WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 -- President Clinton's posthumous pardon of a soldier dishonorably discharged from the Army 117 years ago may have breathed new life into a 25-year effort to win similar forgiveness for Pvt. Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion during World War II. The Justice Department has directed a lawyer for two Pennsylvania men who are trying to clear Slovik to ask Army Secretary Louis Caldera to render a judgement in the case and recommend a course of action for Clinton. Slovik was the only U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War when he faced a firing squad in France in 1945, although 2,864 Army soldiers were convicted of desertion and 49 of them were sentenced to death during the war, according to attorney Matthew Wilkov. On Feb. 22, Clinton pardoned Lt. Henry Flipper who was dishonorably discharged from the Army in 1882 for 'conduct unbecoming an officer.' It was determined by the Army in 1976 that Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point, was the victim of racial discrimination. It was the first posthumous pardon ever for a discharged officer and a 'sharp break with past practices,' according to Roger Adams, the attorney in charge of pardons at the Justice Department. It was Adams who directed Wilkov in an Aug. 27 letter to take his appeal to Caldera. Wilkov says there were five instances in which Slovik's constitutional rights were breached, including being appointed ineffective counsel -- he made no opening statement, called no witnesses and made no closing statement.
The prosecutor, however, was a licensed attorney who hopelessly outmatched the defense. The Army rejected an attempt in 1977 by Slovik's destitute widow, who has since died, to win a pardon for the hapless private, which would have entitled her to a payment from his Army insurance policy of about $75,000, including interest. One of the driving forces behind the latest effort to win a pardon for Slovik is the man who defended Slovik in his court martial 55 years ago. Wilkov represents ret. Maj. Ed Woods and Robert DeFinis, World War II veterans who have been trying to get a pardon for the dead private since 1974. Woods, 81, of Lansdale, Pa., an infantry officer at the time, represented Slovik in his Nov. 11, 1944 court martial. He told United Press International that he had not been trained as a lawyer, although he regularly represented soldiers in courts-martial of the 28th Infantry Division during the war. He tried about 35 cases, getting five acquittals. It was standard practice, he said. He has no doubt as to Slovik's guilt; Slovik confessed to not one but two counts of desertion. He wrote in his Oct. 11, 1944 confession: 'I was so scared nerves and trembling that at the time the other replacements moved out I couldn't move. I stayed their in my fox hole until it was quiet and I was able to move. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out their again I'd run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again and I'll run away again if I have to go out their (sic).' However, two weeks later, Slovik apparently amended his confession to say he had not deserted the first time; he had just moved too slowly and gotten separated from his unit, to which he returned six weeks later. This amendment, however, never made it into the court record, and Woods never saw it. He believes it would have meant the difference between life and death, and he believes the military deliberately suppressed the evidence in an effort to make an example of Slovik. 'He was convicted solely on his confession,' Woods said, which was carefully calculated to be strong and clear. 'He wanted to go to jail so he could avoid fighting....The thing that made it so bad was the two desertions.' To the soldiers who sat in judgement of Slovik, getting scared and running once might have been understandable, if not forgiveable. But doing it twice and declaring he would do it again made the outcome of the trial inevitable. That was not the only cover-up of which Woods believes the military is guilty. Slovik was executed on Jan. 31, 1945 in France. Woods, his lawyer, was not there to witness the Jan. 31, 1945 execution ordered by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower; Woods was a prisoner of war, having been captured by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. He didn't hear about the execution until he returned to the United States; it was not carried in any newspaper at the time, and neither did the Army make an announcement about it. If Slovik was initially meant to be held up as an example to soldiers of what would happen if they deserted, it was rapidly understood to be a mistake, Woods said. 'It's sickening to shoot one of your own,' he said. The officers found it especially troubling, and the troops in the division were in an uproar about it -- so much so that the next deserter scheduled for execution, convicted and sentenced to death the same day as Slovik, was dishonorably discharged and stripped of his benefits. 'They didn't talk about it. It was a cover up,' he said. Woods is no bleeding heart. He believes Slovik got the punishment he deserved but adds: 'All the other 49 should have been shot, too.' The sentiment is shared by DeFinis, who has been working with Woods to clear Slovik's name. 'I don't support draft dodgers and deserters, but if we can forgive the Vietnam dodgers, why can't we pardon Pvt. Slovik?' said DeFinis, who has mortgaged his house to help finance their fight. 'It's a matter of principle. In this country there's such a thing as forgiveness, and moving on.' ---
Copyright 1999 by United Press International. All rights reserved. ---