Surprisingly, included among the Camden 28 were four Catholic priests and one Lutheran minister. All but one of the remaining 23 were Catholic laypeople. All were part of a nonviolent antiwar movement the government and the media referred to as the Catholic Left. One of the most dramatic tactics utilized by this movement was breaking into Selective Service offices across the country to remove and destroy government draft records that identified young men available for military service. The activists claimed that their civil disobedience was meant to call attention to their belief that killing even in war was morally indefensible. They targeted the draft for the simple fact that it was the clearest symbol of that immorality because it compelled citizens to kill. Between 1967 and 1971, members of the Catholic Left claimed responsibility for over 30 draft board raids and the destruction of close to a million Selective Service documents. By 1971, the Catholic Left had become one of the most inventive forces of the antiwar movement.
The surprise arrest and unorthodox trial of the Camden 28 is a story of friendship and betrayal played out against the backdrop of one of the most turbulent periods in recent American history.
During the more than two months the defense took to present its case, each of the defendants spoke at length, often with moving eloquence. In an unusual arrangement three young lawyers aided the activists who chose either to act as their own lawyers or to have co-counsel, in which defendants could both speak for themselves and have an attorney speak for them. Far from pleading innocent to the charges, they proudly proclaimed their guilt. I ripped up those files with my hands, declared the Rev. Peter D. Fordi, adding, They were the instruments of destruction. The Camden activists asked the jury to nullify the laws against breaking and entering and to acquit them as a means of saying that the country had had enough of the illegal and immoral war in Vietnam. They also asked the jury to acquit on the grounds that the raid would not have taken place without the help of a self-admitted FBI informer and provocateur. The defendants emphasized that they had given up their plan, for lack of a practical means, until the informer-provocateur had resurrected it and provided them with the encouragement and tools to carry it out.
After three and a half months, the case went to the jury. Judge Fishers charge broke new legal ground. Despite the fact that the defendants admitted plotting the action before the informer appeared, Judge Fisher informed the jury they could acquit if they felt government participation in setting up the crime had gone to intolerable lengths that were offensive to the basic standards of decency and shocking to the universal sense of justice. However, he added that although it was in their power, it would not be proper to decide the verdict on the issue of the war, and that "protest is not an acceptable legal defense, as sincerely motivated as I think they were." After three days of deliberations, a jury of seven women and five men returned a verdict of not guilty on all charges against the antiwar activists. According to The New York Times, at that moment, the defendants . . . and 200 supporters . . . burst into cheers, wept, hugged one another and sang a chorus of Amazing Grace. The acquittals represented the first complete legal victory for the antiwar movement in five years of such draft board actions.
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