KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A sentencing hearing for an 83-year-old nun and two other Catholic peace activists was delayed Tuesday after the federal courthouse in Knoxville shut down because of snow.
A judge ordered Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed to pay full restitution of nearly $53,000 for damaging the primary U.S. storehouse for bomb-grade uranium.
But after four hours of argument and emotional testimony, U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar announced that the courthouse was closing and sentencing would have to wait, likely until Feb. 18.
The three were convicted of sabotage last year after they broke into the nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The restitution covers damage incurred at the plant when the three cut through fences and painted slogans on the outside wall of the uranium processing plant there.
The government has recommended sentences of about six to nine years in prison. More than 100 supporters from across the country had come to Knoxville on Tuesday to hear whether Thapar would heed the defendants' pleas for leniency.
The three have argued that their actions were symbolic and meant to draw attention to America's stockpile of nuclear weapons, which they believe to be immoral and illegal.
Before the hearing was shut down, friends of the defendants testified to their good characters and kind hearts.
Kathleen Boylan, who lives in a community of Catholics devoted to peace and helping the poor with Walli in Washington, D.C., said her friend was a generous person who has spent his life helping others. She compared him to a character in the novel "Night" by Elie Wiesel who tries to warn people about the Holocaust but is turned away as crazy.
"Michael Walli is trying to save our lives," she said. "He's trying to save your life, Judge Thapar."
Mary Evelyn Tucker, a Yale professor who has known Rice all of her life, spoke of the many years Rice spent serving the poor in Africa.
"She's a person of high moral principles with a profound commitment to alleviating suffering," Tucker said.
Wilfred Anderson, a member of Veterans for Peace, spoke about Boertje-Obed's work serving the homeless in Duluth, Minn. He called both Walli and Boertje-Obed "terrific human beings" who are of much greater use to society as a whole when they are free to continue their work helping the poor than when they are in prison.
The hearing was shut down after the testimony, prompting a groan from supporters filling the courtroom and an overflow room with the proceedings on a screen.
As the three defendants were lead out in chains, Rice used her free hand to signal "OK" and make peace signs. Many of the supporters waved peace signs back and began singing "Eyes on the Prize." Then someone yelled, "Happy Birthday, Megan," and the dozens began singing "Happy Birthday" to Rice, who turns 84 Friday.
Outside the courtroom, some said they believed divine providence had stopped the hearing.
Boertje-Obed's wife, Michelle Naar-Obed, didn't want to speculate on that, but she said she hopes that the whole process provides an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in people's hearts so that they will rethink the need for nuclear weapons.