- Historic Sites
The Example of Private Slovik
Of the thousands of American soldiers court-martialed for desertion in World War II, Eddie Slovik was the only one put to death. One of the judges who convicted him looks back with regret.
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
It is simply not true that legal skills have no place in courts-martial. A few weeks before the Slovik trial, I had served on a general court-martial that tried a private for the deliberate murder of his sergeant at close quarters in broad daylight before numbers of witnesses. The killer had as his defense counsel Lt. Col. Thomas Hoban, the officer who was later in charge of the task force in Wiltz for which I volunteered. In civilian life Hoban was a judge. The site of the killing was a street outside a bar in a French village. Cross-examining the military surgeon who had pronounced the sergeant dead, Hoban drew from him the acknowledgment that “of course” he had not conducted an autopsy. On the grounds that we were in the midst of hostilities and that it was therefore not impossible that the sergeant had been fortuitously killed by a stray enemy bullet, and with no incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, Hoban moved for a directed acquittal. The prosecutor was speechless. The court sat in closed session wrestling with this for more than an hour before we came to our senses. It was an all-day trial. The killer was said to be the most hated and feared man in his squad; the sergeant, highly respected and liked. The verdict was guilty; the sentence, life imprisonment. Later, when I asked Hoban what he would have done if his maneuver had succeeded, he said he would have made sure his client had been confined to the stockade on some pretext or other.
In the course of the Slovik trial, an experienced defense counsel might have sweated the division psychiatrist on his statement “I consider him sane and responsible for his actions.” He might also have located some witnesses to say something on behalf of the defendant’s ordinary conduct.
The circumstances were, therefore, such that Slovik could not receive a fair trial. We members of the court, all of us, were what would today be described as “establishment types.” Our lack of firsthand, close-up battle experience disqualified us as a jury of Slovak’s peers. The legal inexperience of his defense counsel amounted to a failure to grant him the full benefit of his day in court. He did not receive a fair trial.
The final sentence of my statement to Huie—“I believe I would have tried to do whatever was in my Dower to get the entire case reviewed on this basis” (that the circumstances of the trial were unfair)—was hypothetical and based on the supposition of my eluding capture by the Germans and reporting back to division. What would have been in my power was to “go through channels,” the normal bureaucratic process. Obviously I would have been strongly motivated to do so. Since reading the transcript of the court records and the review process in 1979, I do not believe that any plea by me on Slovik’s behalf would have met with sympathy at any point in the chain of command. Minds were apparently closed from division upward after the conviction and sentencing. Going beyond my legitimate power would have meant rebellion of some kind. In addition to strong conviction, this would have required moral courage rarer by far than the physical courage called bravery, which the military rewards with medals. I am not now sure I would have had the moral courage to pursue the Slovik case.
Huie’s book The Execution of Private Slovik appeared early in 1954 and was extremely well received. The Sunday New York Times review was by Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall, the noted military historian; Saturday Review gave the book a favorable full page. A long summary ran in the May 4,1954, issue of Look.
It is a good, even powerful book, dramatic and thought-provoking. The theme is justice; the drama is Slovik as a victim of history. No reader, myself included, can fail to feel pity for this quite unremarkable individual deliberately deprived of his life by the relentless machine he had provoked. Frank Sinatra bought the story from Huie and in 1960 hired Albert Maltz, a Hollywood author, to write the screenplay. Maltz had gone to jail for contempt of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and had been blacklisted. Sinatra, gutsy in those days, later capitulated and sold the rights to Richard Dubelman, a television producer. Dubelman sold them to William Link and Richard Levinson, who in 1974 produced a moving two-and-a half-hour TV special, “The Execution of Private Slovik,” with Martin Sheen in the role of Slovik. It has had many reruns.
In 1974 Slovik’s defense counsel, Woods, long retired from the military, and Robert N. DeFinis, an associate of his, began a public campaign to win financial help from the government for Slovik’s widow, ill and destitute. There was certainly a basis for her eligibility to receive his GI life insurance; the part of the sentence that forfeited “all pay and allowances due” had been eliminated by the division commander and the reviewing authorities. Nonetheless, she was denied all funds. In 1978 President Carter sponsored a bill authorizing the payment to her of seventy thousand dollars. She died before it came to a vote.