J. Robert Elliott, 96; Judge in My Lai Case

Associated Press
Thursday, June 29, 2006

Retired U.S. District Judge J. Robert Elliott, 96, who overturned the conviction of Army Lt. William Calley in the 1968 My Lai massacre but was later overruled by an appeals court, died June 27 at his home in Columbus, Ga.

Judge Elliott was the nation's oldest federal district judge when he ended his 38-year career in 2000.

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.

Calley initially had been sentenced to life in prison. After a public outcry that he was being made a scapegoat, President Richard M. Nixon reduced the sentence. Calley served three years of house arrest before his conviction was overturned by Judge Elliott.

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

The conviction was later reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Calley's appeal, but Calley was not returned to confinement.

Judge Elliott's tenure on the bench also put him in the conflict over civil rights. In 1962, Judge Elliott issued an order halting civil rights demonstrations by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in Albany, Ga.

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 the book "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63," author Taylor Branch said Judge Elliott was a "strident segregationist."

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

Judge Elliott, a native of Gainesville, Ga., a graduate of Emory University and a Navy veteran of World War II, was appointed to the bench by President John F. Kennedy.

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