Peace activist Philip F. Berrigan, who was given a five-year prison sentence in March for contempt of court, yesterday withdrew his appeal of the sentence before the start of a hearing in the case. In exchange, the court reduced the sentence to the time Mr. Berrigan had already served -- one night.
Howard County District Judge James N. Vaughan sentenced Mr. Berrigan, 69, to five years in prison after he refused to apologize for calling the judge's courtroom a "disgrace" and comparing it to Nazi Germany.
Mr. Berrigan, a former Josephite priest, spent one night at the Howard County Detention Center before being released on personal recognizance.
On the day of his release, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an appeal of the sentence in Howard County Circuit Court.
Mr. Berrigan decided to withdraw his appeal because Judge Vaughan agreed to reduce the sentence to time served, said Mr. Berrigan's attorney, Michael Kaminkow, who handled the case for the ACLU.
"As a practical matter he chose this route in order to avoid a long, protracted proceeding," Mr. Kaminkow said.
But Mr. Berrigan "maintains his strong conviction that there was no contempt. He was exercising his First Amendment right," Mr. Kaminkow said.
Mr. Berrigan's supporters criticized Judge Vaughan's sentence as being unduly harsh.
Judge Vaughan could not be reached for comment.
Yesterday's hearing would have determined if Mr. Berrigan was in direct contempt of court and whether the punishment was appropriate.
The contempt charge arose from the March 26 trial of eight peace activists before Judge Vaughan. Mr. Berrigan was not a defendant but had accompanied his fellow activists, who faced trespass charges for a protest at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Columbia.
Judge Vaughan had Mr. Berrigan removed from the courtroom after he criticized the judge for refusing to allow the defendants to discuss nuclear weapons research at the laboratory. Four of the defendants were also thrown out for disruptive behavior.
After Mr. Berrigan refused to apologize for his remarks, Judge Vaughan gave him a five-year jail sentence. The judge dropped the contempt charges against the four defendants.
Mr. Berrigan was released from a Virginia prison on Nov. 6 after serving four months for trespassing during a protest at the White House against the Persian Gulf war.