As supporters looked on with duct tape covering their mouths, three local activists were convicted last Friday in Colorado Springs Municipal Court of trespassing at Peterson Air Force Base last August.
Longtime peace activists Bill Sulzman, Donna Rae Johnson and Peter Sprunger-Froese could each face up to 90 days in jail when they are sentenced next month. However, they plan to appeal the conviction, arguing they were denied their constitutional right to defend themselves.
In a display unusual for a local municipal court, renowned Denver defense lawyer Walter Gerash appeared at a hearing two days before the trial, arguing that Judge Gary Seckman was illegally "gagging" the defendants by barring them from telling the jury of their reason for entering Peterson Air Force Base.
"To do that is to muzzle and to deny due process of law," Gerash exclaimed. "This is insane!"
Sulzman, Johnson and Sprunger-Froese were arrested on base property after they entered Peterson on Aug. 9, 2001 -- the anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan -- seeking to deliver a "citizens arrest warrant" on the base commander, Gen. Ralph Eberhart. The case was turned over to the City of Colorado Springs, which has jurisdiction over the base.
The three have maintained that they were compelled to take action because Eberhart is in command of several hundred nuclear missiles, which, they argue, are illegal under international law. International law supersedes domestic laws, including trespassing ordinances, and the Nuremberg principles emphasize the responsibility of individuals to stop crimes against humanity, the defendants pointed out.
However, Judge Seckman refused to allow the defendants to raise the international-law argument before the jury. The defendants were allowed to testify that they didn't intend to break the law, but "they are not going to be able to testify to any further explanation," the judge instructed.
Explaining his decision, Seckman cited a previous ruling by a federal appeals court in Denver, which denied the defendants in a similar case the right to raise the international-law argument. The Peterson case was simply about whether or not the three trespassed, not about whether there's any possible justification for trespassing, Seckman said, adding that, in his view, "there is none."
The defendants, meanwhile, argued that the jury, not the judge, ought to be making that call. Attorney Susan Tyburski, who represented the defendants along with Gerash, said the federal appeals court ruling shouldn't apply to the Peterson case because it pertained to a federal law, not a municipal trespassing ordinance.
City prosecutor Victoria Ringler, meanwhile, said Tyburski failed to present any applicable case law supporting her argument. Given the case law, the international-law argument was legally irrelevant, regardless of whether or not it has merit, Ringler said.
Gerash, however, called the judge's ruling "a sterile violation of all precepts of criminal law."
"We have a right under the federal and state constitutions to pursue our defense," he argued. "The court is violating international law, municipal law, state law and federal law."
Citing Seckman's restrictions, Sulzman, Johnson and Sprunger-Froese declined to testify on their own behalf. "I don't believe that I can testify to the whole truth," Johnson said.
The six-person jury, never having heard the defendants' justification for their action, took less than 45 minutes to find all three guilty. As Seckman read the verdict, some supporters of the defendants placed duct tape over their mouths to protest the judge's "gag order." Afterward, they picketed briefly outside the city courthouse.
Ringler has indicated she intends to bring up similar previous offenses by Sulzman, Sprunger-Froese and Johnson at the sentencing hearing, scheduled for March 12. All three have been convicted of similar offenses in the past, which could increase the likelihood that they will receive jail time.