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United States v. William L. Calley Jr.

Court United States Court of Military Appeals, United States
Case number 22 U.S.C.M.A. 534 / 26.875
Decision title Decision
Decision date 21 December 1973
  • United States
  • William L. Calley Jr.
Categories War crimes
Keywords Command responsibility; massacre; My Lai; Vietnam; war crimes
Other countries involved
  • Viet Nam
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William Laws Calley Jr. was born on 8 June 1943 in Miami, Florida. Calley was a former army officer in the United States and found guilty of killing hundreds of unarmed, innocent South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre on 16 March 1968 which took place during the Vietnam War. After several reductions, Calley’s original sentence of life in prison was turned into an order of house arrest, but after three years, President Nixon reduced his sentence with a presidential pardon.

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Procedural history

On 5 September 1969, William L. Calley Jr. was charged with six specifications of premeditated murder for the deaths of 109 Vietnamese civilians near the village of My Lai, Vietnam.

On 8 and 16 December 1969, the Defence filled motions to dismiss the charges (for the first motion see here, for the second motion see here).

On 17 November 1970, the trial commenced.

On 29 March 1971, Calley was found guilty of premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians.

On 31 March 1971, Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labour at Fort Leavenworth.

In early April 1971, President Richard Nixon ordered a review of Calley’s case and ordered the transfer of Calley from Leavenworth prison to house arrest at Fort Benning pending appeal.

On 20 August 1971, the convening authority, the Commanding General of Fort Benning, reduced Calley's sentence to 20 years in prison. 

The Army Court of Military Review affirmed the findings of guilty and the sentence.

Calley petitioned the Court of Military Appeals for further review, alleging 30 assignments of error.

Other documents:

Other proceedings and documents:

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Related developments

On 11 February 1974, Calley petitioned the Federal District Court for habeas corpus, arguing that he should be discharged from custody on the ground that his conviction was constitutionally invalid.

On 25 September 1974, the habeas corpus was granted by District Court Judge Elliot, along with immediate release. Calley was released because Judge Elliott found that Calley's trial had been prejudiced by pre-trial publicity, denial of subpoenas of certain defence witnesses, refusal of the United States House of Representatives to release testimony taken in executive session of the My Lai investigation, and inadequate notice of the charges.

On 20 August 2009, Calley publicly apologised for the May Lai massacre.

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Legally relevant facts

On 16 March 1968, near the village of My Lai, Vietnam, American soldiers systematically killed 500 villagers, including mostly women, children, infants, and elderly. It was alleged that Calley ordered the soldiers of the 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 23rd Infantry Division to kill the unarmed Vietnamese civilians in My Lai. Calley gave his orders in defiance of the rules of engagement and with the knowledge that his soldiers were not subject to enemy fire.

The massacre was initially covered up. However, Ron Ridenhour, a former soldier of the 11th Infantry Brigade who had heard reports of the massacre but had not participated, began a campaign to reveal the truth. After writing letters to President Richard Nixon, the Pentagon, State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and several congressmen, with no response, Ridenhour finally gave an interview to the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story in November 1969.

Following the public outcry, special inquiry was requested by the U.S. Army. In March 1970, Lieutenant General William Peers released the inquiry report and recommended 28 officers to be charged for their involvement in covering up the massacre. A total of 14 officials were charged. However, all with the exception of Calley, were acquitted.

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Core legal questions

Did the Army Court of Military Review err in its decision?

Was the evidence sufficient to establish the guilt of Calley beyond a reasonable doubt?

Did the trial judge err by failing to advise the court members of the necessity to find the existence of "malice aforethought" in connection with the murder charges?

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Court's holding and analysis

The United States Court of Military Appeals affirmed the decision of the Army Court of Military Review.

With respect to the allegation that the public attention affected Calley’s right to a fair trial, the Court held that its task was ‘not merely to ascertain that there was widespread publicity adverse to the accused, but to judge whether it was of a kind that inevitably had to influence the court members against the accused, irrespective of their good-faith disclaimers that they could, and would, determine his guilt from the evidence presented to them in open court, fairly and impartially’ (p. 2). After analysing the material and the effects, the Court was ‘satisfied that none of the court members had formed unalterable opinions about Lieutenant Calley's guilt from the publicity to which they had been exposed [...]’ (p. 2).

The Court also dismissed the allegation that the evidence provided was insufficient to establish Calley’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (pp. 2-5).

Furthermore, the Court dismissed the allegation that the trial judge erred by failing to advise the court members of the necessity to find the existence of "malice aforethought" in connection with the murder charges. It held that the judge’s instructions were in accordance with the ‘requirements of existing law for the offense of premeditated murder, and neither statute nor judicial precedent requires that reference also be made to the pre-Code concept of malice’ (p. 6).

The allegation that the judge erred in his submission on the defence of superior orders to the court was also dismissed.  According to the Court, Calley could not invoke in his defence that orders were received from his superiors and that he should therefore be exonerated from his criminal responsibility because an act committed in conformity with an illegal order is not subject to punishment (pp. 6-7).

The Court held that ‘the judge was capable and fair, and dedicated to assuring the accused a trial on the merits as provided by law; his instructions on all issues were comprehensive and correct’ (p. 9).

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Further analysis

Maj. T. Raimondo, ‘The My Lai Massacre: A Case Study’, School of the Americas, Fort Benning, Georgia, pp. 1-21.

G. Lewy, America in Vietnam, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1980.

Maj..W. A. Hudson, Jr., and Maj. J. F. Addicott, ‘Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of My Lai: A Time to Inculcate the Lessons’, Military Law Review, 1993, Vol. 139, pp. 153-185.

D. Linder, ‘An Introduction to the My Lai Courts-Martial’, National Heritage Academies, 1999, pp. 1-7.

M. R. Belknap, Vietnam War on Trial: the My Lai Massacre and the court-martial of Lieutenant Calley, Kansas: University Press of Kansas 2002.

G. D. Solis, ‘The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley (review)’, The Journal of Military History, April 2003, Vol. 67(2), pp. 634-635.

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

Martial Court (United States), United States v. Captain Ernest Medina, Decision, 1 August 1971.

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Additional materials

Summary Report’, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

‘William Calley’, TRIAL.

‘My Lai Massacre’, History, 2009.

‘Famous American Trials - The My Lai Courts-Martial1970’, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

‘Found: The monster of the My Lai massacre’, Mail Online, 6 October 2007.

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Social media links

The My Lai Massacre Courts-Martial’, Shmoop.

M. Gado, ‘Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre’, crime library.

M. Holloway, What Happened on March 16th – My Lai Massacre’, M. Holloway Blog, 16 March 2014.