Fifty years ago, U.S. Army Lt. William Calley was found guilty of committing 22 premeditated murders during a massacre by U.S. forces in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. A platoon leader who had led his soldiers into the undefended village, Calley stood ramrod stiff as he listened to the jury’s verdict in his court martial. Face flushed, he offered a crooked salute after the verdict was read.
On the very same day — March 29, 1971 — a jury in Los Angeles, after 10 hours of deliberation, recommended the death penalty for cult leader Charles Manson and followers Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Susan Atkins. Manson and his followers in “The Family” had killed seven people in a two-day spree in Benedict Canyon and Los Feliz.
Together, the two events were among those extraordinary end-of-the-60s events that helped define the era.
The Manson killings confirmed the fears of middle America about the deranged underside of the counterculture. By the time of his trial, Manson had shaved his head and carved an X into his forehead; over the next few years, he further carved it into a swastika.
Calley’s case, while equally horrifying, was a little more complex. His defense was that at My Lai — where as many as 504 civilians were killed — he had merely been doing his duty as it had been explained to him. Public debate was not so much about whether he had committed the horrendous acts he was accused of, but whether he was being singled out and scapegoated for the entire immoral war in Vietnam perpetrated by his government.
“This boy is a product of the system,” said his chief counsel, George Latimer. “He was taken out of his own home, given automatic weapons, taught to kill. They ordered him to kill. And then the same government tries him for killing, and selects the judge, the court, the prosecutor.”
Calley was sentenced to life in prison.
The two cases, different as they were, reflected their times, and raised criminal justice issues that would continue to resonate. In the end, neither of the two convicted men faced the punishments meted out to them for their crimes.
Americans were told that Manson would be executed and Calley would serve life in prison for his war crimes at My Lai. Yet neither of those things came to pass.
In February 1972, just a few months after Manson’s death sentence was handed down, the state Supreme Court struck down California’s death penalty, and he was one of 107 condemned prisoners whose sentences were commuted to life in prison without parole. The status of the death penalty in California has been in flux ever since. It was reinstated later in 1972, abolished again in 1976, reenacted in 1977, reaffirmed in 1978 (although executions didn’t resume until 1992), and there have been repeated efforts to abolish it again ever since. Manson died of natural causes, still in prison, in 2017 at the age of 83.
Calley, for his part, was spared a lifetime in prison when President Richard Nixon intervened in his case to order house arrest rather than imprisonment in Fort Leavenworth. And military courts repeatedly reduced his sentence, first from life to 20 years, then to 10 years. In the end, he served only a few months of prison time. He was paroled in 1974 and is now 77.
Those two underlying criminal justice issues in the cases of Manson and Calley — the death penalty and the pardon power — remain as controversial as ever. In California, indecisiveness about the death penalty continues, and though I oppose it, I think California’s waffling has led to unnecessary suffering for the families of victims and perpetrators alike. It’s time to do away with capital punishment once and for all in California.
As for the pardon power, that was back in the news during the presidency of Donald Trump who, like Nixon, had a soft spot for soldiers accused of war crimes. He granted a controversial clemency to Eddie Gallagher, a Navy Seal who had posed with the body of a teenage Islamic State terrorist he had just killed. Trump gave a full pardon to Mathew Golsteyn, an army Special Forces officer facing murder charges for killing an unarmed Afghan man who had been ordered released. Trump also granted a pardon to Clint Lorance, who had been serving time for ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed Afghan civilians.
The days of Calley and Manson seem at once part of the very distant past, and at the same time distinctly contemporary in the issues they raise. Their trials took place at a moment of extraordinary social upheaval and divisiveness in America — much like what we’re experiencing today.
It’s a coincidence that momentous rulings in their trials came on the same day, but who would have guessed that we’d still be agonizing over so many of the issues raised in their cases half a century later?
Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.