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Judge Who Reversed My Lai Conviction Dies

June 28, 2006 GMT

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) _ Retired U.S. District Judge J. Robert Elliott, who overturned the conviction of Army Lt. William Calley in the 1968 My Lai massacre but was later overruled by an appeals court, has died. He was 96.

Elliott was the nation’s oldest federal district judge when he ended his 38-year career in 2000. He died Tuesday at his home, according to Striffler-Hamby Mortuary in Columbus.

Calley was convicted in a 1971 court-martial of killing 22 civilians as part of the massacre of hundreds of men, women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. He was the only man convicted in the case, which became a focal point of Vietnam protests.


In overturning the conviction in 1974, Elliott said there the case was prejudiced by pretrial publicity, Calley was denied access to evidence, and President Nixon had ``publicly aligned himself with the prosecution.″

Calley initially had been sentenced to life. After a public outcry that he was being made a scapegoat, Nixon reduced the sentence.

Calley served just three years of house arrest before his conviction was overturned by Elliott. The conviction was later reinstated by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Calley’s appeal, but Calley was not returned to confinement.

Elliot’s tenure on the bench also put him amid the conflict over civil rights. In 1962, Elliott issued an order halting civil rights demonstrations by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Georgia city of Albany.

He later said that he made the decision _ subsequently overturned on appeal _ because of a threat of violence against King and his supporters. But in his book ``Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,″ author Taylor Branch said Elliott was a ``strident segregationist.″

Elliott was involved in another controversy in the 1990s when he handled a lawsuit against DuPont over its fungicide Benlate, which growers claimed damaged their crops. In 1996, the federal appeals court said Elliott overstepped his authority when he fined DuPont $115 million for withholding evidence.

Elliott was appointed to the bench by President Kennedy. He served earlier in the state House and was in the Navy during World War II.