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Clay Shaw Trial: 1969

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.

Colin Evans

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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Clay Shaw Trial: 1969 - Garrison: Hands Over The Reins, Focus Shifts To Zapruder Film