Luther Charles West, 82, military, civilian lawyer

September 03, 2006|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Luther Charles West, a retired trial attorney who handled military, civil rights and employment issues, died of pneumonia and complications from surgery Thursday at Anne Arundel Medical Center. The Severna Park resident was 82.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., he served in the Navy during World War II and earned a degree from Birmingham Southern College. He used the GI Bill to receive a law degree from George Washington University Law School.

He practiced military law on the Army's Judge Advocate General staff for 18 years and spent time in Germany and Korea. He retired as a lieutenant colonel at Fort Meade in 1968.

"He let his whiskers grow, organized against the Vietnam conflict and defended soldiers against the Army," a 1972 Sun profile said of him. He told friends that the experience of a segregated Southern childhood influenced his belief in equal justice for all.

Mr. West worked briefly as an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore and set up a law practice in the old Tower Building.

Family members said that while in the military, Mr. West developed a distaste for and then an expertise in the corruption of military justice through the exercise of "command influence" - what he called the ways that military hierarchy and discipline brought undue influence upon jurors, judges and lawyers during criminal cases.

"The real fraud is in fixing cases far beneath the surface," he told a Sun reporter in 1972. "That's why the Army can cover up the Green Beret assassinations and My Lai. Many young officers in from law school don't believe all this goes on. They don't see it. It takes years in the service and rank to learn the ropes."

His 1977 book, They Call It Justice: Command Influence and the Court-Martial System, cited analysis as well as his own experiences as a military lawyer to urge fundamental change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

His daughter Robin Lee West, a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, said her father also studied and spoke widely on war crimes in Vietnam and wrote on the My Lai massacre and Lt. William Calley, who was convicted of murder for the killings.

"He argued that culpability for that massacre rested properly at the highest levels of command and not with any of the officers or soldiers on the ground," his daughter said yesterday. "My father wanted to charge Gen. William Westmoreland."

In his private practice he specialized in criminal cases involving the death penalty. In 1985 he won an acquittal for Gordon Wiggs, a capital defendant who had been charged in an arson and homicide case on The Block in Baltimore.

"He was an empathetic man, very bright, courtly and an excellent lawyer," said retired Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe. "He was decent, never antagonistic toward a judge."

Mr. West handled employment discrimination cases and at the end of his career worked with clients who had claims against home-improvement businesses. He retired in 2001.

In 1975 Mr. West married Lelia Harris, a legal secretary, who survives him.

A memorial service will be held at noon Saturday at First Unitarian Church, Franklin and Charles streets.

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include a son, Derrick Harper West of Santa Rosa, Calif.; another daughter, Katherine West Schroeder of Davis, Calif.; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. His wife of nearly 20 years, Doris Claire Harper, died in 1974. A daughter, Anita West, died in 2001.

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