- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

LOS ANGELES (AP) — William Matthew Byrne Jr., the federal judge who presided over the 1970s Pentagon Papers trial of Daniel Ellsberg, died Jan. 12 at his home in Los Angeles. The cause of death was not given. He was 75.

Alicemarie Stotler, chief judge of the federal court for the Los Angeles-based Central District, hailed Judge Byrne as “a towering and remarkable presence at the court.”

Although he worked as a federal prosecutor and was named in 1970 to head President Nixon’s 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.

Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg 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 U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

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

During the trial it was disclosed that Judge Byrne had met twice with top Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman to discuss an offer to become director of the FBI.

Judge Byrne said the trial was never discussed, adding that he declined to consider any future government positions while the case was pending. But he received much criticism for even attending the meetings, and he never again was 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 his father, William Byrne Sr., had held years earlier.

After earning his law degree from the University of Southern California, Judge Byrne was a clerk for a federal judge before joining the Air Force, where he spent two years as a judge advocate. After leaving the service he went to work as a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, then went into private practice.

President Johnson named him a U.S. attorney in 1967.

In 1970, with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the Vietnam War leading to student protests and violence, Mr. Nixon created the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest and chose Judge Byrne as its executive director.

After public hearings, the commission issued a report concluding that Americans were dangerously polarized. The report condemned police and anti-war protesters alike for engaging in violent behavior.

“Students who bomb and burn are criminals. Police and National Guardsmen who needlessly shoot or assault students are criminals,” the report stated.

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