Berrigan jailed 5 years for contempt of court Judge was holding trespassing trial

March 27, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

Longtime Roman Catholic peace activist Philip Berrigan was sentenced to five years in prison for contempt of court yesterday because he wouldn't apologize for a remark he made to a Howard County District Court judge.

Mr. Berrigan, 68, a former Josephite priest and a leader in the peace movement since the Vietnam War, had accompanied eight of his colleagues to the Ellicott City courthouse for their trial on charges of trespassing at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Columbia.

Mr. Berrigan was immediately taken into custody and was being held at the Howard County Detention Center last night in Jessup.

The contempt sentence stunned his supporters and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, who also faced trespass charges.

"I think what happened is very, very wrong," said Ms. McAlister. "To sentence a man for five years in prison for two minutes in a courtroom because someone's ego has been offended. . . . This court is a disgrace, and the judge just went and confirmed the worst."

District Judge James N. Vaughan refused to comment on the sentence.

Eight of Mr. Berrigan's colleagues from the Baltimore Emergency Response Network were in court on trespassing charges stemming from a Dec. 5 protest at the Applied Physics Lab.

Group members have been convicted several times for protesting at the lab.

The group, not represented by an attorney yesterday, admitted entering the grounds of the lab to protest development of nuclear weapons systems.

Four members climbed a 150-foot water tower and hung a banner reading "Fund Life in Baltimore, Not Death at the APL." Four other protesters hung a banner from the roof of another building reading "APL Death Lab."

The trespassing trial was interrupted several times, and Judge Vaughan found Mr. Berrigan and four of the defendants in contempt of court and removed them from the courtroom.

The judge repeatedly warned the defendants that the courtroom was not an appropriate forum in which to make political statements. Also cited for contempt were George Ostensen, Gregory Boertje, James Reale and Max Obuszewski.

When Mr. Ostensen was removed for asking, "Do you have any idea of the research done at APL?" Mr. Berrigan shouted out, "Let him speak, judge."

The judge warned Mr. Berrigan not to disrupt the court.

After Mr. Reale was removed for contempt, Mr. Berrigan shouted from the gallery, "Why is this court protecting the APL? We're back in the '30s. This is Nazi Germany. This court is a disgrace."

Judge Vaughan found the remaining four defendants guilty. He fined Suzanne Hunt and Michael Bardoff $50 and will sentence Ms. McAlister and Carol McKusick at a later date.

He then dismissed the contempt charges against the other four defendants and ordered a new trial for them on the trespassing charge.

The judge then demanded an apology from Mr. Berrigan for calling his court a disgrace.

Mr. Berrigan responded: "I will change my position when you allow people in this court to make statements about the APL to explain their situation."

Judge Vaughan then sentenced Mr. Berrigan to five years in the Maryland Division of Correction for contempt of court.

Ms. McAlister and Mr. Berrigan's supporters said they plan to meet with an attorney to discuss their options.

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