The Trial of the Avco Plowshares

In July 1983, seven United States citizens entered AVCO Systems Division, a manufacturing plant for MX and Pershing II missiles in Wilmington, Massachusetts. They threw blood on blueprints and computers to protest the buildup of nuclear arms. AVCO PLOWSHARES documents the ensuring trial, which includes dramatic testimony on civil disobedience and the question if a greater moral imperative exists beyond the letter of the law. Acting on their own behalf, the defendants argued "the justification defense" to claim their duty as citizens to warn of impending nuclear threats. Jean Hollady, a nurse and mother of four, asks those in the courtroom to picture the threat of one MX missile, containing ten warheads, representing "the equivalent of 260 Hiroshimas." Frank Panopoulos, an anti-poverty worker, explains, "we were there so these weapons will not be made." John Schuchardt, a former Marine and an attorney, ask the jury, "in light of weapons with the (equivalent power) of 335,000 pickup trucks full of TNT... please tell me what I could have done." Expert witnesses and commentators from retired Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque, Daniel Berrigan, and George Wald concur that because of anti-Soviet weapons in Europe, nuclear war could be "eight minutes away." Howard Zinn says in defense, "creative, inventive, dedicated action is needed by Americans in this courtroom and everywhere else to prevent that risk to the world." Despite permission to film this trial for broadcast, the presiding judge, Edward M. Viola, restricted distribution to educational venues after screening the work-in-progress.

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01:20Copy video clip URL Documentary opens with a circle of protestors praying outside the AVCO plant, then picketing while singing.  November 25, 1986. Title at 2:00. Credits at 2:13.

02:20Copy video clip URL Text: “On July 14, 1983, 7 men and women – among them a teacher, a lawyer, and a mother of 13 children – entered AVCO Systems, a manufacturer of nuclear weapons components in Wilmington, MA. Once inside, these 7 poured blood on blueprints, hammered on test equipment, then knelt down and prayed.” Footage of protest outside alternating with photograph of damage caused.

03:12Copy video clip URL The Prosecution’s Case: Text: “The AVCO Plowshares were arrested and charged with trespass and malicious damage to property. They were brought to trial in the District Court of Lowell, MA. The prosecution’s case rests on convincing the jury that the defendants entered AVCO without permission, damaged property, and did so with a spirit of malice.” Inside the court with Judge Edward M. Viola, DA Edward Rapacki. AVCO Security Inspector William J. Zolubos testifies that “a woman had gone crazy in the environmental testing area.”

05:17Copy video clip URL AVCO security officer Francis J. Baggett identifies fake badges used by the defendants to gain entry into the building and is cross-examined by one of the defendants. Text: “With the aid of co-counsel, Robert Hernandez, the defendants are acting as their own (pro se) attorneys.” The defense focuses on AVCO’s production of parts for nuclear weapons.

07:09Copy video clip URL The Defense of Justification: Frank Panapoulos, Member of a Catholic community which cares for the poor, makes a statement explaining their actions and answers questions about their belief in the necessity of civil disobedience. Text: “The defendant’s case is based on a legal argument of ‘justification’ or ‘competing harms’ – which allows a jury to pardon otherwise illegal acts committed to prevent a greater danger.” 

09:26Copy video clip URL Meeting of the defendants and co-counsel during recess. Text: “The justification defense requires proof of the following: 1. A clear and imminent danger. 2. A reasonable expectation that the action will abate that danger. 3. No other legal alternatives.”

09:58Copy video clip URL Inside the courtroom. Dr. George Wald, Professor of Biology, Harvard University, is called to testify. Text: “Defendants may call expert witnesses to clarify complex subjects for the jury. All experts must first be qualified by the judge on credentials and relevance.” Judge does not recognize Wald’s expertise to comment on the imminence of nuclear war and does not allow him to testify.

11:52Copy video clip URL Mary Lyons, history teacher and mother of 5 children, makes a statement about her reasoning for breaking into AVCO and then answers the prosecutor’s questions.

14:16Copy video clip URL Outrageous Fortune: Judge rejects a memorandum from the defendants regarding expert testimony, asserts that the trial is about trespassing rather than the dangers of nuclear armament.

16:12Copy video clip URL Gene LaRocque, Director, Center for Defense Information, testifies to the likelihood of nuclear war between the USA and the USSR.

19:09Copy video clip URL State of Mind: Jean Holladay, Nurse and mother of 4 children, testifies to the destructive power of the nuclear weapons AVCO helps produce.

21:18Copy video clip URL Paul Walker, National Defense and Weapons Analyst, testifies about how close the world has come to nuclear war.

23:24Copy video clip URL John Pendleton, Solar Energy Technician and Community Volunteer, asserts that there was no legal alternative to the defendants’ actions.

25:20Copy video clip URL Setsuko Thurlow, Hiroshima Survivor, is called to testify. Text: “The defendants have called Ms. Thurlow to describe the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, an event which they say contributed to their state of mind when they entered AVCO. Legally, state of mind is a necessary element in proving or disproving malice. The D.A. objects to the witness.” The judge and the defendants argue over Thurlow’s testimony.

27:13Copy video clip URL John Reilly interviews Thurlow, who describes the traumatic experience of living through the bombing and its horrific aftermath.

28:20Copy video clip URL Didn’t Anybody Ask Any Questions: Agnes Bauerlein, Housewife and Mother of 11 children; member of Pax Christi, explains her motivations, rooted in the her experiences in WWII.

31:35Copy video clip URL Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, Professor, University of California, Known for releasing Pentagon Papers, testifies to the need for widespread civil disobedience to prevent the destruction caused by nuclear weapons.

35:17Copy video clip URL Text: “The defendants have called Daniel Berrigan S.J., a member of the original Plowshares 8, to testify to a lack of legal alternatives, and the absence of malice and the importance of faith in their actions. The Judge has ruled that Berrigan may not testify on any issue other than the defendants’ character.” Father Berrigan explains to the camera that religious faith is central to the defendants’ actions.

36:46Copy video clip URL A State within a State: Richard Anderson Falk, Prof. of International Law, Princeton Univ., testifies that the defendants had no legal alternatives

38:51Copy video clip URL John Schuchardt, Former U.S. Marine and attorney, father of three children, tells the jury from the stand that they must decide between mass murder being legal or their own civil disobedience being legal.

41:43Copy video clip URL The defense co-counsel calls Dr. Howard Zinn to testify. The judge clears the courtroom to discuss whether he should be allowed. The defendants began chanting loudly in protest and the judge leaves the courtroom.

44:20Copy video clip URL Howard Zinn, Professor of Political Science, Boston Univ., testifies to the effectiveness of political demonstrations in American history.

47:16Copy video clip URL Macy Morse, Nashua Peace Center, Nashua, N.H., testifies to the urgent need to prevent nuclear annihilation to ensure that her children have a future.

50:40Copy video clip URL God Save The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Text: “In a pre-trial motion, District Attorney Rapacki attempted to exclude all testimony on the ‘justification’ or ‘competing harms’ defense.” Rapacki asks the judge to reject his request and the judge refuses. The defendants hold hands in silent prayer, with several pleading directly to the judge.

54:20Copy video clip URL Closing Arguments: A defendant explains to the jury that the judge has not permitted their argument, which they consider to be a very great injustice. Text: “Protesting the Judge’s decision on ‘justification,’ the defendants refuse to make any further closing statements.” The D.A. argues that the defendants must accept the consequences of their actions, and that judging them ‘Guilty” would honor their courage.

58:25Copy video clip URL The Jury Asks A Question: The jury asks the judge to clarify why the defense’s arguments were not permitted.

59:47Copy video clip URL The Verdict: The jury announces their decision. The defendants and their supporters begin singing in the courtroom. Text: “Each of the defendants was given the maximum sentence: 1 month in the House of Corrections for trespassing; 2 ½ months for wanton injury to property.”

62:42Copy video clip URL Text: “The case of the Commonwealth of Mass. Vs. Schuchardt, et al. is now on appeal to the State Supreme Judicial Court. The basis of the appeal is the Judge’s refusal to consider the ‘justification’ defense.”

63:02Copy video clip URL Dedication and credits. “In memory of Catherine Holladay, 1953-1985.”



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