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Toth v. Quarles

A Death In Korea

Robert Toth was a civilian when military police arrived at the Pittsburgh steel plant where he worked, to arrest him. Five months had passed since he had been honorably discharged from the United States Air Force. Still, Toth was charged with murder, a crime of sufficient seriousness to allow the former sergeant's prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Toth and another airman, Thomas Kinder, had been on guard duty at an airbase in South Korea on 27 September 1952, when they discovered a civilian, Bang Soon Kil, who appeared to be drunk. Bang Soon was taken into custody. While being driven to the base headquarters, he grabbed at Toth's sidearm. Toth allegedly stopped the jeep and pistol-whipped the prisoner. When the two airmen arrived at headquarters, their commanding officer, Lieutenant George Schreiber, ordered them to take Bang Soon away and shoot him.

By the time military authorities discovered the murder, Toth had been honorably discharged, but his two colleagues were still in the air force. Both were court-martialed. Schreiber was sentenced to life imprisonment, but the punishment was reduced to five years, forfeiture of pay, and a dishonorable discharge. Kinder was also sentenced to life imprisonment, but the term was reduced to two years and a dishonorable discharge. Toth had returned to civilian life, but military prosecutors indicted him under the Article 3(a) of the 1950 Uniform Code of Military Justice. According to the code, anyone who had left the service remained liable to prosecution if the penalty for their alleged offense exceeded five years and the case could not be tried by a civilian court. Because Toth's case fit the guidelines, he was arrested on 13 May 1953 and returned to South Korea to stand trial by court martial.

Toth's sister Audrey immediately filed for a writ of habeas corpus. A district court order stalled the proceedings against Toth on the ground that the military had no power to apprehend a civilian and hold him for trial. Toth was returned to the United States and released on bail. Although Toth fought the indictment on the ground that he was a civilian and could not be tried by a military court, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled on 25 March 1954 that he was still liable to be tried for murder. The court ruled that Toth's honorable discharge did not excuse him from charges for crimes that might have occurred while he was still in the service. Naming Air Force Secretary Donald A. Quarles as the government's representative in the suit, Toth appealed the decision, attempting to reinstate the original district court ruling placing him beyond the reach of military authorities. As a jurisdictional dispute between different branches of government, the case was now a constitutional issue and eligible for appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Toth v. Quarles - A Death In Korea, A Gap In Jurisdiction