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Tuesday, February 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Trial begins for woman trying to warn recruits

Seattle Times staff reporter

A retired English teacher and substance-abuse counselor, Ellen Murphy wanted to honor Veterans Day the best way she knew: by warning future soldiers about the radiation in U.S. munitions left in the Iraq desert.

The local Bellingham recruiting office was closed for the holiday so Murphy, 66, visited the next day. She handed out materials warning of depleted uranium in U.S. munitions, which she and others blame for numerous Gulf War illnesses and a contaminated Iraq desert.

"Just from a housewife's point of view, you don't make a new mess until you've cleaned up the last one," she said yesterday. "And we haven't figured out what's killing young veterans."

She was arrested on a garden-variety trespassing charge but her trial, which begins today in Bellingham Municipal Court, will stir the debate over the dangers of depleted uranium.

Her lawyer is invoking a "necessity defense," contending that Murphy's alleged crime — second-degree trespassing — was necessary to avoid a greater harm that might befall soldiers with a new Gulf War looming. He plans to call as an expert witness Dr. Doug Rokke, a former Army health physicist and opponent of use of depleted uranium in munitions.

The U.S. military uses the heavy metal, which weighs nearly twice as much as lead, in armor-busting munitions and as shielding in some vehicles.

"The bottom line when it comes to DU is DU saves lives," said Barbara Goodno, program director for public affairs and outreach in the Department of Defense's Health Support Directorate. "That is a very important point."

Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of deployment health support in the Department of Defense's Office of Health Affairs, said troops are encouraged to wear dust masks or scarves to avoid inhaling DU residues but that its hazard is limited to within 50 yards of where it has penetrated armor.

Other than that, he said, "We have extensive medical and scientific data that showed DU does not pose an environmental hazard and certainly not a health hazard."

During the Gulf War, the U.S. military deployed about 320 tons of DU munitions, mostly from aircraft.

Veterans have since raised concerns that DU radioactivity might have damaged internal organs after being inhaled, ingested or introduced through a wound.

Rokke, who was in Seattle yesterday to meet with U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, blamed DU for scores of cancers and other illnesses among veterans and members of an Iraq cleanup team of which he was part. But the military is not adequately cleaning up old DU sites or providing medical help to those injured by the material, he said.

"We're at the place where we have no options left," he said. "In our attempts to get the military to stop using this, we have failed."

On Nov. 12, while protesters marched outside the Armed Forces Recruiting Center on Bellingham's Telegraph Road, Murphy went into the office and handed out a packet containing a demand that recruiters warn potential recruits that all of southern Iraq is contaminated with DU.

"It's only right that they know this before they sign their lives away on the dotted line," she said.

When she stepped out of the office, police asked if she planned to leave. When she said she didn't, she was arrested.

Her lawyer, Joe Pemberton, said he plans to call on Rokke to describe the effects of DU on Gulf War veterans, "and therefore how it is likely to affect the men who will be fighting soon."

But Pemberton will first have to get past a motion by Jeffrey Lustick, the Bellingham city prosecutor, who is asking that Murphy not be allowed to use the necessity defense.

"The U.S. isn't on trial here, and depleted uranium isn't on trial here," he said yesterday. "We do look at this as a basic trespassing case."

Lustick said Washington state, along with two dozen or so other states and four federal jurisdictions, has severely limited the use of the defense in cases involving civil disobedience or protesters.

Most such cases involve anti-abortion protests, but the defense has also been used by murderers of abortion doctors and clinic bombers, Lustick said.

In Washington, he said, a defendant has to show there was no other legal alternative available. In this case, he said, Murphy had other ways to petition the government for change besides trespassing.

"We have to exemplify that there is a right way and a wrong way to protest," he said. "By trespassing on public property, that goes too far."

Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253 or esorensen@seattletimes.com

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