Sunday, January 15, 2006

William M. Byrne Jr., 75, Judge in the Ellsberg Leak Case, Dies

The New York Times
William M. Byrne Jr., 75, Judge in the Ellsberg Leak Case, Dies

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 14 (AP) - William Matthew Byrne Jr., the federal judge who presided over the trial of Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers in the 1970's, died here Thursday night. He was 75.

Judge Byrne's death was announced by Alicemarie Stotler, chief judge of the federal court for the Los Angeles-based Central District. The Los Angeles Times reported that the cause was pulmonary fibrosis.

Although he worked as a federal prosecutor and was named by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970 to head the Commission on Campus Unrest, Judge Byrne is best remembered as the Pentagon Papers judge. He got the case the same year he arrived on the bench.

Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, and a co-defendant, Anthony J. Russo Jr., were charged with espionage, theft and conspiracy for leaking to The New York Times a secret study of American involvement in the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

Judge Byrne dismissed the case in 1973, ruling that the government was guilty of misconduct, including a break-in at the office of Mr. Ellsberg's psychiatrist that was orchestrated by White House officials seeking to discredit him.

Mr. Ellsberg learned of Judge Byrne's death as he was attending a conference of First Amendment lawyers in Palm Desert, Calif. where he took part in a panel discussion of the Pentagon Papers.

"His dismissal of all charges against Tony Russo and myself with the eloquent denunciation of government misconduct, in which he said it offends a sense of justice, gave my wife and me one of the best days of our lives," Mr. Ellsberg said.

At the trial, it was disclosed that Judge Byrne had twice met with John Ehrlichman, a top Nixon adviser, to discuss an offer to become director of the F.B.I. Nixon, who had appointed Judge Byrne to the federal bench, had himself met briefly with the judge at his Western White House in San Clemente, Calif.

Judge Byrne said that the trial had never been discussed and that he had declined to consider any future government positions while the case was pending. But he received much criticism for attending the meetings, and he was never again mentioned as a candidate for high public office.

He remained on the federal bench for the rest of his career and was chief judge of the Central District from 1994 to 1998, the same position that his father, William Byrne Sr., had held years before.

After earning his law degree from the University of Southern California, William Byrne clerked for a federal judge before enlisting in the Air Force. President Lyndon B. Johnson named him a United States attorney in 1967.

In 1970, with the American invasion of Cambodia and the Vietnam War leading to student protests and violence like the Kent State University shootings, Nixon created the President's Commission on Campus Unrest and chose Mr. Byrne as its executive director.

After public hearings, the commission issued a report concluding that Americans were dangerously polarized. The report condemned both the police and antiwar protesters for engaging in violent behavior. "Students who bomb and burn are criminals," it said. "Police and National Guardsmen who needlessly shoot or assault students are criminals."

Judge Byrne, who never married, is survived by several nieces and nephews.