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Garrison, Jim

Garrison, Jim

(b. 20 November 1921 in Denison, Iowa; d .21 October 1992 in New Orleans, Louisiana), district attorney who made international headlines for his investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Garrison, born Earling Carothers Garrison, was one of two children of Earling R. Garrison, occupation unknown, and Jane Ann Robinson. When Garrison was two, his parents divorced, and his mother, who raised him and his younger sister, Judith, became a schoolteacher. In 1928 the family moved to New Orleans, where Garrison attended elementary school and Forrier High School, from which he graduated in 1940. In January 1941 he joined the U.S. Army. Serving with distinction in World War II as a combat pilot, flying observation aircraft during bombing missions, Garrison flew thirty-five missions and received the European Theater Campaign Medal with two battle stars. In 1946 he enrolled in Tulane University Law School, and he was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1949. After working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation briefly, Garrison reenlisted in the army for service in Korea but was discharged for “physical disability.” At some undetermined time he legally changed his name to Jim Garrison.

In 1951 Garrison began working for the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office. In 1957 he ran unsuccessfully for assessor, and in 1960 he lost a race for district judge. He was appointed assistant city attorney in 1959. He married Leah Elizabeth Ziegler (date unknown). They had five children. In 1962, despite his underdog status, Garrison, taking full advantage of a televised debate to gain public recognition and newspaper endorsements, won the district attorney’s race. A huge man, six feet, seven inches tall and weighing close to 250 pounds, Garrison earned the sobriquet “the Jolly Green Giant.” He gained considerable publicity and popular support through several raids against the wide-open vice activities in the New Orleans French Quarter.

In the fall of 1966 Garrison and Senator Russell B. Long discussed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy during a plane flight to New York. Long expressed grave reservations about the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy. After reading several books and articles that detailed flaws in the commission’s investigation, Garrison decided to launch his own inquiry. He was certain that a conspiracy to murder the president had been hatched in New Orleans. Employing the considerable investigative and subpoena resources of the district attorney’s office, he interrogated witnesses and focused his attention on several suspects. In February 1967 one of those suspects, David William Ferrie, died suddenly from natural causes. Garrison exploited the death, claiming it was a suicide.

On 1 March 1967 Garrison ordered the arrest of the New Orleans business and civic leader Clay L. Shaw for conspiracy to murder Kennedy. The arrest caused a sensation. Not only did Garrison publicly criticize the official government version of the assassination, but he also backed up his accusations with a legal prosecution. At the preliminary hearing to determine whether or not Shaw would be indicted under Louisiana criminal law, Garrison produced a witness, Perry Raymond Russo, who testified that he had observed Shaw, Ferrie, and Oswald discussing the assassination of the president at a party in New Orleans. The object of substantial publicity in the press, Garrison became an international celebrity and appeared on numerous radio and television programs. Claiming that he had “solved” the mystery behind Kennedy’s assassination, he promised to reveal the truth at Shaw’s trial.

During Shaw’s trial in New Orleans, January through March 1969, Garrison produced a number of witnesses and medical experts who testified about inconsistencies in the lone assassin thesis. Though he rarely attended the trial, he assured that the famous Zapruder film of the assassination was shown many times. In addition to Russo, his witnesses against Shaw included a convicted heroin addict and a man who claimed that aliens spied on him. The jury took less than an hour to reach its verdict of not guilty. Garrison had simply failed to prove his case against Shaw. Highly critical of Garrison from the beginning, the national press and media denounced the investigation as a fraud and the prosecution of Shaw as a travesty of justice.

In 1973 Garrison lost his bid for reelection to the district attorney’s position, but in 1978 he was elected to a seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals of Louisiana. He wrote three books, A Heritage of Stone (1970), The Star Spangled Contract (1976), and On the Trail of the Assassins (1988). The last detailed his investigation of the assassination and the prosecution of Shaw. The book attracted the curiosity of movie director and producer Oliver Stone, whose 1991 film JFK ignited a fierce national debate. The film, in which Kevin Costner plays Garrison and Garrison appears in a cameo role as Earl Warren, portrays Garrison in a sympathetic manner and argues forcibly for an assassination conspiracy. Garrison died of undisclosed causes on 21 October 1992. He is buried in New Orleans.

Garrison’s prosecution of Shaw has received justified condemnation, for he produced no credible evidence that implicated Shaw in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. Garrison’s flamboyant, publicity-seeking harangues to the press about his “solution” to the assassination have also been justifiably criticized. Yet Garrison did produce evidence of an assassination conspiracy at the Shaw trial, and his claims of a government cover-up of critical evidence in that case have been substantiated in the several million pages of documentary records released between 1993 and 1998. In its depiction of Garrison as a lone defender of the truth against the malevolent powers in the federal government, the film JFK rehabilitated Garrison in the public eye. Nevertheless, it received a barrage of criticism from journalists and scholars. Garrison and his investigation into the Kennedy assassination remain the subjects of fierce debate among researchers.

No collection of Garrison manuscripts is known to exist. The records of his investigation and of the Shaw trial are in the National Archives and Records Service, College Park, Maryland; and in the New Orleans Public Library Louisiana Room. Garrison’s books are A Heritage of Stone (1970), The Star Spangled Contract (1976), and On the Trail of the Assassins (1988). Critical studies of Garrison include Milton E. Brener, The Garrison Case (1969); James Kirkwood, American Grotesque (1970); and Patricia Lambert, False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison’s Investigation and Oliver Stone’s Film JFK (1998). Sympathetic studies include James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed (1992), and William Davy, Let Justice Be Done: New Light on the Jim Garrison Investigation (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Oct. 1992).

Michael L. Kurtz

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