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Glimpsing a grim chapter

Documents detail military executions

WASHINGTON -- On moving day in Cheryl Irwin's Pentagon office, she chanced upon an artifact of US military history that had been tucked away for decades in a nondescript cabinet. "The first thing I saw was that it was handwritten," she said.

Next she noticed the title: "Executed Death Cases Before 1951."

The document is a ledger with the names of 169 members of the US military, as well as seven German prisoners of war, who were convicted of crimes punishable by death and executed. Also listed were a few dozen other death-sentence cases in which the convicted person was not executed.

Some are listed only by last name. Case number 315055 was "Norman," whose rank is listed as corporal. Norman was convicted of violating Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (disobeying an order or regulation) while in the "West Pacific" in January 1947. He was sentenced to death, and the final entry behind his name, in the "remarks" column, is "Executed (hanged)." Article 92 has been used to punish capital crimes that the Uniform Code does not specify.

Another, Private Boston, was executed Aug. 1, 1945. "To be shot," says a handwritten notation.

The fact that these executions occurred is not a revelation, but it is a reminder that death sentences for offenses by military members are rare today. Seven men are on the military's death row today, and military judges have put no one to death since 1961.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, 15 offenses are punishable by death. Many of the 15, including desertion and disobeying a superior officer's order, can be punished with death only in time of war. Irwin unearthed the execution list Thursday while clearing out a file cabinet in the Pentagon's main public affairs office, which is moving to a newly renovated section of the building. When she grabbed an armful of old files to throw out, the document fell to the floor.Most of the cases on the list were from 1944-45; the earliest was in 1942. The latest was that Private John A. Bennett, hanged April 13, 1961, after he was convicted of rape and attempted murder. He was the last member of the US military to be executed.

The list includes one case that was the subject of a television movie, the desertion case of Private Edward D. Slovik. He is the only member of the American military executed for desertion since the Civil War. Slovik was 24 when he was shot by a firing squad Jan. 31, 1945.

After the 1974 movie, called "The Execution of Private Slovik," starring Martin Sheen, supporters of the Slovik family waged a campaign to clear his name, asserting he had been denied a fair trial. The Pentagon reviewed the case and ruled in 1977 that the execution had been justified.

Slovik's remains were exhumed from a cemetery in France at his family's request. He was reburied in Detroit in July 1987.

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