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William Calley Court-Martial: 1970

Some Refused Orders

But not everyone at My Lai that day blindly followed such outrageous orders. Robert Maples told of entering the village and seeing Calley and Meadlo firing into a ditch full of civilians. "[Calley] asked me to use my machine gun."

"What did you say?" Daniel inquired.

"I refused," was the reply.

Another soldier who listened to the dictates of his conscience was James Dursi.

"Did Lt. Calley order you to fire?" asked Daniel.

"Yes, sir."

"Why did you not fire?"

"Because I could not go through with it."

In his final address to the jury, Daniel said, "The defense would ask you to legalize murder," then he invoked the memory of Abraham Lincoln's order to Union troops during the Civil War: "Men who take up arms against one another in public do not cease on this account to be moral human beings, responsible to one another and to God."

On March 29, 1971, after almost 80 hours of deliberation, the six-officer jury—five of whom had served in Vietnam—found Calley guilty of the premeditated murder of 22 villagers at My Lai.

Next came the penalty phase; under military law, Calley faced possible execution by hanging. Latimer pleaded for the life of his client, saying Calley had been a "good boy until he got into that Oriental situation." Latimer reminded the jury of their isolation from the media during the long months of the court-martial. "You'll find there's been no case in the history of military justice that has torn this country apart as this one."

The defendant made an impassioned plea on his own behalf.

I'm not going to stand here and plead for my life or my freedom. I've never known a soldier, nor did I ever myself, wantonly kill a human being.… Yesterday, you stripped me of all my honor. Please, by your actions that you take here today, don't strip future soldiers of their honor—I beg of you.

Daniel was on his feet immediately, reminding the jury, "You did not strip him of his honor. What he did stripped him of his honor. It is not honor, and never can be considered honor, to kill men, women, and children."

The jury mandated that Calley should be sent to prison for life. Three days later he was freed from Fort Leavenworth by President Richard Nixon and returned to Fort Benning where he was held under house arrest pending appeal. On August 20, 1971, the sentence was reduced to 20 years. Calley remained at Fort Benning until February 27, 1974, when he was released on bail. On November 9, 1974, the Army announced that Lieutenant Calley had been paroled.

Following his release, Calley remained in Columbus, Georgia, and as of this writing was a successful jeweler, well-respected in the community.

Four people were tried for war crimes arising out of the My Lai Massacre. Apart from Calley, the most notable was his commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina. In August 1971 he faced charges of murdering 175 Vietnamese civilians, only to be acquitted after a month-long trial. Calley remains the only man ever convicted for what happened on that morning in Vietnam.

Nothing in its history had prepared the United States for the appalling slaughter at My Lai, and yet the nation's initial revulsion became strangely muted during Calley's protracted trial. Many came to view him as a scapegoat, even a hero, desperately waging the battle against Communism. Time and distance may have dulled the magnitude of his crimes, but not their historical importance.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bilton, Michael and Kevin Sim. Four Hours At My Lai. New York: Viking Press, 1992.

Goldstein, Joseph, Burkr Marshall, and Jack Schwartz. The MV Lai Massacre And Its Cover-Up. New York: Free Press, 1976.

Hammer, Richard. The Court-Martial Of Lt. Calley. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1971.

Unger, Craig and Bill Hewitt. People Weekly (November 20, 1989): 152-158.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972William Calley Court-Martial: 1970 - Some Refused Orders