Assistant U.S. Attorney Karl Knoche said the Kings Bay Plowshares defendants and others in their cause created a “cottage industry” of breaking into and vandalizing nuclear U.S. military installations over the past 38 years, and then trying to use the subsequent prosecutions to get the United States to denuclearize.
Indeed, two of the Plowshares defendants were involved in federal appellate court decisions referred to by both the prosecution and the defense during Thursday’s motions hearing in U.S. District Court in Brunswick. But the defendants had not before used the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a defense, creating the possibility of the case to plow new ground on the extent of protections afforded by the federal government for religious exercise.
Bill Quigley, who represents defendant Elizabeth McAlister and is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said the two standards RFRA sets up are the government’s compelling interest and to carry out that interest in the least-restrictive way possible.
He said he was willing to argue on the compelling interest point, but allowed a stipulation that the federal government has a good reason to deter people from gaining access to a Navy base that houses nuclear weapons. However, Quigley said the Justice Department violated RFRA by immediately going to a criminal prosecution, instead of seeking a civil penalty or pretrial diversion.
Quigley also spoke at length about the defendants’ assertion that the United States is in violation of its own laws, international laws and treaty obligations by possessing nuclear weapons, which he argued would render the prosecution moot. By being indiscriminate and genocidal by nature, Quigley said, nuclear weapons are a war crime unto themselves.
He also voiced disagreement with a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a similar matter and holding that use of nuclear weapons may indeed be a war crime, but their possession is not. Carmen Trotta, who is representing himself, told the court threatening to use nuclear missiles — as President Donald Trump did in tweets referencing North Korea — is in itself a use of the weapons, same as pointing a gun at someone is considered use of a gun and a crime.
The language used by defense attorneys and defendants at the hearing indicate they are preparing for and intend to take the matter to a jury trial, something that rarely occurs in federal criminal matters.
Magistrate Judge Stan Baker said he would take the arguments into consideration. A ruling on the defendants’ motions to dismiss is expected in the next coming days.