Associated Press

New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison with members of his staff.

The Garrison case


Jim Garrison was a legend in New Orleans. Standing at 6 feet, 6 inches, the district attorney was known as the "Jolly Green Giant," and his actions were as big as his physique.

With a flair for publicity, he made sure reporters were with him when he raided gay bars or arrested minor racketeers. And in March 1967, he was ready to give newsmen their biggest scoop yet -- he had arrested and taken into custody one of New Orleans' most respected civic leaders, Clay L. Shaw. The charge: "Participation in the conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy."

"My staff and I solved the assassination weeks ago," Garrison told the news conference in his office. "I wouldn't say this if we didn't have evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt. We know the key individuals, the cities involved, and how it was done."

Thus began a trial that proved nothing.

It started with a tip that a local man had acted as a getaway pilot in the assassination. Garrison had begun to investigate Kennedy's death two days after it occurred, and his inquiry led him to the strange figure of David W. Ferrie, whom the D.A. held briefly for questioning. In the meantime, Garrison used bits of information that were tenuous at best to link "Clay Bertrand," a shadowy figure who supposedly had wished to defend Lee Harvey Oswald, with Clay Shaw.

When Ferrie died -- mysteriously, according to some -- Garrison wasted little time in arresting Shaw, who, he claimed, had known both Ferrie and Oswald. Garrison told Warren Commission critics what they wanted to hear: that Kennedy had been the victim of a right-wing cabal and a conspiracy that involved anti-Castro Cubans and the CIA. When critic Mark Lane asked Garrison how he knew all this, the D.A. replied: "Which group do you think did it, retired circus clowns?"

Associated Press

Clay Shaw was acquitted in 1969. He died five years later.
"Circus" would become an apt description of the Shaw trial. By the time Garrison went to court, his list of plotters had grown longer and wilder. They now included Minutemen, oil millionaires, munitions exporters, White Russians, the Dallas police, members of the Dallas establishment and unidentified elements of the "invisible Nazi substructure."

Garrison's witnesses were weirder still. One of them showed up wearing a toga and identifying himself as "Julius Caesar." The star in the state lineup admitted that the conspiratorial meeting he was supposed to have recalled under hypnosis might really have been "an inconsequential bull session." The testimony of another witness, a New York businessman named Charles Speisel, who claimed he had been at a Shaw party where criticisms of the president had turned into talk of ways to kill him, disintegrated under cross-examination. Among other things, Speisel said he had been hynotized 50 or 60 times. When asked how he knew this, he replied: "When someone tries to get your attention--catch your eye. That's a clue right off."

By the end of the case, Garrison rarely showed up in court. A recently released diary by one of his staffers, Tom Bethell, shows that Garrison had nearly lost hope of a conviction more than a year before the case went to trial.

Bethell wrote that Garrison seemed to be getting bored with the case and spent most of his time napping at the New Orleans Athletic Club.

By March 15, 1968, Bethel had himself concluded that "there was no basis for Shaw's arrest."

Almost a year later, a jury agreed. After deliberating only 45 minutes, it set Shaw free. Yet the acquittal was not the end of Shaw's problems. The next day, Garrison charged Shaw with perjury. It would take three more years before the U.S. Supreme Court comfirmed a lower court ruling that the charges be dropped.

By then, though, Shaw had been ruined. His health was broken, his money spent. A month after being charged he had written in a diary, released two years ago by friends who wished to salvage his tarnished reputation: "There are only three alternatives. Kill yourself, you go crazy and thereby blot the matter out; or, you can endure."

"This is going to be an enormously costly business, and I am not sure of being able to recoup financially," Shaw wrote in March 1967. "I had planned my retirement so carefully, having determined the point on the actuarial tables where I would probably die, and prepared myself to live to this point and, indeed, a little beyond. This case, of course, will change all that."

Shaw died of a brain tumor in New Orleans in 1974. He was 61.

Unlike the man he prosecuted, Garrison prospered. He went on to be elected to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. He wrote books about his assassination theories. And he was exalted as a hero in Oliver Stone's 1991 film, JFK, in which he was portrayed by Kevin Costner and even given a cameo role, as Chief Justice Earl Warren.

What happened to Garrison would not have surprised his chief assistant, Jim Alcock. During the Shaw case, Alcock wrote that "Garrison will come out of this smelling like a rose. That guy has more luck than anyone I know."

Garrison died at age 70 in 1992.

Next story