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Army pays $725 to WWII vet for unfair trial, imprisonment

  • Story Highlights
  • Samuel Snow was one of 28 black soldiers convicted in WWII riot that killed a POW
  • This year, Army overturned all the convictions because of trial irregularities
  • Snow says he didn't riot -- he was knocked out before brawl began
  • Army sends Snow $725 in back pay for the 15 months he was in prison
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From David Mattingly
CNN
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LEESBURG, Florida (CNN) -- Samuel Snow thought when he got a check from the Pentagon that the Army was finally ready to give him the apology and the compensation he'd been denied for 63 years. He was wrong.

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Samuel Snow, 83, wants medical benefits and retirement pay from the Army since his conviction was overturned.

The Army imprisoned Snow in 1944 for a crime he says he couldn't have committed. The military overturned his conviction this year and sent him his back pay for the 15 months he spent in prison: $725.

Snow is one of just two defendants still alive from one of the biggest military trials of World War II.

Twenty-eight black soldiers were sent to prison after an Italian prisoner of war, Guglielmo Olivotto, was found hanged to death following a night of brawling at Fort Lawton in Seattle, Washington.

At a time when the military forces were segregated, 41 black soldiers were tried in one large group and were provided two attorneys to defend them all.

According to the Army, 28 of the soldiers were convicted of rioting, including Pvt. Samuel Snow, who spent 15 months behind bars.

Two of those soldiers also were convicted of manslaughter in the death of the POW and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Thirteen of the men were acquitted.

After being released from prison, Snow returned to the segregated South. He arrived home with a criminal record, a bad conduct discharge and no benefits such as those provided by the GI Bill of Rights. He became a janitor.

In October, the Army Board for Corrections of Military Records determined the defendants were denied a fair trial. The board said the prosecutor refused to give defense attorneys access to confidential evidence.

As a result of the findings, the Army overturned the convictions -- but stopped short of finding the defendants "not guilty."

"What it is saying is that they didn't receive their fair day in court," said Army spokesman Col. Dan Baggio.

The Army wrote checks to the surviving defendants as compensation for the back pay they were denied while in prison. Snow assumed that figure would be a substantial amount of money -- until the $725 check arrived at his home in central Florida.

Keeping Them Honest
CNN's David Mattingly checks into a 63-year-old case of missing pay on "Anderson Cooper 360°."
At 10 p.m. ET Thursday

If the payment had been adjusted for inflation, Snow would have received $7,768.13, according to the inflation calculator on the Labor Department's Web site.

If the $725 had been invested in 1946, when Snow was discharged from the Army, at 8 percent interest, compounded annually, it would have been worth more than $82,000 by now.

The Army said there are no legal provisions that allow it to consider adding accrued interest, adjustments for inflation or compensation for lost benefits.

Snow said the size of the check didn't surprise him. "I didn't think it was no kind of mistake," he told CNN. "They don't care."

The case might have been buried in history if not for the work of Seattle author Jack Hamann.

Hamann, a former CNN correspondent, spent years detailing the riot and flawed prosecution of the black American soldiers for his 2005 book, "On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of WWII."

Fort Lawton is now a public park, and most of the buildings have been torn down. But Hamann was able to pinpoint the very spot where Snow says he was knocked unconscious as he left his barracks. The author said it proves Snow was innocent, because he never made it to the Italian POW barracks to join the fight.

"He never had a chance to be involved in the riot," Hamann said. "He was just responding quickly to what he thought was an attack, and he was knocked out of it almost immediately."

The revived story of how Snow and 27 others were convicted on little evidence caught the attention of Congress. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Washington, asked the Army to review the nearly forgotten case.

"A real injustice had been done to a whole lot of black guys who were serving their country, and somebody had to speak up for them," McDermott said.

McDermott told CNN he does not blame the Army for going by the book but said he will look for ways Congress can help. Snow said he wants his name cleared, medical benefits and retirement pay.

But at age 83 and in poor health, he said he wonders if he will live long enough to see it happen. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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