Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

The Trial

Lt. William Calley with George Latimer (CORBIS)
Lt. William Calley with George
Latimer (CORBIS)

The court martial of Lt. William Calley began at Fort Benning, Georgia on November 17, 1970. The prosecutor, Capt. Aubrey M. Daniel III, was a twenty-eight-year old attorney who had little trial experience. Calley was represented by George Latimer, a former military judge. According to the Army's indictment, Calley was charged with the "murder of 109 Oriental human beings." Even in spite of eyewitness testimony and the admissibility of Haerberle's gruesome photographic evidence, prosecutor Daniel knew the case still would not be easy. Several members of Calley's unit had agreed to testify but many did not. Some pled the 5th Amendment, mindful of the consequences of admitting to the horrors of My Lai under oath.

The jury consisted of six Army officers: one captain, four majors and a colonel. All had combat experience on the battlefields of Europe in World War II, through Korea and Vietnam. Among them, they held a Silver Star, 13 Bronze Stars, a Distinguished Flying Cross and a wide variety of other awards and commendations. Calley would be judged by his peers. They were men who knew the military, and more importantly, knew the hell of war through their own personal experiences.

During the trial, Calley was the model of the obedient soldier. Of course, he had a legitimate reason for doing so, since his defense would revolve around the concept of obeying orders. He lived on post at Fort Benning in his own apartment where he frequently entertained friends and supporters. He took the time to answer a great deal of fan mail from around the country while at the same time tried not to neglect his own future. Calley was very aware of the tremendous publicity that the case had received across the world. He signed a contract with Esquire magazine to publish his version of the events at My Lai and began working on a book about My Lai.

On January 11, 1971, former Pfc. Paul Meadlo, Calley's partner at the killing ditch in My Lai testified. Meadlo, then 23, described in unemotional, straightforward terms, how he and Lt. Calley shot defenseless old men, women and children in a frenzied slaughter. "Calley backed off and starting shooting automatic into the people," he said, "I was beside Calley. He told me to shoot. He burned off four or five magazines."

 Meadlo described the second group of killings a few minutes later. At the second ditch, a group of 80 to 100 women and children were gathered. "Then he started shoving them off and shooting them in a ravine. He ordered me to help kill the people too. I started shoving them off and shooting them," he added. Meadlo admitted to many killings at My Lai, but legally, he was off the hook: the Government granted him immunity for his testimony.

Another former soldier, Dennis Conti, took the stand to describe his version of the events at My Lai. In response to questions by Capt. Daniel, Conti recounted the killings by the first ditch:

"So they Calley and Meadlo got on line and fired directly into the people...The people screamed and yelled and fell. I guess they tried to get up too" (Direct examination by Capt. Aubrey Daniels). "There was a lot of heads had been shot off, pieces of heads, flesh of the...fleshy parts of the body, side and arms, pretty well messed up," he said. Testimony indicated that Calley had to reload his weapon between 10 and 15 times, while the victims scrambled around in the ditch.

Capt. Ernest Medina (CORBIS)
Capt. Ernest Medina

When Calley took the stand, he defended the killings as part of his "job." He said, "I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children...I carried out the orders I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so." Calley emphasized that as an officer, he was compelled to carry out his orders. "So it was our job to go through destroying everyone and everything in there...," he said. For three days, Calley continued offering the Nuremberg defense of "only following orders." After Calley's repetitious testimony, Captain Ernest Medina took the stand and emphatically denied ever ordering anyone to kill women and children. "No, you do not kill women and children. You use common sense. If they have a weapon and they are trying to engage you, then you shoot back," he said.


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