John C Adams Reviews 'On the Trail of the Assassins'

On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison

(Sheridan Square Books, 1988)

This book is subtitled 'My investigation and prosecution of the murder of President Kennedy' and it was written by a former District Attorney of New Orleans who brought criminal charges of conspiracy against Clay Shaw, alleging that he was involved in a plot to assassinate JFK. Shaw was acquitted of the charges after a jury trial, but intriguingly those jurors who spoke to an investigator after the verdict as a debrief confirmed that they had accepted that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy in Dallas on the day he was assassinated, but they returned a not guilty verdict because they did not accept beyond reasonable doubt that Shaw was a part of that conspiracy.

With that context in mind, this book describes how Jim Garrison became interested in the Kennedy assassination, the basis upon which he investigated as District Attorney in New Orleans whether there had been a conspiracy within that city to assassinate JFK, and how they prepared for and made the prosecution case against Shaw.

After Kennedy's assassination, the blame for the killing was quickly assigned to Lee Harvey Oswald. The media portrayed him as a lone nut who assassinated JFK using a rifle from the Texas School Book Depository, which sits on the corner of Houston and Elm in Dallas city centre. Kennedy's car had to slow down considerably to take the tight turn between the two streets, and the protective bubble that might have saved the president's life had been removed from the car. This conclusion was also reached by the Warren Commission, which produced a voluminous report after questioning many witnesses and examining many documents. Like most Americans, Garrison accepted the official explanation that Oswald was a lone assassin until a chance conversation with a US senator, who mentioned his own misgivings about the assertion that Oswald killed JFK alone. Garrison was a combat veteran, lawyer and former FBI special agent so the senator's claim wasn't something he was naturally inclined to accept. In fact, it would be hard to think of anyone less likely to do so.

Garrison read the Warren report, became concerned about inconsistencies contained within it and went on to conduct an exhaustive investigation into what happened in Dallas the day JFK was killed and in the months running up to 22 November 1963. Many of the individuals he identified as having been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy had spent time in New Orleans, living and working there. Garrison dug into Oswald's past and concluded that he had been a double agent for the US when he purported to defect to Russia. He built up a picture of Oswald as a CIA and possibly also FBI asset who operated in the US after his return from Russia. Part of Oswald's mission involved infiltrating a group centred upon David Ferrie, Clay Shaw and Guy Banister, all of whom were connected with CIA projects to arm anti-Castro Cubans living in America. He concludes that Oswald was told to monitor that group and report back about their assassination plot. However, this was a ruse because in fact Oswald was being set up to look like the assassin, using his proximity to the conspiracy as proof that he engaged in it.

That part of the investigation is really just the beginning of the story about the prosecution of Clay Shaw. Apart from this aspect there is plenty of analysis of where the shots came from, whether it was possible for just one person to have fired so many shots so quickly during the Kennedy assassination and which weapons were used in the killing of JFK. Later chapters deal with the trial of Shaw and the aftermath. The book, plus additional material from Garrison, was used as the basis for the Oliver Stone movie 'JFK' released in 1991, the year before Garrison died. Garrison even has a cameo in the film, playing his arch-nemesis Earl Warren.

Many, many journalists, researchers and concerned citizens have worked exhaustingly hard to get to the whole truth of how Kennedy was killed. No one has worked harder, and with less to gain from the experience, than Jim Garrison. The book is careful with the evidence, objective and restrained. Where Garrison reaches firm conclusions, the reader knows how he got there and can look at the facts to judge for themselves. Garrison was reluctantly convinced by what he found that Oswald did not act alone and may in fact have not been involved in the assassination of JFK at all given that a chemical test showed he hadn't even fired a weapon that day. This book made fascinating reading.

Thank you for reading my review. I'll be back on Friday, and in the meantime the comments section is open.

Thanks to Erin Hervey, History in HD and Brian McGowan for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash.

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