A prosecutor told the jury members they would hear evidence in a simple case involving trespassing and malicious destruction of property.
But peace activist Philip F. Berrigan turned yesterday's case against him and three co-defendants on charges of damaging two jet fighters last December into a sermon about the perils of nuclear war and his commitment to world peace.
Berrigan, 76, of Baltimore, is being tried with three other peace activists: Susan Crane, 56, also of Baltimore; the Rev. Stephen Kelly, 50, a Jesuit priest from New York City; and Elizabeth Waltz, 33, a Catholic Worker from Philadelphia.
They are accused of malicious destruction of property, trespassing and conspiracy to destroy the two A-10 Thunderbolt jet fighters at a Maryland Air National Guard base in Essex.
Assistant State's Attorney Mickey Norman warned the jury that, "The defense may believe there's a moral justification, but this is a court of law, and there is no legal justification" for what the four are accused of doing.
Representing himself without a lawyer, Berrigan gave an opening statement in the Baltimore County Circuit courtroom of Judge James T. Smith Jr., addressing jurors as "sisters and brothers" and introducing himself as "a married Catholic priest -- doing peacenik work for 35 years."
In a courtroom packed with 100 peace activists who waved and blew kisses to the defendants, Berrigan told the jury about what he called the ill effects of depleted uranium in the Gulf War, but Smith interrupted him several times, warning the activist to stick to the facts of the case instead of going off "on these tangents."
"Evidence will show we disarmed these planes out of necessity," Berrigan concluded.
If convicted, the four could face maximum terms of six years and 90 days in prison. Crane, who also is charged with second-degree assault in the incident, faces an additional 10-year term.
Yesterday morning, about 200 peace activists from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Minnesota gathered at the Towson courthouse.
Supporters included Berrigan's wife, Elizabeth McAlister, and his 80-year-old brother, Jerry Berrigan, an English professor from Syracuse, N.Y.
Tom Lewis-Borbely, one of nine Catonsville protesters arrested with Berrigan in 1968 for burning draft records, said he came from Worcester, Mass., to support the cause of disarmament of nuclear weapons.
As protesters carried anti-war signs and quietly passed out literature outside the courthouse, nine members of the county police force's Special Response Team were stationed in the courthouse lobby "to make sure they are orderly," said Cpl. Joseph Yeater.
The prosecutor attempted unsuccessfully to have the trial postponed for a day in case any potential jurors were "infected" by the literature, which noted that the war resisters oppose the use of depleted uranium in the weapons, saying the metal is harmful to the environment.
Although Smith refused to allow expert witnesses to testify, he said the defendants could testify about depleted uranium used in bullets as their motivation for the attack on the A-10 Thunderbolts.
"As an American and a World War II veteran, I was faced with this shameful and disgraceful record of my country," Berrigan told the judge.
Berrigan and Walz decided to represent themselves; the other two defendants were represented by lawyer Jonathan L. Katz of Silver Spring, and Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. Attorney General.