Lt. Calley Convicted of Murder for My Lai Massacre
On the morning of March 16, 1968, American troops went on a search and destroy mission into some tiny hamlets in South Vietnam, killing everything in sight—animals as well as human beings. The exact death toll will never be known, but estimates of the My Lai Massacre range from 347 to 504 innocent villagers slaughtered, most of them women, young children and babies. No Viet Cong were found, and at no time were the American troops subjected to enemy fire. It was, plain and simple, a massacre.
What is not so simple, however, is determining who was responsible, and how the guilty should be treated. The My Lai Massacre was a dark secret the perpetrators managed to keep quiet for a year and a half, until the media broke the story in the fall of 1969 and the news flashed around the world. The Army charged 26 men, including officers, for participating in the massacre or its cover-up, but only one was ever convicted: on March 29, 1971, Lt. William Calley was convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. Sentenced to life in prison, he ended up only serving three years on house arrest, then was a free man.
This copyrighted news report of Lt. Calley’s conviction for premeditated murder was published by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on the front page of its March 30, 1971, issue:
Lt. Calley Convicted
Court-Martial Jury Rules Officer Killed 22 at My Lai
By Arthur Everett
Ft. Benning, Ga. (AP)—Lt. William Calley was convicted Monday of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai three years ago. He is the first American veteran of Vietnam to be held responsible in the My Lai massacre.
Calley stood ramrod straight as the verdict was read, then did an about face. He was flanked by his military and civilian lawyers.
A half-hour after the verdict was announced, military police escorted him to the post stockade. “Take my word for it, the boy’s crushed,” his civilian attorney, George Latimer, said as they left the courtroom.
He was placed in quarters separate from those of enlisted men and will be returned to the courtroom at 9 a.m. Tuesday when the sentencing phase of the court-martial begins.
Calley was convicted of killing one person at a trail intersection, 20 at a ditch where he admitted firing six or eight bullets, of the death of a man in white and of assault on a child believed to be about 2 years old.
He had been charged with the deaths of 102 Vietnamese men, women and children.
Calley was notified that a verdict was ready by an Army officer who went to his bachelor apartment on the post. “They’re finally ready,” he said. He was tense when he arrived at the courtroom, but smiled at newsmen.
“We’re with you, Calley” shouted a young blond teenager in the crowd of about 100 persons who watched Calley escorted to the 2-room cell at the stockade.
Capt. Ernest Medina, Calley’s superior officer at My Lai who also faces court-martial on murder charges, could not be reached for comment at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta.
His military counsel, Capt. Mark Kadish, said Medina would have no statement until Tuesday. At that time, Kadish said, Medina would issue a statement from the Boston office of his civilian attorney, F. Lee Bailey.
To convict Calley, the jury needed only the concurrence of four of the six members of the panel. In civilian cases, the verdict must be unanimous.
But in the sentencing phase, it will require the vote of all six members for the death sentence. And the agreement of five members is needed for a life sentence.
The jury members remained sequestered for the sentencing phase and no one was permitted to question them about how the voting went during the lengthy deliberations.
Once Calley had been taken away, Latimer was asked if Calley expected the verdict.
“I don’t think so,” said the Salt Lake City lawyer who once served as a judge on the U.S. Military Court of Appeals. “I didn’t expect it.”
But Latimer said it would violate the lawyer-client relationship for him to reveal Calley’s reaction. They had gone immediately to the defense office when the verdict was read.
“I think you condition a man right from the time you start to represent him,” Latimer replied when asked if he had said anything to Calley about how to take the jury’s decision.
While there can be no hung jury in the verdict deliberations, there is the possibility of irreconcilable differences in the sentence phase. Should that happen, the jury is permitted, under stringent rules, to modify the verdict.
Calley, 27, took the verdict and then snapped a salute to the jury foreman, Col. Clifford Ford, 53, the only officer on the jury who is not a veteran of Vietnam.
After the verdict, Calley was escorted out of the courthouse at 5:03 p.m. and taken in a military vehicle to the stockade about a half-mile away. There he occupied a separate officer’s cell of two rooms. While not occupied by a prisoner, it is used as a chaplain’s office.
Latimer said of the verdict: “I think it is a horrendous decision for the United States of America and the United States Army.”
Whatever the sentence, an appeal is automatic within the military court system and could consume months.
The conviction on the maximum charge came on the 13th day of jury deliberations following a record 4-month trial.
Two enlisted men had been acquitted of lesser offenses at My Lai. But Calley was the first officer to be court-martialed in the delayed aftermath of the March 16, 1968, search-and-destroy mission against the little South Vietnam village.
The infantry assault against My Lai was spearheaded by Calley’s 1st Platoon, a unit of Charlie Company within the American Division. It failed to flush the Viet Cong enemy, and the operation disintegrated into an execution of civilian villagers, their screams stifled by the staccato crack of American M16 automatic rifles.
In that same March 30, 1971, issue, the Dallas Morning News published this copyrighted article:
‘A My Lai in Every War,’ Calley Says
By Kathryn Johnson, Associated Press Writer
Ft. Benning, Ga. (AP)—“I hope My Lai isn’t a tragedy but an eye-opener, even for people who say war is hell,” said Lt. William L. Calley, who was convicted Monday of premeditated murder of 22 unresisting Vietnamese civilians.
He faces the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Calley, 27, was white-faced and visibly shaken after the verdict in his court-martial, unprecedented in Army history. No other American had ever before stood accused of murdering more than 100 persons.
“My Lai has happened in every war. It’s not an isolated incident, even in Vietnam,” he told the Associated Press in an exclusive interview to be released after the verdict. The slightly rusty-haired lieutenant was escorted from the courtroom by an Army Captain and two MPs, to be confined in the stockade until the jury passes sentence.
Calley, who was a fledgling second lieutenant when he led his platoon on a devastating infantry assault on the tiny hamlet of My Lai March 16, 1968, said in the interview:
“The thing that makes My Lai so unique, it was a small tragedy in a small place, but for once, a man was able to see all the hells of war all at once.
“I can’t say I am proud of ever being in My Lai, or ever participating in war. But I will be extremely proud if My Lai shows the world what war is and that the world needs to do something about stopping wars.
“Many people say war is hell who have never experienced it,” Calley added, “but it is more than hell for those people tied up in it.”
Calley was convicted of killing 20 persons at a drainage ditch, one person at a trail intersection, and a man in the white garments of a monk. He also was convicted of assault with intent to kill a child.
Calley, commenting on his 4-months trial, the longest in U.S. court-martial history and the most publicized in modern warfare, said:
“No one has yet tried to analyze the problems, to my knowledge, that caused not only My Lai, but the war in Vietnam itself.
“I am hopeful that My Lai will bring the meaning of war to the surface not only to our nation but to all nations.
“My recommendation is,” he added, “that this nation cannot afford to involve itself in war.”
Asked to describe how he felt about his trial, during which he listened to several witnesses testify that he ordered screaming old men, women and children herded into a ditch and slaughtered, Calley replied:
“It’s not simple what I feel. It will take a book to say. I’m working on it. I hope it will be out by September.”
Calley said then even if convicted, “I still feel strongly about the Army. This nation needs a strong Army. From what I’ve seen of the world and communism, we definitely need an Army.”
Calley, who received heavy mail from throughout the world during his trial, said, “The support of the American people is the only thing that has kept me going.”
Many American combat veterans have sent him cherished mementos of their wars. One, a large, weathered, American flag, which flew in the Battle of the Bulge, hangs on Calley’s living room wall. Another gift sent him is an old book of Rudyard Kipling’s “Barrack Room Ballads.”
Calley, who has had the support of American Legion Posts, prisoner of war organizations and groups such as Gold Star Mothers, said he had strong feelings about American prisoners in Southeast Asia.
“I am extremely concerned about the POW issue,” he said.
“We owe these people a lot and cannot afford to forget them.
“If I’m convicted of a war crime, that sort of makes me a POW, too.”
The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) published this copyrighted editorial about Calley’s conviction on March 30, 1971:
Calley Verdict Confirms My Lai
The conviction of Lt. William Calley Jr. by a court-martial should remove any lingering doubts as to whether there was in fact a massacre perpetrated by the U.S. Army in 1968 in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai.
Calley was found guilty of premeditated murder. The Army should not yield to the temptation to close the case. If there are others who are thought to have shared in the blame then they, too, should be subject to courts-martial.
Innocent men, women and children died at My Lai. Chances are that other innocent Vietnamese have died at the hands of the U.S. Army during the course of this lengthy and controversial war.
It is a war unlike any other that the United States has fought. That the My Lai massacre should have occurred is lamentable but not entirely surprising.
There are no distinct lines of battle in the war in Vietnam. Allies and enemies look the same to suspicious occidental eyes. Guerrillas come in both sexes and all ages. Pressures on the men in combat are enormous.
All of this is not to offer vindication for Calley. There can be no justification for the acts of which he has been found guilty.
The charges against Calley were unprecedented in American legal history. He was charged with having murdered at least 100 oriental human beings rounded up by his platoon and herded to two main execution sites.
When the details of My Lai first were revealed, many skeptical and indignant Americans rejected the charges. The Calley verdict, however, has confirmed that Americans, too, can be guilty of atrocities.
And when they are, they must pay the penalty, as will be required of Lt. Calley.
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