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J. Robert Elliott, 96; judge overturned My Lai decision

COLUMBUS, Ga. -- Retired US District Judge J. Robert Elliott, who overturned the conviction of Army Lieutenant William Calley in the 1968 My Lai massacre but was later overruled by an appeals court, died at age 96.

Mr. Elliott was the nation's oldest federal district judge when he ended his 38-year career in 2000. He died Tuesday at his home.

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, Mr. Elliott said 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 Mr. Elliott overturned his conviction. The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals later reinstated the conviction, and the US Supreme Court declined to hear Calley's appeal, but Calley was not returned to confinement.

Mr. Elliot's tenure on the bench also put him amid the conflict over civil rights. In 1962, Mr. 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 Mr. Elliott was a ``strident segregationist."

Mr. 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 Mr. Elliott overstepped his authority when he fined DuPont $115 million for withholding evidence.

President Kennedy appointed Mr. Elliott to the bench.

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