JFK Assassination: A Matter Of Interpretation

Trial is reconstruction of the past by means of the most reliable evidence and most compelling narrative tools available. But we never really know the past. Any trial lawyer will tell you that the proof of a fact is a thing of considerable difficulty. In that regard, trial work and historiography have a lot in common.

Two of the best pieces of historiography I've read in the past couple of years are the first volume of Quentin Skinner's Visions of Politics and the first volume of John P. Meier's biography of Jesus, A Marginal Jew. Both scholars address boldly the central problem in historical scholarship: What can be known about the past, and with how much confidence? Either volume can be read with profit and pleasure by anyone who makes a living trying to reconstruct the past for consideration by others.

The answer, of course, is not all that much can ever really be known. Of Jesus, we know next to nothing, if one were to apply the canons of evidence applicable in a courtroom. We have no contemporaneous evidence. The gospels were written decades after the crucifixion, and each has a narrative focus designed to give meaning to a life and events which were, at the time, matters hardly noticed in the larger world. Similarly, our knowledge of Renaissance Florence is also a matter of reconstruction; although there is more evidence of the era and its leading figures, matters of interpretation predominate.

Both Skinner's and Meier's works challenge me as a trial lawyer. Context is key. The assumptions we bring to the interpretation of the event limit what we see and how we see it. There is no escape from the web of interpretation. To recast the content of a mind in terms comprehensible to those not present when intention and action coalesced is not simple. Trial lawyering is really master storytelling, hence the success and appeal of a figure like Gerry Spence: Warts and all, the man is still a master at telling tales.

I was tossing and turning one night not long ago trying to put into focus hard truths about history, trial and narrative structure. I wanted a case study near at hand and broadly considered to see what I could learn from the works of others. What event in recent history has stirred passionate disagreement and interpretive chagrin? It struck me at once: The assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Assassination of a political figure is never merely murder. The meaning attributed to the death-dealing blow is wrought with political significance. For every man pulling a fatal trigger there are a thousand men who wish they had been the assassin, and many more who applaud the consequences while appalling the deed.

So I rented Oliver Stone's JFK. I ridicule Stone, and often, using his name as a synonym for the sort of hyperactive imagination that knits fascinating narratives out of the isolated detritus of history. Yet I find his work compelling. If only there really were forces of good and evil at contest in the world. A Manichean universe yields simple narrative possibilities; it gives meaning to random events. The compulsion to find meaning in a silent universe is something I cannot shake. Would that there were a God to beseech in the starry silent night.

I have no difficulty believing that JFK was killed as part of a conspiracy. I have no trouble believing that the military-industrial complex wanted him dead. Stone tells a persuasive tale. But forever the contrarian, I then jumped immediately into the hands of Vincent Bugliosi, who champions the lone assassin theory. His work, too, is persuasive. Contrasting the various theories of who killed Kennedy and why becomes a task of political interpretation: what am I prepared to commit to and why?

In college I once tried to read all 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination. I made it into the second volume, and lacked the discipline or skill to see the project through. Lee Harvey Oswald's dental records as an exhibit?  I am tempted now to give it another go. But first, I want a better sense of the range of debate about theories of who sponsored the assassination and why. So I've been ordering material to lay in for a long bout of reading on this near bit of history.

I am all ears just now. Anyone have any recommendations on what they have read or seen? I will add them to the list. I recall the day JFK was shot, and all I truly know is that on that day the world seemed to stand still if only for a moment. Why he was shot fascinates me as much as why an itinerant Jewish preacher became one of the most compelling figures in world history. Trying to discover the truth about either Kennedy or Christ has the collateral benefit of making me a better historian in the courtroom.
Comments (9)
Posted on June 7, 2010 at 7:29 pm by Gideon
Bullshit, maybe, but very entertaining bullshit.
Bullshit, maybe, but very entertaining bullshit.

Posted on June 6, 2010 at 4:26 pm by Norm Pattis
the single bullet theory seems like bull shit t...

the single bullet theory seems like bull shit to me


Posted on June 6, 2010 at 4:21 pm by Jamison
A couple of years ago, I was at a Q&A with Arlen S...
A couple of years ago, I was at a Q&A with Arlen Specter, and I was dying to ask him whether or not he felt vindicated with his single bullet theory. But all the other questions had to do with current events, and I chickened out.

Posted on June 6, 2010 at 4:18 pm by Jamison
If you're going to read all 26 volumes of the Warr...
If you're going to read all 26 volumes of the Warren Commission report, I'll have to resist the urge to give away the ending. Let's just say it involved three bullets fired from a single rifle and a guy named Oswald.

Posted on June 6, 2010 at 3:58 pm by William Doriss
I was going to recommend Posner's book as well. Ca...
I was going to recommend Posner's book as well. Can't say as I finished it because the conclusion was obvious from the get-go. Have it in my library. I have always wanted to be a 'conspiracy theorist', but am not so sure now?!? I also read Norman Mailer's Oswald book--what a tedious piece of trash--a minute-by-minute recreation of Oswald's attempt to defect to the U.S.S.R. A noble attempt however,...on Mailer's part. Rest in Peace, Norman Mailer.

Posted on June 6, 2010 at 11:23 am by John
I found Contract on America rather compelling. Hea...
I found Contract on America rather compelling. Heavily referenced. Mafia conspiracy theory.

Posted on June 6, 2010 at 11:16 am by Norm Pattis
John and Anon:
Thanks. Don;t know the documentary...
John and Anon:

Thanks. Don;t know the documentary. Read Posner's book when it came out but did not appreciate it as I was too ignorant about the broader debate. Will look at it again.


Posted on June 6, 2010 at 11:08 am by John Kindley
Have you seen the documentary, available from Netf...
Have you seen the documentary, available from Netflix, of the mock trial with Bugliosi as the prosecution and Spence defending Oswald, examining the actual expert and lay witnesses to the events?

Posted on June 6, 2010 at 9:26 am by Anonymous
Case Closed, by Gerald Posner is an excellent read...
Case Closed, by Gerald Posner is an excellent read and probably the definitive work on the "Oswald did it alone" side of the argument.
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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