but a few years later they were released (new testimonies? which were telling the truth now?)
Again, please read up on the subject. There is no hidden agenda nor conspiracy theory as to why the sentences were eventually reduced and commuted.
Here is some information you might find interesting:
In 1946, as part of the judicial process, after the trial was concluded and the sentences handed out the trial proceedings went to Theater Commander General Lucius D. Clay for approval. Clay asked the defense counsel Lt. Col. Everett to prepare a petition for clemency. General Clay’s War Crimes Board of Review brought up issues of trial proceedings to his attention.
Attorney Dr. Rudolf Aschenauer (who unsuccessfully defended Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D) becomes spokesman for 12 of the remaining Malmédy Massacre prisoners. Dr. Johanes Neuhäusler, a cleric famous for his former status as a Dachau Concentration Camp inmate, writes a letter to the US Congress about the Malmédy trial prisoners.
March 28, 1948
Clay announces the results of his review of the "Malmédy Massacre” trials:
12 of the 43 death sentences confirmed, including Peiper
27 of the death sentences reduced to imprisonment of various terms
In 4 death sentence cases, the charges are dismissed
Two of the 22 life sentences are confirmed
12 of the 22 life sentences are reduced
The remaining 8 life sentences are dismissed
Five of the 8 shorted prison sentences are confirmed
Two of the shorter prison sentences are reduced
One defendant remitted
A total of 13 Malmédy Massacre convicts are set free.
May 18, 1948
Lt. Col. Everett, now a civilian, files a writ of habeas corpus with the US Supreme Court on behalf of the Malmédy defendants, citing that the Malmédy trial was "utterly void” due to pre-trial irregularities. The Supreme Court turns down the writ, refusing to accept jurisdiction.
May 19, 1948
Everett meets with the Secretary of the Army, Kenneth C. Royall. Based on Everett’s presentation, Royall orders a stay of execution – executions which were supposed to begin the following day. Royall appoints a special commission to review the sentences again. The "Simpson Commission” comprises members of the Army JAG. Everett also attempts but fails to get the International Court of Justice at the Hague to review the case.
Sept 14, 1948
The Simpson commission issues its unanimous report on the Malmédy case. It criticizes some aspects of the prosecutions case, including the unethical practices of the prosecution in general and the mock trials in particular. It upholds the findings that those sentenced to death are indeed guilty of the crimes with which they have been convicted. The commission recommends commuting the death sentences to life imprisonment.
But then one of the Simpson Commission members, Judge Van Roden, breaks ranks and accuses the prosecution of gross misconduct. The issue becomes a political firestorm with charges of Antisemitism and pro-Communism slung back and forth.
The US Senate Armed Services Committee forms a subcommittee to investigate the Malmédy Massacre trial. This investigation quickly turned into another political imbroglio. Two of the committee senators have ties to the prosecution. The committee disagrees about whether to let the SS defendants take a lie-detector test. Senator Joe McCarthy resigns from the subcommittee, accusing the US Army of using "Gestapo or OGPU tactics”*
To cut this short, by Jan 1951 under the "McCloy Amnesty" the the six remaining sentences commuted to life imprisonment. In April 1952 only 13 convicted SS veterans are still in prison and of course the last - Peiper- is freed in 1956.
In summary, the reasons for the changes in sentencing over a 10 year period (by no means an unusual occurrence in any judicial system)
- Trial irregularities, particularly on the part of the prosecution
- The onset of the Cold War. SS as bad guys was tired. Commies as bad guys was Wired.
- Politicians like Judge Van Roden, Senator Joe McCarthy and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer making political hay out of the subject.