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Imprisoned SOA protesters get early release

NCR Staff

Four activists serving prison time gained early releases in September when a federal appeals court ruled that their sentences for convictions stemming from two 1997 protests at the School of the Americas should be served concurrently.

The four were serving sentences ranging from eight to 12 months for their roles at a Sept. 29, 1997, demonstration at Fort Benning, Ga. They were convicted of destruction of property with malicious intent after they vandalized a sign at the School of the Americas. They also received sentences of six months for trespassing during the annual protest at the school in November 1997.

They were ordered to serve the sentences consecutively.

The Sept. 2 decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the defendants be resentenced to concurrent sentences because the two actions were “part of a common scheme.”

“They occurred during the same autumn,” the court wrote. “They both consisted of nonviolent but intentionally disruptive and destructive protest against the School of the Americas. The offenses likewise shared a common purpose, which was to express, in a format appetizing to a sensationalist press, the defendants’ displeasure at the existence of the school.”

At the time of the appeals court ruling, the four had served nearly 12 months in prison. Mary Trotochaud, 49, was released Sept. 10. Ed Kinane, 55, and Sister of St. Francis Marge Eilerman, 62, were released Sept. 13. Jesuit Fr. Bill Bichsel, 71, is expected to be released Sept. 27 at the end of his 12-month sentence.

Peter Thompson, a lawyer who has defended protesters from SOA Watch for 10 years, said it was significant that the court had gone beyond what he had asked it. “I asked that they remand the case to Judge [Robert] Elliott for resentencing,” he said. “Instead of remanding it they imposed the exact sentence that I wanted them to impose.

“I don’t know if it was unwitting or they were moved by some unseen spirit or what, but they did a wonderful thing both for the movement and these four individuals,” Thompson said.

The case will go back to Elliott’s court in Columbus, Ga., to receive the resentencing ordered by the appeals court. Elliott has had a history of imposing maximum sentences on School of the Americas protesters.

The appeals court also ruled that the destruction of the sign at the School of the Americas was a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, and asked the district court to correct the problem at resentencing.

Two other points in the appeal were denied. The court disagreed with Bichsel’s argument that he was a minor participant in the September 1997 protest and therefore should have his offense level reduced. All four defendants claimed to be indigent and unable to pay fines. However, the appeals court ruled that each has either a small, reliable income or the possibility of making one, and determined that the defendants could pay a fine in installments.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999