Anti-Trident Activists Acquitted

By Jeff Shaw | 1999-07-01 12:00:00

The Trident submarine system is deeply embedded in the psyche of western Washington, home to Naval Submarine Base Bangor, one of only two nuclear submarine bases in the United States. Each year, fifth graders in Kitsap County schools write essays entitled "If I were the captain of a Trident submarine, how would I attempt to achieve world peace?" County police officers wear patches with a sheriff's star - just above a Trident submarine logo.

In these daunting surroundings, local disarmament groups engage in civil disobedience, such a blocking the four lanes of traffic leading to Bangor.

They had notified local police in advance, knowing they would face arrest and probably jail. Publicity from the trial, they reasoned, might draw public attention to the missile upgrade going on. Each defendant was brought to trial facing 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. What the eight got instead was been a little out of the pro-Trident mentality.

On June 10, they were acquitted of all charges by a six-member jury who said they based their decision on testimony about international treaties that oblige the United States to take action on nuclear disarmament. For the first time, protesters were vindicated on grounds of international law. Emotions flowed freely after the trial, but jurors said they looked at the law and the law alone.

"We based our decision totally on what we believed the law to be and the instructions we were given," juror Barbara Johnson told the defendants. "We were touched by the testimony, but I don't think that was the basis for our decision. If we thought you were guilty, we would have come back with a guilty verdict."

Yet the judge had denied the defendants access to the necessity defense, an argument where the accused argue that they were committing a crime to prevent a larger crime. Nor was the jury informed about a legal doctrine whereby a jury can ignore the letter of the law and vote as their conscience dictates. Though defendants could testify about international law, the jury could not take the text of the treaties with them when they retired to deliberate.

Juror Admires Defendants

The case's importance lie less in any legal precedent than what it says about the community's willingness to question the Trident system. Ken Kagan, the defendants' attorney, thinks the decision may discourage future criminal charges from being filed against demonstrators.

But Bernard Meyer, the only defendant who served as his own attorney, said the communication between the defendants and the jury was the most significant of the trial's events. "I wanted to connect as a human being with them on a serious issue," said Meyer. "They heard us, and they found us not guilty."

Kagan, in closing, asked the jurors send a message about the future of Trident. "Is the destructiveness of the missile the face we want to present to a visitor to our community?"he asked.

Leah Merkle was probably the juror most personally moved by the trial. After the trial she joined the defendants to express her admiration for them. "I'm glad there are people like this in the world," she said. "I don't think I would have had the guts to sit in the street, but they did, and I thank them."

A compelling argument for the jurors was that the United States is bound by treaties to engage in "good faith" efforts to disarm. Further, the defendants argued that the Nuremberg Principles oblige individual citizens to take action in defense of world law.

"We kept coming back to the treaty issue," Merkle remembered. "It said right there in the (jury) instructions," Merkle recalled, "that treaties govern over state, local, and federal law."

The judge decided to allow the jury to be instructed about the role of treaties in U.S. law. According to the United States Constitution, treaties are on a level with the "supreme law of the land." Thus any treaty the U.S. signs supersedes other local and state laws.

Moreover, Kitsap County's Disorderly Conduct statute says that the defendants should be found guilty only if they acted "without lawful authority." Kagan proposed a definition of "lawful authority" which included treaty rights.

The jury was instructed that "to the extent that there may be a conflict between a law of the State of Washington and a right granted, or an obligation imposed, by a treaty of the United States, the right granted or the obligation imposed by the treaty will govern." The United States is a party to treaties, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, that oblige it to drastically cut its nuclear arsenal.

The jurors took the words to heart. They decided that blocking traffic wasn't comparable to building weaapons which are illegal by international law.

"If the government is making (nuclear weapons), then they're committing the bigger crime," Merkle said.

Jeff Shaw is a reporter with the North Kitsap Herald.

Peace Magazine Summer 1999

Peace Magazine Summer 1999, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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