Once U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled the Kings Bay Plowshares’ pretrial defenses would not be allowed during the jury trial, that left a very real question — how do you put on a defense while regularly admitting to committing the acts of which you are accused? The answer, made clear as the defendants went through their testimony, was to figuratively walk as close to those prohibited defenses as possible. If they swung for the fences in pretrial hearings, testimony and evidence given Wednesday were like a long streak of targeted bunting.
Each defendant who took the stand went through a process that could’ve easily been excerpted from testimony given in the hearings on their attempted use of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The defendants talked about their parents, their childhood, how they came about their beliefs. That eventually dovetailed into their motivations for breaking into Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.
“My faith was the reason I went,” said defendant Patrick O’Neill. He said he felt compelled to act to do something about the existence of nuclear weapons, and agreed that he opted to break the law in order to make a statement he said needed making. O’Neill said regardless of how the trial turns out, the Kings Bay incident will do what it was designed to, which is to wake people up and encourage conversation about nuclear weapons.
O’Neill and five of the other defendants — Father Stephen Kelly chose not to present testimony — also each confirmed their individual actions in the April 2018 break-in and what the U.S. government termed as vandalism.
“We wanted to expose that base to the scrutiny of the American people,” defendant Carmen Trotta said.
Several defendants said they went into Kings Bay with no intention of creating damage or being malicious, though testimony began to get into a philosophical debate as to the definition of certain words and actions. The defendants maintain what they did wasn’t illegal, but in a open-and-shut way, it’s a matter of seven people committing a few crimes and then admitting to it.
Therein lies what makes the matter so unusual — typically when a defendant admits to breaking the law of which they’re accused, there’s a plea agreement, a change of plea hearing and a sentencing. Instead, the seven anti-nuclear activists in this matter are hoping for a bout of jury nullification to break out.
That is, it’s possible for the jury to believe that the defendants are morally or otherwise in the right, and decide to issue not guilty verdicts. This sort of action is more likely to be seen in trials on subjects like possession of small amounts of marijuana, in which juries feel the law is unjust, and by giving not-guilty verdicts, nullifies it.
Of course, it’s also possible jurors come around to the thought that the defendants broke the law, the defendants repeatedly admitted they broke the law, and in our criminal justice system that means they need to be found guilty and sentenced.
Depending on the length of closing arguments, the case will go to the jury today in the late morning or sometime in the afternoon. Each of the defendants has up to 30 minutes for their closings, while prosecutors have 30 minutes for their closing and another 30 minutes for a rebuttal.
The trial is scheduled to resume at 9:45 a.m. at the federal courthouse in Brunswick.