WASHINGTON (CNS) — Five Catholics protesting U.S. drone warfare policies said they were stunned but relieved to be found not guilty of disorderly conduct for their roles in an Ash Wednesday demonstration at an upstate New York air base.
“We were like, really?” said defendant Ellen Grady, a Catholic Worker from Ithaca, N.Y., and a member of the Cornell Catholic Community at Cornell University.
“The judge said ‘I know this is going to be shocking to you all, but I’m finding in favor of the defendants,” Grady told Catholic News Service Oct. 28.
DeWitt Town Court Judge Robert L. Jokl Jr.’s announced his decision to a packed courtroom Oct. 24 after a five-hour trial. When pressed by the district attorney in the case, Jokl said that he had not found “mens rea,” Latin for guilty mind, in the actions of the five during the Feb. 13 protest at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base. The law’s standard test of criminal liability is that “the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty.”
Hancock is one of several U.S. bases where drone operators pilot unmanned armed aircraft in their search for suspected Muslim militants around the world. Defense Department and White House policy has been not to comment publicly or even acknowledge the existence of a drone weapons program.
The case is believed to be the first in which protesters of drone warfare at U.S. air bases have been acquitted of any charges resulting from their actions.
“I was stunned by his decision, I was absolutely stunned,” defendant Linda LeTendre told CNS Oct. 28.
“He indicated in our pre-trial motions July 17 we were going to jail if we were found guilty,” said LeTendre, a long-time licensed social worker.
The five, who defended themselves, testified they were acting to uphold, not break, international law. They also said they remained on private property during the demonstration, never entering the base near Syracuse, N.Y.
During the demonstration the group held signs and banners questioning the killing of innocent people, especially children, by armed drones.
Defendant Father Bill Pickard, a chaplain at St. Joseph’s Center, a mission of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, told CNS he expected to be sent to jail immediately after the trial.
“We were relieved and surprised,” he said of Jokl’s decision.
“I hope he was changed (by our testimony),” Father Pickard added. “I hope he realized the moral arguments and that he is beginning to see (drone warfare) is a violation of international law.”
The protesters were among nine people originally charged with disorderly conduct. Others acquitted were Carmen Trotta, of Joseph House Catholic Worker in New York, and Bill Frankel-Streit of Trevilians, Va.
Charges were dropped against Jim Clune of Binghampton, N.Y., Nancy Gowen of Richmond, Va., and Matt Ryan of Ithaca, when paperwork related to their cases could not be located by police. No trial date has been set for the ninth defendant, Mary Ann Grady Flores, Ellen Grady’s sister, who also was charged with violating a protective order prohibiting her from entering the base.