Trials begin for missile defense protesters

By Christina Almeida, The Associated Press
Friday December 07, 2001

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday convicted the first of 10 defendants facing trials on charges of trespassing at Vandenberg Air Force Base during an October 2000 protest against militarization of space. 

Bruce Gagnon, a protest coordinator, was sentenced to two years of probation, fined $1,000 and ordered to pay a $10 fee. 

“This court takes the Constitution of this country very seriously,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Johnson said. “The viability and effectiveness of civil disobedience does not provide justification for breaking the law.” 

The series of non-jury trials for 10 defendants began after another defendant pleaded guilty and charges against five others were dismissed by the judge at the request of Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon McCaslin, who cited “evidentiary” reasons. 

Four other defendants pleaded guilty earlier this week. “West Wing” star Martin Sheen, who also took part in the demonstration, entered a guilty plea in June and was placed on three years’ probation and fined $500. 

Sheen and the others were arrested as they tried to deliver a letter to Vandenberg’s commander explaining their opposition to space-based weapons. 

The central coast base tests intercontinental ballistic missiles and has been the launch site for missiles used as targets in tests of a missile defense system. 

Before entering court, the activists told a news conference that a looming arms race in space justified their action during an Oct. 7, 2000, international day of protest organized by Gainesville, Fla.-based Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear in Space. 

“Our feeling is that there must be an international debate to protect the heavens,” Gagnon said. “Star Wars will not only create a deadly new arms race in space but paying for it will drain the national treasury and require devastating cuts in education and health care.” 

The trials were expected to conclude on Monday. The trespassing charges carry a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. 

Ruth Thomas Holbrook, a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was fined $100, sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay a $10 fee after pleading guilty Thursday.