Clay Shaw Trial: 1969
Clay Shaw Trial: 1969
Defendant: Clay L. Shaw
Crime Charged: Conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Irvin Dymond, Salvatore Panzeca, Edward F. Wegmann, and William J. Wegmann
Chief Prosecutors: James Alcock, William Alford, Jim Garrison, Alvin Oser, and Andrew Sciambra
Judge: Edward A. Haggerty
Place: New Orleans, Louisiana
Dates of Trial: January 31-March 1, 1969
Verdict: Not guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has become the most analyzed and dissected murder in history.
By late 1966, public confidence in the Warren Commission's report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was undergoing a serious crisis. With each new inconsistency, both real and imagined, suspicion grew that, far from being the work of a lone gunman, the killing in Dealey Plaza had been a well-engineered conspiracy. The most vocal proponent of this view was Jim Garrison, the charismatic district attorney in New Orleans, Louisiana. In March 1967, Garrison stunned the world when he announced the arrest of local businessman Clay L. Shaw on charges of conspiring to assassinate the President of the United States.
Almost two years later, on January 31, 1969, Garrison finally got to make these charges in a courtroom. Before Judge Edward A. Haggerty, he fleshed out the bare bones of his theory in a 42-minute address that dealt with alleged presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and the time he spent in Louisiana prior to the Dallas tragedy. According to Garrison, Oswald and the late David Ferrie, an eccentric ex-pilot, had met with a shadowy figure named Clay Bertrand. Between them, these three men plotted Kennedy's assassination. It was Garrison's contention that Clay Bertrand was really the defendant Clay Shaw, who, Garrison noted, had flown to the West Coast on November 15, 1963, where he remained until after the shooting, thereby establishing an alibi for himself. Following the assassination, said Garrison, FBI agents undertook a "systematic and thorough search for Clay Bertrand" in New Orleans but were unsuccessful. Garrison would produce conclusive evidence, he said, that the person they should have been looking for was Clay Shaw.
Garrison: Hands Over the Reins
Oddly enough, after making the opening address, Garrison took virtually no further part in the trial. The task of presenting the state's case was left in the hands of his deputy, James Alcock. Although several witnesses confirmed Oswald's presence in Louisiana—a fact never in dispute—not until the testimony of Vernon Bundy, 30, was a connection between Shaw and Oswald established. Bundy, a heroin addict, told of a trip he had taken to Lake Pontchartrain in June 1963. "I was beginning to use my drugs … [when] behind me I noticed a black limousine approaching. A gentleman got out of the car and walked behind me." Concerned that the newcomer might be a narcotics agent, Bundy remained watchful. "I saw a man with a towel approaching from the white section of the beach." Alcock asked Bundy if he saw either one of these men in the courtroom. "I can see one," he replied and pointed to Shaw. When shown a photograph of Oswald, Bundy identified him as the man with the towel.
Next to testify was Charles Spiesel, a New York accountant. He spoke of attending a party in New Orleans in May 1963 at which both Ferrie and Shaw were present. When conversation turned to President Kennedy, Spiesel said that Shaw had laughed when somebody remarked, "Someone should kill that son of a bitch!" Talk of "a high-powered rifle" prompted Shaw to suggest that the gunman could escape in a plane flown by Ferrie.
Taken at face value, Spiesel's testimony was devastating, until chief defense lawyer Irvin Dymond began questioning him. After raising doubts about whether Spiesel had ever actually seen Ferrie (a man of remarkably memorable appearance, with glued-on orange hair and huge, painted eyebrows), Dymond asked: "Isn't it true you filed a suit with New York in 1964… claiming that over a period of several years the police and others had constantly hypnotized you and finally harassed you out of business?"
"That's right," Spiesel said, adding proudly that the suit was for $16 million. When asked how many different people had hypnotized him, Spiesel had to think for a moment: "It's hard to say. Possibly fifty or sixty."
With his next question Dymond drove a stake through the heart of the prosecution. "When you conferred with the District Attorney's office about testifying in this case, did you tell them about these lawsuits and having been under hypnosis?"
Spiesel grinned: "Yes, I mentioned it."
Focus Shifts to Zapruder Film
Without exception, every prosecution witness failed the litmus test of cross-examination. Memories grew vague, identifications less sure. Not until the prosecutors came to the main thrust of their case—a full frontal attack on the Warren report's single-gunman theory—did they catch fire. In grim silence the jury watched Abraham Zapruder's film of the Dallas tragedy. Then the prosecution, supported by various ballistics experts, pursued its efforts to prove a triangulation of gunfire. During all of this, Clay Shaw became a forgotten man. And he remained that way until it came time for him to testify.
Those awaiting the much-anticipated duel between Garrison and Shaw suffered a grave disappointment. Again the district attorney was noticeably absent. James Alcock handled the cross-examination, though anything less confrontational was hard to imagine. Apart from admitting that he had seen Oswald once in New Orleans while Oswald was distributing political leaflets, Shaw denied all other contact with him. He also denied virtually everything that the prosecution witnesses had said about him. Alcock handled Shaw with kid gloves, declining to even quiz him on whether he had participated in a deadly conspiracy. About the best that Alcock could manage was in the following exchange:
"Do you recall a press conference after your arrest where you called Lee Harvey Oswald 'Harvey Lee Oswald'?"
"I recall the conference."
"Was there any particular reason why you would call Oswald 'Harvey Lee'?"
"No, it was purely a mistake."
With everyone poised for the coup degrâce that they were sure the prosecution had in store, Alcock stunned court-watchers by abruptly turning to Judge Haggerty after just 65 minutes and saying, "No further questions."
Jim Garrison reappeared to make the state's closing argument. Again it degenerated into an attack on the Warren Commission, full of complaints that the American public had been lied to, duped, kept in the dark. Once, just once, he mentioned the defendant Clay Shaw almost as an afterthought, and then in his final admonition to the jury, Garrison evoked the dead president's memory: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
At six minutes past midnight on March 1, 1969, the jury retired. An hour later they were back. When the verdict of "Not Guilty" was read out, a huge roar of approval swept the courtroom.
Establishing his innocence cost Clay Shaw all of his money and most of his reputation. Many believe the ordeal hastened his death from cancer in August 1974. In all probability, he will remain the only person ever charged with complicity in the death of John F. Kennedy. But that won't stop the discussion, and it won't stop the "conspiracists," as they theorize about what really happened on that afternoon in Dallas.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bethell, T. "Conspiracy to End Conspiracies." National Review. (December 16, 1991): 48ff.
Garrison, Jim. On the Trail of the Assassins. New York: Sheridan Press, 1988.
Gates, D. and H. Manly. "Bottom Line: How Crazy Is It?" Newsweek (December 23, 1991): 52ff.
Kirkwood, James. American Grotesque. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.