Philip Berrigan is sentenced to 5 years for contempt of court Peace activist's remark draws a prison sentence.

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

Longtime Roman Catholic peace activist Philip Berrigan has been sentenced to five years in prison for contempt of court 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 an Ellicott City courthouse for their trial yesterday on charges of trespassing at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Columbia.

The charges against the protesters, from the Baltimore Emergency Response Network, stemmed from a Dec. 5 protest at the lab.

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

The group 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 District Judge James N. Vaughan found Mr. Berrigan and four of the defendants in contempt of court. He had them removed from the courtroom.

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

When Mr. Ostensen was removed for asking, "Do you have any idea of the research done at APL?" Mr. Berrigan shouted, "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 Carol McKusick and Elizabeth McAlister, Berrigan's wife, later.

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

Then he 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 responded by finding Mr. Berrigan in contempt of court and sentencing him to the Maryland Division of Correction.

Mr. Berrigan was immediately taken into custody and was being held last night at the Howard County Detention Center 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," Ms. McAlister said. "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."

Judge Vaughan refused to comment on the sentence.

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

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