Judge Frees Berrigan After Imposing 5-year Sentence

Former Priest Jailed For Contempt Of Court

March 29, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff writer

About 25 cheering supporters were on hand at the county district courthouse Friday to welcome peace activist Philip Berrigan back to freedom and to criticize the judge who jailed him last week.

The 68-year-old former Josephite priest had served one night in jail after a county judge handed him a five-year sentence Thursday for contempt of court.

District Judge James N. Vaughan sentenced Berrigan after he refused to apologize for calling the judge's courtroom a "disgrace" and comparing it with Nazi Germany.

Berrigan was released on personal recognizance from the Howard County Detention Center at about 4:30 p.m.Friday on orders from Vaughan, who would not comment on the sentence.

"I'm just trying to absorb it," said Berrigan, a leader in the peace movement since the Vietnam War. "Five years one day, personal recognizance the next."

"I still think what Judge Vaughan did is a radical abuse of power, playing with another person's life," said Berrigan's wife, Elizabeth McAlister.

Berrigan was in court Thursday to support eight fellow peace activists who were on trial on trespassing charges stemming from a Dec. 5 protest at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Columbia.

Vaughan had Berrigan taken from the courtroom after he criticized the judge for refusing to allow defendantsto discuss nuclear weapons research at APL. Four other defendants were thrown out for disruptive behavior.

"I was concerned mostly about the way a gag rule was imposed on the defendants," Berrigan said after his release. "When you can't speak about why you went to a demonstration, things are dramatically wrong."

Berrigan said he thoughtthe sentence was "ludicrous" and didn't believe it would stand. He has been convicted several times for protests at APL, once by Vaughan,who sentenced him to 15 days in jail.

Michael Kaminkow, Berrigan's attorney, met with Vaughan Friday to discuss the possibility of setting bond, and the judge offered to release Berrigan on personal recognizance.

Kaminkow filed an appeal of his client's contempt sentence in Howard County Circuit Court on Friday. He said the matter probably would be handled by the Attorney General's Office.

Berrigan now faces a hearing on contempt charges in Circuit Court. At the hearing it will be decided if Berrigan was in direct contempt of court and whether the punishment was appropriate.

"It did strike me that thesentence imposed by the court was extremely harsh and punitive for what occurred," Kaminkow said.

"But my sense of how Judge Vaughan dealt with the issue of bail on appeal tells me that he perhaps had some second thoughts about punishment and thought it would be inappropriate for (Berrigan) to sit in jail."

Berrigan supporters outside the courthouse sharply criticized Vaughan's sentence and displayed banners of protest reading "What Price Truth? 5 Years" and "APL Keeps a Deathly Silence."

"Mike Tyson just got six years (for rape), and Berrigan got five years for asking a judge to do his job -- letting people have their say in court," said Glenn Simpson of Baltimore.

"We were very indignant at such a perfunctory decision on the part of ajudge," said Allen Orton of Columbia. "The man ought to be reprimanded publicly."

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