JEFFERSON CITY — Two anti-war activists were convicted in federal court Monday of trespassing at central Missouri's Whiteman Air Force Base to protest the use of unmanned military drones.
A four-hour U.S. District Court hearing in Jefferson City ended with Magistrate Judge Matt Whitworth finding the pair guilty. Sentencing will occur at a later date.
Retired minister Ron Faust of suburban Kansas City and Brian Terrell, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement from Maloy, Iowa, were among a group of 40 protesters who demonstrated at the air base in mid-April. They were arrested after entering a restricted area without permission.
The misdemeanor violation carries a maximum six-month prison sentence. A third protester, Mark Kenney of Omaha, Neb., is serving a four-month sentence after pleading guilty in June to trespassing.
Faust and Terrell — who served as his own attorney — wanted to use the hearing as a platform to criticize the government's use of unmanned aerial vehicles, which has escalated rapidly under President Barack Obama's administration while also being used for covert CIA operations. The small planes can transmit live video and fire missiles, and are operated by remote control thousands of miles away at Whiteman and other military bases.
The defendants' prospective expert witnesses included Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson who has since represented dictators Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic in court; Loyola University of New Orleans professor Bill Quigley, a constitutional law expert; and Ann Wright, a former U.S. Army colonel who resigned from the U.S. State Department in 2003 to protest the war in Iraq.
Whitworth rejected the request for Clark to testify about potential U.S. violations of international law, but allowed both Quigley and Wright to address the court on narrower legal issues related to the trespassing charge.
Both Faust and Terrell argued a moral imperative that their First Amendment rights of free speech and peaceful assembly trumped the Air Force base's trespassing rules.
"We were there not to commit a crime, but to prevent one," Terrell said, describing seeing in person a 9-year-old girl in an Afghani refugee camp missing an arm from what he said was a wayward drone strike.
"This is not a hypothetical situation," he said. "It is real. It is imminent."
After the hearing, the 56-year-old Terrell said that he has been arrested for protesting governmental policy more than 100 times and, as a result, has a lengthy rap sheet. Terrell asked Whitworth to sentence him immediately after the verdict, but the judge declined.
Faust, a 69-year-old retired Disciples of Christ minister, compared drone strikes to "premeditated murder" that cheapen the value of human life by allowing shooters to be as detached from their targets as video game players.
More than 50 peace activists from Indiana, New York, South Dakota and other states attended the hearing in support of the two men. Several wore folded cardboard hats designed to resemble the triangular-shaped drones.
Some of the Kansas City-based activists said they planned to stop by Whiteman on their way home Monday night to renew their previous protests.