COLUMBUS, Ga. -- Mary Benson, a Brainerd mother of four, was sentenced Wednesday to six months in a women's federal prison after being convicted of trespassing on Fort Benning last fall as part of a massive demonstration to demand the closing of an Army school that trains Latin American soldiers.
Benson, 56, was one of 26 defendants, ranging from a 19-year-old college student to an 88-year-old Catholic nun, who were among 3,400 protesters who marched into the military post Nov. 19 to protest the School of the Americas. The protesters say graduates of the school have been linked to murder, torture and other human rights abuses.
Four Minnesotans, including Benson, were among those sentenced Wednesday. Mary Alice Vaughan, 68, White Bear Lake, received a six-month prison sentence and a $150 fine; Joel Robert Kilgour, 24, Duluth, received 30 days in prison; and Elizabeth Anne McKenzie, 71, St. Paul, received six months in prison.
Before the protest last fall, the 26 defendants were notified that because they participated in previous intrusions, they would be prosecuted if arrested.
Officials say the school's mission is to spread democratic principles among Latin American leaders who come there to study.
U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth said the defendants violated a law aimed at preserving good morale, order and discipline on military bases. The law prohibits political gatherings on military property.
"We are a government of the people," he said. "The majority in Congress enacted the law you are accused of breaking. ... You re-entered those premises in violation of the law. Therefore, it is my duty to impose sentences."
One of the defendants pleaded guilty Monday; the judge found the rest guilty Wednesday. They had been charged with criminal trespassing.
Benson's twin sister, Martha Schakel Hayward, 56, Negaunee, Mich., received three years probation and a $3,000 fine. Hayward's daughter Rachel Louise Hayward, 19, Negaunee, Mich., received six months in prison.
Benson said her family doesn't understand how the judge decided who deserved prison sentences and fines and who didn't. Benson, Hayward and Hayward's daughter all have similar arrest records for protesting the School of the Americas.
"I feel it was a harsh sentence for a misdemeanor," Benson said today from her hotel room in Columbus.
Benson plans to return to Brainerd tonight. She said she and her niece requested to serve their six-month prison sentences together at a women's federal prison in Pekin, Ill. A probation officer in Georgia told her today she will likely be called in a month or two when space is available at the women's prison. Then she will have two to three weeks to report to prison.
Benson and her husband Chuck have four teen-aged and adult children. Their 16-year-old son John still lives at home.
Faircloth initially sentenced 88-year-old Dorothy Hennessey, a Dubuque, Iowa, nun, to six months probation. She said she didn't want any special treatment because of her age, then the judge changed her sentence to six months in prison. He imposed a similar sentence on her sister, Gwen Hennessey, a 68-year-old nun.
"I feel like I was called to cross the line," Benson told the judge. "In crossing, I was standing in solidarity with the oppressed of South America. Nobody thought the government would do this."
Roy Bourgeois, founder of the group that has sponsored School of the Americas demonstrations since 1990, said the sentences were unfair.
"This genteel Southern judge smiles and then comes the dagger," Bourgeois said. "It baffles me how he can sleep at night when an 88-year-old nun is going to prison ... when assassins and soldiers who have tortured and raped get pardons. A grave injustice has been done."
The School of the Americas moved to Fort Benning from Panama in 1984. It closed last December and reopened in January with a new name -- the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Responsibility for the school has been transferred from the Army to the Department of Defense and it has a new curriculum.
Officials say the demonstrations cost the Army about $50,000 for security, cleanup and processing demonstrators who are arrested.
(This story contains information provided by The Associated Press.)
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