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U.S. v. Berrigan: 1968

Philip And Daniel Berrigan Stand Trial, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendants: Philip Berrigan, Daniel Berrigan, and others
Crimes Charged: Willfully injuring government property, mutilating public records, and hindering the operation Selective Service System
Chief Defense Lawyers: Harrop Freeman and William Kunstler
Chief Prosecutors: Stephen H. Sachs and Barnet D. Skolnik
Judge: Roszel C. Thomsen
Place: Baltimore, Maryland
Dates of Trial: October 7-10, 1968
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 3-4 years in prison for Philip Berrigan and 3 years in prison for Daniel Berrigan

SIGNIFICANCE: The courts refused to recognize moral opposition to the Vietnam War as a legal defense to prosecution for criminal acts of defiance, such as the Berrigans' raid on a Selective Service office.

The Roman Catholic Church is usually considered a conservative institution, one that doesn't get involved in American politics except in unusual circumstances. During the late 1960s, however, certain Catholic priests began to take an active role in the protest movement against the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. Two priests in particular, the Berrigan brothers Philip and Daniel, went so far as to organize acts of disobedience that got them into serious trouble with the authorities.

On October 26, 1967, Philip, Daniel, and three other people entered the Customs House in Baltimore, Maryland, where the federal Selective Service Administration kept some draft records. The Berrigans had planned a media event, and several reporters were present when the Berrigans arrived. Philip, Daniel, and the others proceeded to break into the file area, past the minimal clerical staff, and emptied vials of blood into the file cabinets. They waited peacefully for the police to arrive.

The federal authorities charged the Berrigans and the others with criminal violation of laws against willfully destroying United States property, mutilating public records, and hindering the administration of the Selective Service Act. After having been found guilty of these charges at trial and while awaiting sentencing, the Berrigans instigated another anti-war escapade. On May 17, 1968, they led seven other people into the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, seized nearly 400 files, and burnt them in the parking lot with homemade napalm.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972