Says That Medina 'Chose Not To Intervene' at My Lai
By Homer Bigart
Special to The New York Times
Fort McPherson, Ga., Aug. 16
Capt. Ernest L. Medina did not order the mass
killings at Mylai but he "calculatingly chose not to intervene"
while his troops were killing unarmed civilians, the military
prosecutor said today in opening the Government's case against
the 34-year-old Mexican-American officer.
The prosecutor, Maj. William G. Eckhardt, made
it clear that the Government's strategy in seeking Captain Medina's
conviction on a charge of premeditated murder would rely heavily
for precedence on the World War II trial of Gen. Tomayuki Yamashita.
General Yamashita, who commanded Japanese troops
in the Philippines, was hanged because he failed to prevent atrocities
against prisoners of war and civilians although there was no evidence
that he ordered the atrocities or even knew of them.
Major Eckhardt said the Government would prove
that Captain Medina knew that noncombatants were being rounded
up and killed and did nothing to halt the "carnage."
By failing to intervene, Captain Medina intended to give "protection
and encouragement to his men in the perpetration of murder,"
the prosecutor charged.
The long-delayed start of evidence in the trial
of Captain Medina, the second officer to face court-martial in
the Mylai killings, was lacking in tension and drama. Major Eckhardt
devoted only 11 minutes to his opening statement; F. Lee Bailey,
the chief defense counsel, used 16 minutes to reply, and the testimony
of the first three witnesses called by the Government failed even
to place Captain Medina at the scene of the shootings.
Spectators in the tiny courtroom on this dark
and humid day fought off drowsiness as the interrogation dragged
on with barely a mention of the defendant. As court recessed,
Mr. Bailey remarked with glee that today's witnesses might just
as well have been called by the defense.
is the first criminal case I've seen where the defense witnesses
go on first," he said.
Besides being charged with responsibility for the slayings of
"not less than 100" civilians in the South Vietnamese
of Mylai on March 16, 1968, Captain Medina is also charged with
the premeditated murder of a woman and a small boy, and with assault
upon a prisoner.
Replying to the Government, Mr. Bailey told the five-man military
court that the captain issued a cease-fire order as soon as he
heard that civilians were being shot and that the order was issued
:in language that will turn this courtroom blue."
He defended the shooting of the woman. Captain Medina had stern
orders from his brigade commander to round up enemy weapons, Mr.
Bailey said, so when a helicopter dropped a smoke signal to indicate
the location of an armed suspect, the captain hurried to the scene.
He saw a Vietnamese in black pajamas, the lawyer said, and it
turned out to be a woman. There was no weapon he said. Captain
Medina was turning back when he saw "what he believed to
be movement" by the woman, so he "instinctively turned
and shot," Mr. Bailey went on.
Captain Medina immediately notified the brigade commander, Col.
Oran K. Henderson, of the incident Mr. Bailey said, and Colonel
Henderson radioed back: "I understand; these things happen."
Captain Medina was also acting on instinct, Mr. Bailey said, when
he ordered his men to shoot at a Vietnamese figure moving in the
grass. He countermanded the order and lowered his rifle when he
saw that the target was a child, Mr. Bailey said. But it was too
late and someone else shot the boy.
As for assaulting the prisoner, Captain Medina merely fired twice
over the head of the man to frighten him and extract intelligence,
Mr. Bailey asserted. He said the captain had been told by a Vietnamese
interpreter that the prisoner was "a ranking member of the
Vietcong" who might know the whereabouts of the 48th Vietcong
battalion, which had eluded Captain Medina's men at Mylai.
The captain never intended actual harm, according to Mr. Bailey,
and as an expert rifleman he "placed the shots exactly where
he wanted." Then he put his rifle on safety and "set
it on the ground so that the suspect was looking straight into
the snout of it," a trick that inspired the prisoner to talk,
Mr. Bailey said.
The first Government witness was Ronald Haeberle, the former combat
photographer whose pictures of the Mylai victims shocked the nation.
He said that he had witnessed some of the shootings but could
not place Captain Medina on the scenes when the killings occurred.
The other witnesses, James J. Dursi of Brooklyn and Gregory T.
Olsen of Portland, Ore., were also unable to recall the captain's
presence at the mass shootings.
None had heard Captain Medina give any order to shoot women and
children. First Lieut. William L. Calley, a platoon leader under
the captain who was convicted in March of the murder of 22 persons
at Mylai, said he had acted on orders from Captain Medina.
All the witnesses were hazy over the exact timing of the mass
killings and of Captain Medina's cease-fire order. This was important
to the defense, for Col. Kenneth A. Howard, said the captain could
not be held liable for killings that were committed by his men
before he was aware of what was going on.