26 July 2003
Nuns Receive 30 to 41 Months from Blackburn

By Jim Hughes ,
Denver Post


Judge orders nuns to prison
41 months is top term in 2002 missile protest

AP / David Zalubowski

Dominican nuns, from left, Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson listen to speakers before addressing a crowd outside the federal courthouse in downtown Denver on Friday as the three head in for sentencing. The women were convicted in April of obstructing the national defense and damaging government property for swinging a hammer at the silo and smearing their blood on it in the form of a cross.

A federal judge on Friday sent three nuns to prison for an October 2002 act of civil disobedience at a Weld County missile silo - but for lesser sentences than government prosecutors had requested.

Though Judge Bob Blackburn disagreed with those who call the nuns heroes for breaking into the missile site to protest the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the sisters did not deserve sentences of six to eight years, Blackburn ruled.

Blackburn exercised his option to depart from federal sentencing guidelines and give the nuns shorter prison terms.

Blackburn sentenced Ardeth Platte, 67, to 41 months in prison; Carol Gilbert, 55, to 33 months; and Jackie Marie Hudson, 68, to 30 months.

He waived all fines but ordered that the nuns reimburse the government what it reportedly spent to fix a fence they damaged - $3,080.04.

"I was surprised," Walter Gerash, Hudson's attorney, said after Blackburn announced the sentences. "I was expecting a lot worse."

Gerash, who in court had described the sisters as "human angels," stopped short of calling the decision a victory for the three Dominican nuns.

"Well, they shouldn't even have been charged," he said.

A jury in April convicted the nuns of two felonies - obstructing national defense and damaging government property.

Blackburn gave the nuns shorter sentences than required by federal sentencing rules because they were not the types of criminals - saboteurs - for whom those laws are intended, he said.

The sentences were different for each nun because each has a different criminal history of similar acts of civil disobedience across the country dating to the 1980s.

The nuns, who spent approximately six months as inmates at the Clear Creek County Jail while awaiting trial, will receive credit for time served.

"Let me state the obvious," Blackburn told a courtroom packed with the nuns' supporters before delivering the sentences. "This is not a win-win, politically correct situation where everyone will leave this court feeling warm and fuzzy. Some will criticize (the sentences) for being too harsh, perhaps, and others, for being too lenient."

On Oct. 6, 2002, the three sisters cut a chain-link fence and sneaked onto a Minuteman III missile silo in northeastern Colorado, where they drew crosses with their blood on the silo lid and whacked railroad tracks with hammers.

Military riflemen arrived an hour after an alarm went off, training automatic weapons on the nuns, who were singing and praying. A military Humvee crashed through the fence when the nuns didn't obey an officer's orders, which they said they couldn't hear.

In court Friday, supporters of the nuns spilled over into an adjacent courtroom to listen to an audio feed of the proceedings. Even that courtroom was filled to overflowing, with some people sitting on the floor and others standing.

Blackburn ordered the nuns to turn themselves in to serve their sentences Aug. 25. But rather than sign a form indicating they would come back - an act of complicity with the system they did not want to make, lawyers said - they surrendered immediately.

"If we go now, we're gone," Hudson said jokingly to friends in the courtroom, saying she has had offers from people in Argentina willing to put her up.

"They were ready to go," said Scott Poland, Platte's lawyer, after marshals took the nuns into custody.

Though there was some grumbling - and isolated shouts of "Close the silos! Free the nuns!" - afterward, there were many more activists smiling than frowning at U.S. District Court on Friday afternoon.

Terry Greenberg of Nederland said she came to Denver on Friday prepared to form a new protest group - Jews to Free Nuns. But she left praising Blackburn's ruling.

"It made me feel hope," she said. "It gave me hope in the very hopeless world we live in these days."

In a telephone interview later in the day, U.S. Attorney John Suthers called Blackburn's sentences appropriate.

"I think the sentence that Judge Blackburn has imposed is eminently fair and reasonable," he said.

Not that everybody agreed. At one point, Blackburn chided the nuns for placing soldiers in a situation that, as far as they knew, could have been dangerous.

"The idea that (the soldiers) were out there putting themselves in harm's way with three nuns is just ludicrous," said Sue Carr-Novotny, who traveled from Breckenridge to show her support for the sisters.

The strongest criticism came in a news release issued late Friday afternoon by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput.

"The three religious women sentenced today acted symbolically in their missile-silo protest and did no serious damage," the release read. "I'm disappointed that the sentences handed down this afternoon were not equally restrained and symbolic."

In the months since their arrest, the nuns have attained a status among activists approaching celebrity.

Since their conviction, they have spoken in various American cities, arguing for nuclear disarmament.

Meanwhile, protesters' criticisms of Blackburn and Suthers grew personal.

Blackburn in particular has been criticized for not allowing defense attorneys to argue in court that the nuns' actions were legal under international law.

Defense lawyers still complain about the judge's pretrial ruling on that defense.

"He can say it's not political, but it is," said Annabel Dwyer, a Michigan lawyer who served Platte in an advisory capacity. "He's saying nuclear weapons keep us safe. We're saying our nuclear weapons are as illegal as anyone else's."

Though Blackburn tried to keep politics out of his courtroom Friday, it was all over the courthouse steps throughout the day. More than 100 activists began the day by attending an 8 a.m. news conference and rally called by the nuns.

"I don't fear going to prison," Gilbert told them and a large number of reporters that included a crew from a German television network. "I don't fear loss of freedom to move about. I don't even fear death. The fear that fills me is not having lived hard enough, deep enough, and sweet enough with whatever gifts God has given me."

The nuns wore all black Friday. They told their supporters that they would not speak in court, as is the right of every criminal defendant sentenced at federal court.

In court, they spoke only when giving one-word answers to direct questions from Blackburn.

They had chosen their garb and their silence to convey their continued protest of war-making, they said Friday morning.

25 July 2003
Nuns Receive 30 to 41 Months from Blackburn 
Loring Wirbel
Colorado Springs

Just got back from the trial in Denver, and the three Sacred Earth and Plowshares sisters received sentences ranging from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years from US District Judge Robert Blackburn.  Blackburn was just as nasty as Francis Boyle has suggested, rejecting several  causes for departure from sentencing guidelines, and chiding the nuns for putting "American soldiers in harm's way."

Carol Gilbert got 33 months, Jackie Hudson got 30 months, and Ardeth Platte got 41 months.  They must pay a fine of $3,080.04 for the cost of fence damage, though the judge rejected additional fines.  He also gave them until Aug. 25 to report for sentencing, but the three sisters elected to begin their sentences immediately.  No word yet on appeal.

The one interesting factor is that, after rejecting several departures, the judge finally accepted one departure that was critical for Plowshares actions, and caused the sentencing to be moved down eight levels in severity to a level 18.  He cited the Plowshares case of Daniel Sicken to say that uniform sentencing guidelines do not cover acts of conscience in matters of national security, and that they must be changed to reflect such acts.  He said that all such cases must consider whether any facility of the U.S. military was truly damaged, whether the national security was truly harmed in any way, and whether the offense carried the risk of death or severe injury to anyone.  The government had not proved such things in this case, and had not shown that defendants worked for any foreign power.  In any case involving harm to national security, Blackburn said, such factors must be considered as part of sentencing guidelines, and the guidelines themselves are at fault for not considering this.

The sentencing trials were preceded by a demonstration and press conference at 8 am outside the Denver courthouse, with more that 300 people attending.  Vigils continued throughout the day, with many folks in costume, carrying mock missiles.  It looks like tomorrow's actions at the Colorado missile silos will bring out large numbers!


24 July 2003
Spotlight in nuns' case turns to judge
Blackburn known as fair, meticulous

By Jim Hughes ,
Denver Post


U.S. District Court Judge Robert Blackburn

As the most-junior judge at U.S. District Court in Denver, Robert Blackburn is less well-known than most of his colleagues, whose likes and dislikes may actually be charted in law offices across the state.

Not that Blackburn, 53, hasn't adjudicated important cases since his March 2002 swearing-in. In April, he certified the state's desire to strip Medicaid benefits from undocumented immigrants.

Last month, he oversaw the settlement of a lawsuit over the Columbine shootings.

He also referees the federal prosecution of four Qwest executives accused of misrepresenting the financial health of their ailing company.

But no case yet has drawn as much attention to Blackburn's courtroom as the prosecution of Ardeth Platte, 67, Carol Gilbert, 55, and Jackie Marie Hudson, 68.

The three nuns were convicted in April of obstructing national defense and damaging government property for their October break-in at a missile site near Greeley.

They poured blood on the silo, hit nearby railroad tracks with a ball-peen hammer and then sat down to await arrest, all in protest of the American nuclear arsenal.

Friday, the three nuns are scheduled to appear before Blackburn to receive their sentences.

Now the political heat that prosecutors faced during the trial rises to Blackburn, the man who will decide their punishment.

Federal sentencing guidelines call for 6 to 8 years' imprisonment.

The nuns have asked for leniency. Their attorneys point to a 1998 case where two men convicted of the same two crimes - plus conspiracy - for the same type of protest were given lesser sentences by Judge Walker Miller, another federal judge in Denver.

The government, citing the nuns' history of similar offenses, has opposed their request.

Federal judges can impose sentences outside federal guidelines when they believe the defendants in question are not the kinds of defendants Congress considered when drafting the relevant law.

Supporters of the nuns call their crime a symbolic act that hurt nobody.

It was not particularly effective sabotage, they say.

"The way that the judge could best respond would be to listen to (his) conscience," said Jack Cohen-Joppa, an editor of The Nuclear Resister, a Tucson newsletter for the anti-nuclear movement. "How the judge sentences these women will reveal whether he is ready to move humanity forward."

Attorneys for the nuns and supporters such as Cohen-Joppa want Blackburn to follow Miller's lead.

The government appealed Miller's sentence in that case, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000 upheld it, ruling the crime "was an act of protest that did not present a significant risk of injury or threat to national security."

In briefs, the nuns' attorneys have told Blackburn the 10th Circuit decision is the precedent he should follow Friday.

Prosecutors want Blackburn, an appointee of President Bush, to do what Miller, a Clinton appointee, did not - stay within the federal sentencing guidelines, said U.S. attorney's office spokesman Jeff Dorschner.

Those who know Blackburn, a native of Bent County, 1972 graduate of Western State College in Gunnison and 1974 graduate of the University of Colorado law school in Boulder, say he is more likely this week to be researching case law than worrying about the politics and emotion that have been part of this case since the nuns were indicted in October.

"His decision will be a fair one," said Frank Bryant, a family friend in Bent County. "He's not going to be swung by any emotions whatsoever. He just is not going to have that happen to him."

In addition to having run a private practice in Las Animas, where for 13 years he represented local governments and special districts, Blackburn previously has worked as the Bent County attorney and as a state judge.

In September 2001, Bush nominated him to the federal bench.

His nomination met no public opposition, according to People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice, the two leading liberal judicial-confirmation watchdog groups in Washington.

Presiding over Colorado's 16th Judicial District, Blackburn was known for his sharp legal mind and his objectivity, said Mark MacDonnell, a local attorney who admitted to losing some cases before the judge.

"At least you knew it was a well-reasoned decision," MacDonnell said of his defeats in Blackburn's courtroom. "It was never a lazy court. It was always a prepared court. I don't think the federal bench will change him in that regard."

Susan Tyburski, a defense lawyer in the nuns' case, said she was impressed by Blackburn's preparedness during the trial, which was her first experience in his court.

"He is a meticulous researcher - he clearly had read the briefs, there's no question about that," she said.

Blackburn's father, Ed, a retired geologist and rancher in Bent County, described some of the attention this case has brought his son's way.

"He's been called by a lot of influential people, trying to get interviews on this case," he said. "Bill Moyers (the PBS television journalist) has called him, but in an ongoing case, he can't comment.

"I would like to think he's not on either side. He is in the middle, trying to direct this to a conclusion that is fair. He's not against those people, the nuns, and he's not for the government. He is right there in the middle, trying to take this thing to a fair situation, according to the law."


( Other reports on 3 ploughshares nuns here )

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