updated 1/13/2006 11:29:53 PM ET 2006-01-14T04:29:53

William Matthew Byrne, Jr., the federal judge who presided over the 1970s Pentagon Papers trial of Daniel Ellsberg, has died. He was 75.

Byrne died Thursday night at his home in Los Angeles, Alicemarie Stotler, chief judge of the federal court for the Los Angeles-based Central District, announced Friday. The cause of death was not given.

Stotler hailed Byrne as “a friend of presidents, kings, senators, ambassadors, judges and the legal community of Los Angeles.”

He was “a towering and remarkable presence at the court,” she said in a statement.

Although he worked as a federal prosecutor and was named in 1970 to head President Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest, 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 a secret study of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times.

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

Ellsberg learned of Byrne’s death Friday as he was attending a conference of First Amendment lawyers in Palm Desert, where he took part in a panel discussion of the Pentagon Papers.

“His dismissal of all charges against Tony Russo and myself with the eloquent denunciation of government misconduct, in which he said it offends a sense of justice, gave my wife and me one of the best days of our lives,” Ellsberg said.

During the trial, it was disclosed that Byrne had twice met with top Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman to discuss an offer to become director of the FBI. Nixon, who had appointed Byrne to the federal bench, had himself met briefly with the judge at his Western White House in San Clemente where Ehrlichman made the offer.

Byrne said the trial was never discussed, adding he declined to consider any future government positions while the case was pending. But he received much criticism for even taking 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 1994-98, the same position his father, William Byrne Sr., had held years before.

After earning his law degree from the University of Southern California, Byrne clerked for a federal judge before enlisting in the U.S. 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, specializing in lawsuits.

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

Headed campus unrest commission
In 1970, with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the Vietnam War leading to student protests and violence such as the Kent State University shootings, Nixon created the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest and chose Byrne as its executive director.

After public hearings, the commission issued a report concluding Americans were dangerously polarized. The report condemned both police and anti-war protesters 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.

Byrne, who never married, is survived by several nieces and nephews.

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