up, a substantive one as well, to the probation officer’s two level increase for conscious risk of death or serious bodily injury. Ms. McAlister argues that she should not receive that two-level increase under specific offense characteristics. Anything further Mr. Q? No. I do overrule the objection for the reasons set forth in the probation officer’s response. I do find, based on the testimony that was heard at trial, and based on the evidence that we saw at trial, that that offense level should be increased. I do find that the requisite standard has been made and there was a consciousness and a reckless risk of death or bodily injury. There were not only written warnings, but a loop of an audio recording advising anyone within earshot that lethal force was authorized. During the planning phase, there was testimony that there was consideration made that, at a minimum, their conduct could put themselves at risk of death or serious bodily injury. Based on evidence considered, people who were doing their jobs had their lives risked by the conduct. As a result, I do overrule that objection.

Final objection is simply mathematical. If the previous objections were adopted, they would affect the calculations, but I have overruled, so the calculations in the report stand.

Last part of the addendum is a set of four statements and considerations that the defendant wishes the court to take into consideration. I will do that. I have read all of those on page five and page six. I will take all of those into consideration in attempting to fashion a sentence that is neither too harsh nor too lenient.

Any other objections? Mr. Quigley.

BQ. Other points in sentencing memo, but they are different. So we’re okay on the probation report.

J. Yes. I want to completely finish pre-sentence report. Government?

G. Nothing, Your Honor.

J. Let me say as to factual statements in report that were not objected to, I will adopt as my finding of fact, as well as conclusions re: advisory guidelines. Objections to language contained in para 7, 8 9 10 and 12. Also objections to loss and restitution calculations, para 12, 13, 19, 97. By preponderance of evidence, those loss and restitution calculations are appropriate. I overruled the other objections. (Cites paragraphs of objections). I concur with findings set forth in presentence report. Therefore determine in Ms. McAlister’s case; total offense level is 14, criminal history is 1. Range is 15-21 months; the amount of restitution $33,502. Special assessment. The statutory requirements are as follows. No minimum term required in count 1, and a maximum of 5 years. Count 2, same statutory requirement. Count 3, no minimum, and a maximum of 10 years. And on the misdemeanor charge, no minimum, and a maximum of 6 months.

Gov’t, any further claims? No.

Mr. Q, Any witnesses to call, evidence to bring forth, argument in mitigation?

Q. Defendant and daughter.

J. I will hear the defendant last. But we will hear from daughter now.

Ms. Sharp administers the oath. Please state your full name:

Frida: Frida Danielle Berrigan.

Q. Frida, you have a statement. This is the time.

Frida: I am here to speak on behalf of my mom, Liz McAlister, one the defendants. I am here at my home in New London, Connecticut with my husband, and my children. My brother, Jerry, Molly and their three kids, the rest of Liz’s grandchildren. Kate and Karen are just a few blocks from here. All standing/sitting with her as she has stood with so many over the last 50 years of her life, an ally of those struggling against oppression, for civil rights. Last night, we had a zoom meeting with over 100 friends and family. The names on the zoom would be familiar to you—friends you wrote letters from every corner of her 80 years. Family, her fellow sisters at Sacred Heart of Mary. People who have broken bread and laws with her. Who have lived in community with her in and out of prison. Each of them attest to what you know in your own hearts and see in your own eyes. Our mother is a good and faithful person; her only crime is to listen to her own conscience; she will not allow that still, small voice to be drowned out by the loud, shrill cries of those who prepare for war.

As her daughter, I could wish her hearing was not that good, and she couldn’t hear that. My mother has spent 17 months and 8 days in jail. Enough is enough.

But as a 46 year old white citizen of nation that is going to spend 740 billion dollars on the military this year, even in the face of the pandemic that has laid bare the stark inequity of every fiber of our social network, I must say: Trident is a crime. In a country where white supremacy and militarization of police is so prevalent, where police can crush George Floyd in broad daylight, where Ahmaud Arbery can be hunted down and murdered in broad daylight, I draw strength from Dr. King’s words about the giant triplets of racism, militarism and poverty—the weights that bear down and cripple all of humanity. And from the Black Lives Matter analysis that addresses oppression. I stand with people who say that the “ultimate logic of trident is omnicide.”

I am a daughter who doesn’t want her mother sent to jail. But I am also a human being wonders how anything ever changes if people like her aren’t willing to take that risk, and I hope you agree that she has spent enough time in jail already. I hope you, Judge, will close this chapter of our lives with time served. As a person with almost nothing but the clothes on her back and watercolors she shares with her grandchildren, I hope that you will waive the fines and restitution as she simply can not pay.

J. Any questions, gov’t? No.

J. Mr. Quigley: Any questions? Any further argument.

Q. I would just call the court’s attention to Ms. McAlister who has lived her entire adult life in voluntary poverty, never owned a house, never owned property, lives on less than $1K a month as an 80 year old; I would ask that the court take this into account in terms of fine/restitution. Not appropriate given her circumstances, she couldn’t pay it. Because of her age, you have the information you need to make a just and merciful sentence. Justice and mercy can go hand in had ndn harmony, ask you to do that. Ms. McAlister is widely respected as you can see.
J. Gov’t?

Gov. Urges court to impose a sentence in advisory range of 15-21 months; asked for sentence within that range, not a variance. In particular, we emphasize the seriousness of the offense, financial damages to assets of US Navy, disruption of normal operations, the absence of any remorse, no withdrawal from criminal activity. That point is punctuated by what witness for defense said a moment ago, persons who have participated with Ms. McAlister for decades—50— and this is the eleventh time for this defendant. We also note the conscious risk of danger or death for defendant and persons responding at King’s Bay. We note defendant has served over 17 months and so we see no purpose served by imposing additional period of confinement. We ask court for sentence of “time served.” Ask court to impose restitution in the full amount, and for a term of supervised release of 3 years.

Judge. Ms McAlister?

Liz. I have spent much of my adult life trying to speak out about the threat to life, all life on earth, that comes from our weapons or mass destruction and out national policies to try to build more and more deadly and destructive weapons and to invest untold dollars and the lives of people in making these. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to address this and to say that money doesn’t belong there; that money belongs in building life and a more humane society.

Try to follow the instructions of the prophet Isaiah who told us to turns swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, who spoke of nations not learning war, learning how to live humanly with other human beings in a humane environment. It often seems like a foolish thing to do, but we try to do it anyhow.

Try to follow prophet Isaiah: Stop learning war, stop teaching war, something we teach very strongly in this country. All my life I have spoken and written against nuclear weapons and I believe these are contrary to life, destructive of life on every single level. The action I took at King’s Bay come out of years of my training in the scriptures where we are instructed to beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks and not to learn war—but war: that’s what we teach, that’s what we teach.

So, to the action I took at King’s Bay were taken out of years of training and the faith that Jesus taught us to address crimes against humanity, crimes against life, crimes against the earth. That’s what we are trying to do.

Being arrested, gong to jail for 17 months kept me away from the young people—Liz names family members—all here, wonderful human beings, a blessing. It kept me away from my grandchildren. That’s no fun. But it’s because of these children and grandchildren that I felt compelled to act, and I don’t apologize for it. I feel the weapons are completely destructive of life and the values we are supposed to be placing on these lives.
I acted because I had to follow my conscience and my faith. It was hard on me, hard on the children, grandchildren, and somehow we have come through to this moment. And that’s where we are. So…

J. All right. I’ve studied presentence report and addendum and all the letters submitted, and listened to her daughter and Ms. McAlister herself. Vividly remember the trial that occurred here. Thought about all the factors that are set forth in sentencing and how the apply uniquely to this defendant. It’s my duty to look at the good and the bad in your life, and to come up with a sentence that takes both sides into consideration and come up with punishment that is neither too harsh or too lenient given who you are and what you’ve done.

You spoke eloquently and your supporters have written about the firmness of your convictions. Strongly held beliefs about which laws you believe are righteous and which are not. But as has tried to be imparted to you, if you choose to break those laws and a jury of your peers finds you have done so, there are consequences—that’s what brings us here. There are consequences.

It is the judgment of the court: The defendant committed to custody of bureau of prisons— for a period of time served, on each of counts, all served concurrently. My understanding is Ms. McALister has actually served 17 months and 9 days. That falls in the middle, the heartland of the advisory sentencing guidelines. Independent or the probation recommendations, just looking at statutory factors—promoting respect of law and considering the seriousness of the offense and the nature of Ms. McAlister and the nature of the offense, that time is sufficient but not greater than necessary to account for the statutory purposes of sentencing. Apart from the guidelines, that would be fair and what I would impose. She is to receive credit for all 17 months and 9 days; her in-custody portion has been satisfied. No reason to part from the guidelines.

Restitution is due $33,502.51 – an obligation borne jointly and separately with other codefendants. Her situation does not allow her to pay the Navy that amount to make up for all the things that were ruined there. Nor does it appear she will be able to make that payment. I will require nominal payments, $25/month, to US District Court, and I will waive interest. No fine imposed. Mandatory special assessment of $100 for each count 1, 2, 3 and $10 for count 4, for a total of $310 for the mandatory special assessment.

You will be on supervised release for 3 years, served concurrently, for counts 1,2,3. You will comply with standard requirements, including cooperation in collection of DNA sample. You are prohibited from possessing firearm or dangerous weapon. Based on specific facts of case, I order a special condition that you provide the probation office with access to any financial info they request, and if your monetary circumstances change in any way that would enable you to make restitution, you must inform us immediately. You are required to pay on the schedule I set forth. You will also be subject to searches, but only on a reasonable suspicion and at a reasonable time and manner.

You have right to appeal within 14 days. Failure to appeal in that time is a waiver of your right to appeal. Gov’t has same right. You have the right to assistance of counsel… if you cannot afford counsel and so desire, one will be provided. The clerk of court can make notice of appeal on your behalf.
Any further objections to my findings of fact, conclusions of law or the manner that sentence was pronounced?

Q. No.

Gov’t. No.

J. This hearing is concluded. Ms. McAlister, probation will be in touch with you.

It was 10:41 am.