“Welcome back,” said federal judge Lisa Godsbey Wood to the jury and the packed courtroom as we sat down. And in the same breath she said, “Mr. Knoche, please call your first witness.”
The prosecutor’s job, technically, was not that challenging. The defendants had already told the jury they had committed the acts of which they were accused. All that was left was to determine what kind of crime, if any, was committed by seven peace activists who performed a nonviolent, symbolic, religious action in pursuit of nuclear disarmament.
As the day wore on, and the testimony of witnesses unfolded, it became clear that much of the day would be about respect. The prosecution was not content with proving its case; it also wanted to cast the defendants in a most disrespectful light.
To that end, the Plowshares activists were painted as vandals; the scripture verses they painted on walls, sidewalks and missiles were described as graffiti; the crime scene tape that marked weapons related sites was consistently called “caution tape.”
A parade of law enforcement and security personnel from two branches of the military and one civilian police officer, along with Special Agent Kenney of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, came to the stand to tell, each of them, their part of the story. Their testimony was accompanied by photos and, eventually, more than an hour of video shot by the defendants during their action and turned over to the authorities.
US Navy Master-at-Arms Aaron Perry described getting a call and responding to the Limited Area—a high security area where nuclear weapons are believed to be stored. When he arrived, he discovered Steve Kelly, Liz McAlister and Carmen Trotta inside one security fence, on a gravel strip called the “rabbit run,” holding a banner. Although he testified that the first word his partner MA3 Wallace said upon reaching the fence was “Freeze!”, the video showed, and later testimony confirmed, the first words were “Would you please turn off the video?”
Under cross examination, MA3 Perry confirmed Liz, Carmen and Steve had never acted in a threatening manner, that they were compliant, cooperating with all orders, that he had called the Marines who would arrest the three, and that neither he nor his partner used weapons to control the peacemakers. He also confirmed that none of them, at any time, acted in a malicious manner.
When Steve Kelly asked MA3 Perry if there were valuable assets in the highly restricted area, the answer, which we were to hear several times during the day, was “I can neither confirm nor deny.”
Carmen Trotta, after thanking Mr. Perry for his professional behavior, elicited the fact that the two parties stood facing each other, separated by a chain link fence, for 8 minutes before the Marines arrived. The young sailor, whose memory had provided many details of the events of the evening, was unable to recall a single snippet of the conversation that took place between himself and the defendants during those eight minutes.
Perry was replaced on the stand by one of those Marines, Darryl Townsend, wearing his green woolen uniform with a red sergeant’s patch on the sleeve. He testified that he had just fallen asleep on April 5, 2018 when the alert sounded and he rolled out of bed and got his team together, who all jumped in their vehicles sure that they were participating in a drill. “Definitely,” he said. “I didn’t think there was anyone out there.”
He explained the caution with which he approached the scene, described his encounter with the protesters, and identified photos of equipment they had used to cut their way in. When he was asked to identify the three, they stood offering themselves. He pointed out Steve Kelly and Carmen Trotta and, to Liz McAlister, said, “Thank you,” as she stood.
Under cross-examination, he was asked if the three had been compliant. “I agree wholeheartedly,” he answered, and went on to confirm they were peaceful and compliant. He said he didn’t remember getting information from the Navy personnel, but he did remember, he said, “That it was the anniversary of MLK’s assassination, and that they said they were Roman Catholic.” He denied there was any evidence of malice or malicious behavior.
Carmen Trotta was emotional as he thanked Mr. Townsend for his treatment of them that night. Steve Kelly sought to elicit information about the reason for the high security, and what the Limited Area might contain. “I can’t confirm or deny,” answered Townsend. The prosecution tried to cut off the question with an objection, but the judge noted, “He has already answered.”
Officer Lee Carter of the Kings Bay base police was the next witness. He was the first police officer on the scene at the missile shrine and Engineering Services building where Patrick O’Neill, Mark Colville, Clare Grady and Martha Hennessey had undertaken their part of the action.
After describing the area, the jury was shown photos of the missile shrine: a circle of mock weapons and flags, including a D-5 Trident missile and a mock Tomahawk cruise missile perched on a platform for display. The prosecutor noted the words “Abolish nukes now” painted on the base that held the largest missile on display. “Is that a regular part of the display?” he asked. “No,” came the answer. He pointed to the banner taped to the side of the missile—”Is the banner usual?” “No, sir.” He noted tailfins of the Tomahawk missile were stripped off, lying on the ground. “Were the tailfins defaced?” he asked. Officer Carter replied, “It appears that way.”
He identified the four activists who stood to make his job easier.
Under cross-examination, his clear memory got a little sketchier, especially when it came to recalling the religious nature of their protest. “They were chanting their motto or their mantra or something,” he said. Did they tell you they were Catholic? I believe they told me. I’m a Baptist, he said, as though it explained everything.
When asked about whether he felt threatened, he acknowledged that after he spoke with them, he left them and went to his vehicle to get handcuffs.
Patrick O’Neill asked Carter if he remembered what they said when he arrived. He said he did not, so Patrick reminded him he said, “We’re nonviolent, we come in peace!” He did not recall. “Do you remember what you said to us when you first approached?” No. “You said, ‘I suppose you folks realize you are in a bit of trouble.'” The courtroom erupted in laughter. Officer Carter said, “That sounds like something I’d say.” Patrick said, “Our first encounter, there in the dark, you made me laugh.” The judge broke in, “Is there a question in there?”
After a few more questions, Patrick asked, “Has this changed your life in any way?” and the judge sputtered, “Don’t answer that!” At 10:40am, we took the morning break.
The fourth witness was another police officer, Michael Fisher, who described finding the entry point, Gate 18, with a new, non-military lock on the gate and the old lock in the weeds twenty feet away.
The next witness was NCIS Special Agent Kenney who walked the jury through the evidence, holding up hammers and other implements in plastic bags, and then more than an hour of video, shot by the GoPro videos worn by Carmen Trotta and Patrick O’Neill. While the audio was clear, most of the video was lost to darkness. But we heard the conversation between defendants as they made decisions about where to approach and what to do, and we watched chains being cut, banners being strung, messages being painted, the letters and lights of a giant sign reading STRATEGIC WEAPONS FACILITY ATLANTIC being pried and torn from a brick wall, crime scene tape being strung, and more.
During the action, the videographers and others were careful to deliver a clear message—that nuclear weapons are illegal, idolatrous, and threaten the planet. Messages painted and strung on banners included: The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide; Resist Idolatry; Love Your Enemies; Disarm…”
Screen shots from confiscated phones laid out the conversation, channeled through a third party; photos were sent to the outside world.
Under cross-examination, the defense noted that none of the banners in evidence were shown to the jury; Special Agent Kenney said they were either tainted with blood or too large. Instead, the jury was treated to a photo of the banner taken to the Limited Area that read NUCLEAR WEAPONS ILLEGAL IMMORAL.
Agent Kenney testified that the protesters harmed no one and showed no intent to harm. He was asked why he described clear messages, like May Love Disarm Us All, as graffiti; he said it was used to describe something painted where it wasn’t supposed to be, like a train or a bridge or something.
Efforts to approach the religious nature of the demonstration were cut off by the judge who has ruled such evidence out of bounds for the trial.
Clare Grady asked why he insisted on describing crime scene tape as caution tape. “Several of the exhibits clearly say ‘Crime Scene Do Not Cross’ but you repeatedly call it caution tape.” He said it was his training. “But in your training, if you go to a crime scene, do you put up caution tape?” No, said Special Agent Kenney, I made a mistake. I apologize.
By 4:52, when Special Agent Kenney had completed his testimony, the judge declared the day over and court was adjourned until 9:00am tomorrow. The prosecution indicated it has one more witness to call.