June 2001 v.p. “SOA 26 Found Guilty: Three Iowan’s going to jail” p. 6
by Fr Frank Cordaro
I was privileged to be a support person and a driver for Rita Hohenshell and her daughter Kim and her granddaughter Tricia to Columbus GA. where Rita stood trial for her participation in the November 2000 protest at the School of Americas, now named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Rita is a long time extend community member of DMCW. At seventy-six years young, Rita is one of those local radical women who belong to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, is a board member of the Catholic Peace Ministry and a card carrying Call To Action person. She is also a member of Christ the King Catholic Parish and teaches preschool religious education.
The November protest brought 7,000 participants to the gates of Fort Benning GA, the home of the US Army school that’s been training Latin American soldiers for over 50 years. Many of these SOA graduates returned to their countries to become the most notorious human rights violators in all of Latin America. Over 3,000 protesters “crossed the line” onto base property, of these only 1,700 were given ‘ban and bar’ letters. Of those who were issued ‘ban and bar’ letters, 65 had violated previous ban and bar letters and risked indictment. The Federal Government choose to indict 26 of these 65
Three of 26 were Iowans. Joining Rita from Iowa were the well-known and beloved Franciscan nuns and blood sisters; Dorothy Hennessey (age 89) and Gwen (age 68) Hennessey from Dubuque.
One has to wonder how the government came to choose these 26 to indict, especially the 3 Iowans. In the faith based, peace and justice communities of Iowa, we could not have picked three better representatives for this trial. Measured by the standards set by the Beatitudes; Rita, Dorothy and Gwen are the best amongst us to be witnesses and tell the ‘god awful truth’ about the School of Americas and its bloody legacy.
When it came time for the trial, 25 defendants (12 men and 13 women – the oldest 89 and the youngest 19, with five in their 70’s, seven in their 60’s, five in their 50’s, two in their 40’s, one in her 30’s, and four in their 20’s) made things easy for the prosecutor. One of the 26 plead guilty, 24 plead innocent yet signed statements stipulating to the ‘facts’ of the prosecutor’s case, that they did in deed cross over onto Fort Benning property in violation of previous ban and bar letters. And only one defendant plead innocent and forced the prosecutor to make his case.
US Magistrate Judge G Mallon Faircloth presided over the two days of trials. With all but one case already decided, the Judge allowed each defendant to speak their truth from the witness stand. It was a remarkable two days of testimony. Each defendant got to tell their personal story and journey to the gates of Fort Benning. Many of the defendants had first hand experiences in Latin American and reported personally their knowledge of some of the School of America’s graduates human rights violations.
Short of actually having some of the countless victims and survivors of the School of America’s present to speak for themselves, the twenty six defendants did a remarkable job of speaking for the dead who cannot, and for those still alive but have no legal recourse or legitimate venue to tell their stories.
Judge Faircloth was a case study in himself. In his person and court mannerisms he was most accommodating and gracious. He allowed each defendant a chance to speak their piece, actively listening and engaging the defendants in open dialogue, at times self-effacing and open to correction himself. Yet at the same time, the judge was a clear believer and defender of the ‘system’, especially the Federal Court system.
Judge Faircloth was quoted in a local Columbus GA newspaper that he felt like he was being set up as a pawn in an ongoing drama between the US Government and the School of America Watch people, who are trying to shut the school down. He felt he either could slap the hands of the defendants with light sentences and send them home, making Fort Benning the laughing stock of the country or he could send the defendants to jail making martyrs for the cause.
After two full days of extraordinary testimony and a half day trial in which famed Catholic Worker Carl Meyer attempted to raise the constitutional issues of free speech and exposed the sloppy work of the prosecution’s case, Judge Faircloth showed his true colors and found each defendant guilty.
If Judge Faircloth believed himself a pawn in this drama, he was a pawn with a great deal of worldly power. During a seven hour marathon sentencing session the Judge choose to make martyrs of the defendants, sentencing 21 to the maximum six months with fines ranging from $150 to $3,000, starting with 89 year old Sr Dorothy Hennessey. Fellow Iowan’s Sr Gwen Hennessey received a six month sentence and our own Rita Hohenshell received a three month sentence.
All but three of those sentences to jail were able to post a $250 bond and were released to self-surrender to Federal prisons yet to be determined. The process to decide which Federal prisons people are to report takes up to six weeks to determine. The three who did not post bond starting serving their sentences immediately.
Maryknoll Fr Roy Bourgeois, founder of the SOA Watch, who has spent over four years in prison for acts of civil disobedience in opposition to US policy in Central America was quoted in the National Catholic Reporter of saying, “This prison witness is going to energized the movement… All I can think of is shame on that judge! What it’s going to do is bring more people down here in November to cross that line, and I’m going to be one of them… I’ll be crossing that line in solidarity with Sr Dorothy and all the others.”
Lana Jacobs from the Columbia MO Catholic Worker and wife of Steve Jacobs who got a 12-month sentence from Judge Faircloth for violating a previous ban and bar letter twice and I could not wait until November to cross the line at Fort Benning. After the sentencing, Lana and I crossed the line onto base property at the main gate in a two-person demo to show our support and solidarity for those heading to prison. We made it to the front doors of the now Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the School of Assassins by any other name), said some prayers, were picked up by base security, issued ban and bar letters and released.
For updates on the those imprison and soon to be imprisoned and for information about the upcoming November protest contact: