2 April 2003
John F. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president of the United States.
On Tuesday, a federal prosecutor evoked Kennedy's memory in the trial of three Catholic nuns accused of raiding a nuclear missile silo site in Colorado.
The three Dominican sisters - Carol Gilbert, 55, Jackie Hudson, 68, and Ardeth Platte, 66 - say they took the Oct. 6 action to expose what they call the criminality of nuclear missiles that they claim are first-strike weapons.
Recalling the Cuban missile crisis, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Brown said Kennedy told the Russians to get their missiles out of Cuba.
Kennedy warned that any missile fired from Cuba - no matter where it was aimed - would be considered "an attack on the United States," Brown said.
"The reason the Soviet Union backed off is because we had these missiles," he said during opening statements.
Brown told a federal jury that nuclear missiles, and the threat by President Kennedy, probably saved the world from nuclear annihilation in October 1962.
The nuns are charged with obstruction of national defense and damaging U.S. property. Conviction on the first offense carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, and the second would carry 10 years.
At the silo northeast of Greeley, the nuns cut down a fence, used ball-peen hammers to hit the tracks and lid of the Minuteman III silo, and used their own blood to form six crosses on the silo lid, the three admitted in court documents.
The nuns are defending themselves with the help of an advisory counsel. The first thing Platte told the jury in her opening statement on Tuesday was that she forgave Brown. She also said she would tell the jury nothing but the truth.
"I know the grace of God will be with you in whatever decision you make," Platte told the jurors.
The sisters raided the silo on the first anniversary of what they characterize as the "U.S. invasion and bombing of Afghanistan."
They say they were attempting to expose the U.S. "criminal threat" to use nuclear weapons against Iraq and "rogue states."
Platte said the trio was motivated by the concerns for the people of Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
"All we could think of were babies and children who have no defense," she said.
With Iraq having been "demonized ... we had to do something," Platte said. "We intended to come here (Colorado) to do a legal action.
"We felt it our duty to stop a crime. We went there to expose (the Minuteman III) and do a symbolic disarmament."
Veteran Denver lawyer Walter Gerash, who represents Hudson, said that, at most, the nuns trespassed on government property. But he contended they didn't even do that.
"This is a symbolic disarmament of a weapon of mass extinction. They were brave women," Gerash said.
The three are members of the Plowshare Movement, an international activist organization that promotes nonviolent disarmament.
They look to the book of Isaiah in the Bible that commands nations to beat their swords into plowshares.
The book also says: "One nation shall not lift up (a) sword against (another) nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."
It’s a short distance between here and there. On this side of the fence, military police just eye you suspiciously. On the other side, they’ll haul you to jail.
The Minuteman III is an intercontinental ballistic missile. Each missile contains one nuclear warhead, allowed by the 1992 Washington Summit Agreement.
There are 500 in the United States. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming controls 150 in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. In Colorado, there are 49, with most in Weld County.
The missiles are housed in underground hardened silos that are connected to an underground launch control center through hardened cables.
DENVER — Sister Ardeth Platte had remained so composed. Through an arrest. In jail for six months. As she approached a trial that could send her away for 30 years.
But as the nun, who is representing herself in a federal trial, concluded her opening statement Tuesday, she let her emotions — and perhaps her passion — show. She started to cry.
Platte and two other nuns, Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson, each are charged with one count of willful injury, interference or obstruction of national defense and one count of causing more than $1,000 in damage to federal property.
Early in the day last Oct. 6, the trio — in their 50s and 60s — went to a missile silo off Colo. 14, about 10 miles west of New Raymer. Once inside, they cut a chain-link fence, hammered at the silo lid and tracks and painted crosses on the tracks and silo with their own blood, which they carried in baby bottles.
They sang hymns and prayed for about an hour until military personnel arrived and arrested them.
Air Force officials say the hammering couldn’t have triggered a blast because the nuclear weapon is guarded by the 110-ton concrete and steel lid.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Brown outlined his case for the 12 jurors, he didn’t claim nuclear weapons aren’t dangerous. But he argued that they are a means of protection.
His speech reminded jurors of Cold War fears that prompted the arms race.
“The defense will say that these are offensive weapons of mass destruction. But I submit that while they are capable, they prevent another country from firing at us,” he said. “It’s sort of like having a burglar alarm in your house.”
He warned the jury to put their emotions aside and consider the law, suggesting there were legal avenues, such as letter writing and rallies, to protest.
But Platte and attorneys for Gilbert and Hudson told jurors evidence would prove they were merely demonstrating, caused very little damage and didn’t prevent a missile from firing.
“This is the case of a religious symbolic disarmament of a weapon of mass extermination,” said Walter Gerash, a Denver attorney representing Hudson.
At most, he said, they deserved a trespassing charge.
“Bloody crosses and ping-ping on the rails. Oh, that’s terrible,” he said sarcastically. “Does it interfere with national defense?”
The defense also said the nuns’ action caused less than $1,000 in damage and that the military caused the rest during the arrest.
Platte used her turn to explain the action.
In October, talk of war was getting stronger and the sisters felt nuclear weapons might be used.
“We heard there was a targeting of Iraq. All we could do was think about our brothers and sisters. All we could do was think about the babies and children who had no defense,” she said.
She told the jury they had hoped to stop a crime against humanity by exposing the site to the world.
“We want people in this world to live,” she concluded, through tears. “You might think this is a soapbox, but this is our passionate plea.”
She returned to her seat, still crying. As the government prepared to present its case, her advisory attorney hugged her. Gerash kissed her cheek.
From the back of the Denver courtroom, a sniffle was heard.