Judge orders nuns to prison
41 months is top term in 2002 missile protest
By Jim Hughes
Denver Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2003 - 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.