Everyone over 55 remembers this moment:
“From Dallas, Texas the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 P.M. Central Standard Time, 2 P.M. Eastern Time,” CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite announced. “Some 38 minutes ago.” Cronkite removed his glasses and took a breath. The President, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated.
For the rest of the day into the evening, families sat in front of their televisions, and not just in America, but all around the world.
“I remember sort of being a toddler really and looking from behind the sofa, the reactions to his death within my family,” says Mark Redhead.
In the UK, Redhead was only seven years old when he saw the news flash on TV. “And it was a terrible realization that the world was a kind of bleak place and that the hope that he offered was not necessarily to be realized,” he says. “I don’t think I understood that myself at the time, but I definitely had a feeling of a cloud on the horizon, which was disturbing even for a small child.”
“And it was a terrible realization that the world was a kind of bleak place and that the hope that he offered was not necessarily to be realized.” Mark Redhead
Less than an hour later Cronkite reported that the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been arrested. Two days after that, while all of America watched on TV, Oswald was murdered as he was being transferred to the county jail.
And that was it. Oswald was dead, and a dead man can’t be tried.
“In the end the assassination of President Kennedy is six seconds in Dallas in 1963,” says Redhead. “It’s a very tiny kind of moment literally in history, and yet it is really complicated to figure out what the hell happened.”
Did Lee Harvey Oswald really do it? Year after year, it remained the great American cold case. The Warren Commission was a government inquest, not a public trial.
And every decade since, someone’s made a film that presents the available evidence and tries to come up with an answer.
There’s the 1964 film called “The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.”
And the 1977 film, also called “The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.”
These films created the trial the public needed but never got. And in 1986, as the age of 30, Mark Redhead
decided to try his hand, too. He decided to film a mock trial, as true to life as you could possibly imagine.
Oswald goes on trial
Redhead convinced London Weekend Television in the UK and Showtime in the US to back the project. “We wanted to do it in as official way as we possibly could do,” Redhead remembers. “So we had a sitting federal judge. We had a jury drawn from the federal rolls and we had two top U.S. attorneys. Vincent T. Bugliosi, from LA, prosecuted Charlie Manson, kind of threepiecesuit, Italian, aggressive, very detailed terrier. Against Gerry Spence from Wyoming – cowboy in a big fringe suede jacket and a cowboy hat, and a big deep voice.”
At the time, Gerry Spence was one of the most famous defense attorneys in the country, and he agreed to be Oswald’s lawyer. “To have to defend someone who had been charged with having killed the president of the U.S. No defense attorney, no trial lawyer, that was alive and breathing would have turned that opportunity down,” Spence says.
Redhead and a federal clerk from Dallas combed the city’s jury rolls. They picked jurors. They located real witnesses and flew everyone to London for three days of filming. When the witnesses, jury, and lawyers arrived, they walked into a Dallas courtroom that Redhead had recreated on a London soundstage. He got detailed. “[Judge] Lucius D. Bunton came into his courtroom in London, to find an oil painting of himself that he had never seen before, which we’d had done,” Redhead jokes.
“The client isn’t there, so you don’t have anyone to speak for him, you don’t have anybody to really see, to even understand that there is a live human being being charged with a crime,” Spence explains. “And so, what you do is you try to recreate Lee Harvey Oswald. And I talked as if he were alive.” Gerry Spence.
The trial begins like a typical case with a gavel. “Please rise,” the clerk announces. “Hear ye, hear ye. The District Court of the Northern District of Texas, sitting in Dallas, the Honorable Lucius D. Bunton presiding.”
In the courtroom, Oswald represented by a cardboard cutout. It’s not the mugshot that’s always shown. Oswald has on a nice suit and a slight smile. This was Spence’s idea.
Throughout the trial, Spence repeatedly picks up and carries Oswald. He holds him up to witnesses and talks to
him for effect. He addresses Oswald by his first name, “Lee.”
“The client isn’t there, so you don’t have anyone to speak for him, you don’t have anybody to really see, to even understand that there is a live human being being charged with a crime,” Spence explains. “And so, what you do is you try to recreate Lee Harvey Oswald. And I talked as if he were alive.”
Spence argues there’s no way Oswald had time to fire the third and “magic bullet” which killed Kennedy. No way that he could have left the book depository without having been seen. It was a setup, a conspiracy. Oswald, as he said himself, was nothing more than a patsy.
As the prosecutor, Bugliosi argues Oswald did it. He’s quick, studied, and aggressive, and the two attorneys constantly jab at each other, like when Spence mispronounces Bugliosi’s name. “Mr. Spence, my name is pronounced Bugliosi, the ‘g’ is silent, I have told you this several times, I know it’s difficult, but try to do it, ok?”
Bugliosi objects. “That’s the only thing that’s silent about you,” Spence retorts.
This isn’t scripted. As lawyers, they’re natural performers, and a real courtroom is the best training for a staged one. Spence and Bugliosi question and crossexamine around 30 witnesses, people who knew Oswald or had lived in and around Dallas in the early 60s, many of whom were interviewed by the Warren Commission.
Outside the soundstage, people took this mock trial seriously. Newspapers advertising Showtime’s broadcast promised a “oneofakind experiment with the goal to heal a nation.”
Redhead says that the was the point: to air the facts of the case. Whereas the Warren Commission was secluded, somewhat secretive, this mock trial was supposed to be a public forum. They followed the rules of a regular trial, so that even though the verdict had no legal weight, at least there’d be some sense of legitimacy.
The jury deliberated for a few hours, and returned with a guilty verdict: Oswald had acted alone and killed the president. But when the trial aired a few months later the U.S., American audiences were asked to call in and vote. Did they think Oswald did it? Was he set up?
The majority disagreed with the jury. Americans were certain Oswald had not acted alone, even though the verdict came from a jury of their peers.
The second trial
“On November 22 1963 three shots rang out over Dealey Plaza the location where the President John F Kennedy was assassinated. One of the most compelling questions of our time asks, ¨Who fired the shots that killed the President of the United States“
This time, the court is lawyers from the from the American Bar Association. It’s 1992, and technology is slowly entering the courtroom superbasic 3D imaging that looks like a Nintendo game. The lawyers showed animations from Oswald’s point of view in the sixth floor window and charted the trajectory of the bullets.
All the witnesses were fake and testimony was scripted from the Warren Commission. You’d think the verdict would be a foregone conclusion. But it wasn’t.
By 1992, the government hadn’t released any new evidence about the Kennedy assassination in years. But the year before, Oliver Stone’s blockbuster movie JFK reinvigorated the conspiracy theorists. Civil rights lawyer Bill Simpich was one of them. “I love doing cases that would characterize me sometimes as a troublemaker,” he says.
Simpich got hooked on the assassination after watching Stone’s movie. He’s studied the mock trials, read the Warren report, and written a book debating and discounting much of the government’s evidence against Oswald.
“We lose our history. We lose our sense of our own destiny, where are we going as country,” Bill Simpich.
It could all be a conspiracy, but for Simpich, the bigger point is that the lack of a real trial cuts America’s national narrative in half. “We lose our history. We lose our sense of our own destiny, where are we going as country,” he says. “I think the argument could be made, because of the way these assassinations were covered up in the 1960s and the way the Vietnam War was not properly analyzed, that got us into the Iraq War. It got us into drone warfare and thinking we could kill our way out of our problems. I think all we are doing is creating new adversaries every time we kill somebody without a trial, and it’s really important for people to not play make- believe.”
But in a way, that’s what all these mock trials do: They make believe a rational world, one where justice is served. The ABA trial in 1992 perpetuated the fantasy: The jury voted to acquit Oswald of the murder. Without an official, legal ending, the Oswald’s trial is replayed. Continuously. One year it’s a made-for-TV drama, the next an experiment in courtroom technique.
It’s the legal blank slate. It can be whatever anything you want. And in 2013, on 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, Dallas wanted to reclaim the story. So, they tried Oswald once again.
The case that never ends
What if Lee Harvey Oswald had never been shot? What if everything went smoothly and Oswald had been transferred to the county jail? What if he had his day in court? November 22, 1963, three shots changed this country and scared this city.
The State Bar of Texas held its own mock trial. Like every trial previously, they promised “the trial of the century.” But the verdict barely changed. The jury was undecidedly hung, and when they polled the audience, 75 percent still thought it was a conspiracy.
“One struggles for a kind of meaning and for an answer. Nothing in life is anything definitive. You have to make judgments. You have to weigh stuff, but it is this dream that maybe we will get the answer,” says filmmaker Mark Redhead. “There is a line from Pushkin, that goes the following, maybe it will sound terribly pompous, ‘to host of petty truths man much prefers a single edifying lie.’”
“What I think that means is: one wants a clear definitive answer, when actually reality is made up of a load of tiny, petty details, all of which add up to something significant.”
After any trial, people believe what they want. But with Oswald’s case, when people don’t get the verdict they want, they just do it again.
This story was reported by Ashley Cleek and edited by Casey Miner and Managing Editor, Michael May. Kaitlin Prest designed the sound and produced the story with post-production assistance from Jonathan Hirsch, Simone Seiver and Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle. Our intern, Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle, produced the additional segments.
Special thanks to Life of the Law’s Scholar Naomi Mezey of Georgetown Law School for her support on this story.
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