Activist, Felon, Lawyer, Crusader: Katya Komisaruk FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 28 Apr 1999 17:41:57 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  Cal Law - Monday, April 26, 1999  [California, USA]


     By Kelly Flaherty

Twelve years ago on a June evening, Katya Komisaruk embarked on a dangerous
mission that would both mark her as a convicted felon and launch her career
as a lawyer.

Armed with a bolt cutter, a crow bar and an electric drill -- as well as a
bouquet of roses, a box of chocolate chip cookies and some stationery --
the 29-year-old peace activist broke into Vandenburg Air Force Base on the
Central Coast and dismantled a multimillion dollar computer.

She was out to destroy a missile guidance system capable of directing a
first strike against the Soviet Union.

Humming the theme to "Mission Impossible", Komisaruk left the roses,
cookies and a friendly note at a gate, hoping to throw off any armed
military police.

After a few hours of smashing equipment and painting slogans, she
hitchhiked a ride back to San Francisco and arranged for a press conference
at the federal building. About an hour into the conference, the FBI showed
up and arrested her.

Although she was not a lawyer, Komisaruk had planned her legal defense
before she even broke into Vandenburg. Defense attorney Leonard Weinglass,
famous for his work on the Chicago Seven trial, took on her case.

But her trial did not become the platform for anti-nuclear protest she had
hoped for.

Then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Manella won a key pretrial motion that
barred the defense from discussing Komisaruk's political motives or
international law. Despite the odds, Komisaruk gave her own closing

"There were 'no-no' words in court -- for example, we couldn't say nuclear
weapon," she says. "It was like one of those nightmares where you are
screaming but no sound will come out of your throat."

The jury convicted her of destruction of government property and U.S.
District Judge William Rea gave her five years in prison, where she studied
law with a fellow inmate.

A gifted student who had already earned an M.B.A. from UC-Berkeley,
Komisaruk set about applying to law schools.

She received an acceptance notice from Harvard Law School the week she was
released on parole -- after serving approximately half her sentence.

Thanks in part to other protesters-turned-attorneys, such as San Francisco
District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who helped pave the way, lawyers with
criminal records are allowed to join the State Bar as long as their crimes
do not involve "moral turpitude" or breach of fiduciary duty.

Komisaruk says she has dedicated her career to defending the three "Ps" --
protesters, potheads and prostitutes -- and recently added pie throwers to
that list.

Last year she represented one of the "Cherry Pie Three" who targeted Mayor
Willie Brown in protest of his treatment of the homeless.

She is also co-counsel on a recent class action filed in Oakland federal
court that would hold the CIA liable for the crack cocaine epidemic of the

But she says her favorite legal moment so far came when she defended a
Wisconsin couple accused of sabotaging an antenna that sends signals to
nuclear submarines.

She was able to put on the defense in that trial -- complete with experts
on nuclear war and international law -- that hadn't been allowed at hers.

The jury came back with a split verdict, acquitting the couple of sabotage
but convicting them of destroying property.

"When I did my closing argument the court clerk cried," Komisaruk says. "I
want to do it again and win totally."


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

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