Tom and Donna Howard-Hastings celebrated April 22, Earth Day, by toppling three transmitter poles at a US Navy communications center in rural Clam Lake, Wis.
The couple stapled an indictment against nuclear war to one of the poles, signed it "with disarming love, Tom & Donna," and turned themselves over to the police.
The Howard-Hastingses said dismantling the US Navy's first-strike communications with nuclear submarines was a necessary act of civil disobedience. The Ashland County district attorney didn't agree and charged them with criminal damage to property and sabotage. If convicted of both charges, the couple could have served 15 years in state prison.
Last week, a jury in this remote rural county found the Howard-Hastingses not guilty of sabotage, marking only the fourth time in 16 years that members of the Plowshares antinuclear movement have been acquitted of such charges.
The acquittal is part of what some legal scholars see as an emerging shift in public and judicial attitudes toward civil disobedience directed at nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In July, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a United Nations body, advised that the use or "threat of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to international law." The court could not reach a conclusion about nuclear weapons used in self-defense.
Ashland County Circuit Court Judge Robert Eaton barred The Hague ruling from being cited in this case. But Francis Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois, says that the Wisconsin and Hague decisions together are likely to set a precedent for cases involving antinuclear civil disobedience.
"The World Court has ... invited other courts throughout the world to consider the case. The Howard-Hastings case will certainly be discussed in that context by the international law community," says Mr. Boyle, who has worked on the World Court case.
While escaping a sabotage conviction, the couple was charged with criminal damage to property, which calls for up to five years in prison.
By the Howard-Hastings's own count, there have been 57 trials of antinuclear activists on sabotage charges since 1980. In northern Wisconsin, such protests have focused on an extremely low-frequency transmitter, known as ELF, that communicates with submerged nuclear submarines.
The Howard-Hastings's defense relied on a literal interpretation of sabotage, which is defined as the intent to damage property with the belief the action would interfere with national defense. ELF, they argued, was part of a first-strike nuclear system, making it an offensive weapon.
The federal government spends $16 million a year operating two ELF sites in Wisconsin. In response to growing protests, several Wisconsin congressmen have advocated cutting ELF funds, but US Defense Department officials say the ELF transmitters are vital to national security.