New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (1921–1992) dismissed the findings of the Warren Commission, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone during his 1963 assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Garrison would spend almost 30 years touting his theory of widespread conspiracy and cover-up, inspiring a feature film and producing a best-selling book. In 1969, he became the only public official to prosecute a suspect in connection with the crime when he tried New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw on charges of conspiring to assassinate a sitting U.S. president. Although Shaw was acquitted, Garrison continued his conspiracy claims.
When U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated during a visit to Dallas, Texas, in November of 1963, Jim Garrison was an ambitious New Orleans district attorney. Within days of the shooting, Garrison began investigating New Orleans citizens thought to be connected to the crime, developing a conspiracy theory rooted in the complicity of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1988, he published an extensive book on his findings, On the Trail of the Assassins. Despite losing the conviction of Shaw, Garrison maintained support from many conspiracy theorists, although most historians dismissed him as a crackpot guilty of abusing his position and power.
After about 15 months of military service, Garrison was hospitalized at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. According to Gerald Posner, author of Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, military doctors diagnosed him with a “severe and disabling psychoneurosis” and recommended psychotherapy. Also diagnosed with “anxiety,” Garrison was discharged from the military in October 1952. He later explained that his hospitalization stemmed from combat fatigue.
After leaving the National Guard, Garrison worked as a city attorney and eventually joined the New Orleans district attorney's office, although, by 1958, he was in private practice. Flamboyant and flashy, he developed a reputation for the high life and was seen about the city wearing expensive suits, smoking cigars, and enjoying martini lunches. In 1959, Garrison ran for public office, hoping to become a criminal court judge. Although he lost this election, two years later he made a successful run for district attorney. Highly charismatic, he kept a low profile throughout most of the campaign, launching a media blitz on television and radio on election day that wooed voters. Elected as a “reform candidate,” the 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound Garrison stoked his image as a trustworthy loner grinding away against corruption and was quickly dubbed the “Jolly Green Giant.”
Taking office in 1962, Garrison wanted to prove that he was tough on crime. He made headlines by convicting criminals on charges the former district attorney had dropped. He also pledged to clean up New Orleans' notorious French Quarter, raiding strip clubs, bars, and gambling joints. Personally leading the charge and often targeting gay establishments, Garrison was one of the first politicians to use the media to advance himself politically: when he strapped on his handgun to lead a raid, he made sure news cameras and reporters were following him.
As Garrison gained notoriety, the charges he brought against people became more and more sensationalized. Although his arrests made headlines, he infrequently brought his suspects to trial or won convictions, and the French Quarter publicity raids turned up little more than petty crimes. Remarking that Garrison never uncovered narcotics rings or major crime organizations, New Orleans attorney Milton Brener told Posner that Garrison was not concerned about what would happen beyond the headline. “He wouldn't worry about whether the charges were true or not,” Brener was quoted as saying in Case Closed. “The press just loved him. When he made public statements, his only concern was whether it was going to get him a headline. He liked being the hero.”
Ever seeking the spotlight and finding corruption everywhere, Garrison was quick to criticize the New Orleans police force and the city's bail bond system. It was soon rumored that Garrison was positioning himself to run for the U.S. Senate, and later, when he launched his investigation into the Kennedy assassination, he was suspected of vying for the vice presidency. With a thick skin, Garrison never worried about making enemies.
In 1962, New Orleans criminal court judges refused to approve extra funding for the district attorney's office and Garrison hit back, claiming that they were soft on crime and suggested that they were being influenced by racketeers. The judges brought a defamation suit against Garrison and won. Unable to prove that his accusations of racketeering had a basis in fact, the district attorney was convicted of defamation and fined $1,000. Refusing to concede to this 1963 ruling, he took the case to a higher court. While this case was pending before the Supreme Court, Garrison brought a criminal malfeasance indictment against one of the judges, Bernard Cocke, but failed to get a conviction. On November 23, 1964, he was somewhat vindicated when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the lower court's decision, ruling that Louisiana's defamation law was unconstitutional because it encroached on a citizen's right to free speech.
Throughout the 1960s, Garrison's pattern of grandstanding continued. In 1964, he claimed to have discovered bribery among members of the state parole board but failed to gain an indictment. He even took on the Louisiana State legislature, asserting that members had been bribed into passing a house bill and provoking the Louisiana State House of Representatives to censure him for his maligning remarks. By the mid-1950s, Garrison had become a powerful political figure who was relatively popular with the public. As portrayed by his public-relations machine, he was daring and had a reputation as a crime fighter willing to stand up against the political machine.
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas while riding in a presidential motorcade. Over a period of many months, the Warren Commission—established by President Lyndon B. Johnson on November 29, 1963, and led by Chief Justice Earl Warren—investigated the crime. In September 1964, the seven-member commission issued an 888-page report concluding that shooter Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone and was not part of a wider conspiracy. The Warren Report was subjected to dozens of reviews and some studies supported its claims, while others questioned its “lone shooter” theory. Garrison stood solidly among the skeptics and went so far as to call the commission's report a “fairy tale.”
The FBI released Ferrie after assessing Martin and rating him as an unreliable source. A heavy drinker and teller of tall tales, the man had spent time in mental institutions. Eventually, Martin recanted his story and admitted that he made up the Ferrie-Oswald connection after learning that both men had served in the Civil Air Patrol during the 1950s. Ferrie and Martin were acquaintances, leading some investigators to believe that they may have had a falling out that prompted Martin's allegations. In any event, FBI investigators concluded that he had not visited Dallas in six years. For the bureau, the case on Ferrie was closed.
Garrison let their conclusions ride until a few years later when Louisiana Senator Russell Long expressed doubts about the Warren Commission's report. As district attorney, he reopened his investigation of Ferrie. According to Paris Flammonde, author of The Kennedy Conspiracy, Ferrie talked to reporters, insisting that Garrison was out to get him and had him “pegged as the getaway pilot in an elaborate plot to kill Kennedy.” In fact, Ferrie was in Texas around the time of the JFK assassination, and on the day the president was killed he was in Houston ice skating with friends. One of these friends was a former competitive roller skater but had never been ice skating. They were in Houston because it had the closest ice rink.
In Garrison's view, Ferrie's trip to the Houston ice rink was a cover, and he was actually there to aid the assassin in getting away. Garrison never got the chance to arrest or try Ferrie, however. On February 22, 1967, Oswald's supposed accomplice was found dead in his New Orleans apartment, the cause of death a cerebral hemorrhage caused by an aneurysm.
On March 1, 1967, Garrison arrested New Orleans businessman and civic leader Clay LaVerne Shaw on charges of conspiring to kill the president of the United States. According to the indictment, Shaw was actually “Clay Bertrand,” an individual the Warren Commission had associated with Oswald. Garrison claimed that Shaw (using the alias of Bertrand) had met with Ferrie and Oswald in Ferrie's apartment in September of 1963 and plotted to kill the president. As a witness, he produced a local insurance agent named Perry Raymond Russo, who worked in the pornography film business with Ferrie during the early 1960s. A panel of judges ruled that there was sufficient evidence to charge Shaw with a crime.
As State of Louisiana v. Clay L. Shaw played out during the winter of 1969, Russo did not make a very convincing witness. During the trial, it was revealed that Garrison had administered sodium pentothal (a “truth serum”) and also hypnotized the witness while collecting his evidence. During initial questioning, Russo never mentioned Bertrand, but when he was put into a semi-conscious state, the name came up. The doctor who administered the sodium pentothal to Russo had never used hypnosis to gather criminal testimony. The jury was not convinced and deliberated less than an hour before acquitting Shaw on March 1, 1969. Later, Garrison had Shaw re-arrested for perjury, but a federal court shot down the indictment, and he went free.
In 1973, Garrison found himself on trial when he was arrested for accepting bribes as a payoff to protect illegal pinball gambling in New Orleans. Facing federal charges, he claimed he was being targeted for his continued assertions that the CIA was involved in the Kennedy assassination. Acting as his own attorney, he won an acquittal, but the case damaged his reputation. He lost the next election, ending his 12-year run as New Orleans district attorney. Garrison returned to private life, working out at the New Orleans Athletic Club, playing chess, drinking bourbon, and spending time with his wife Elizabeth and their five children.
Garrison returned to politics five years later, winning election to Louisiana's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1978 and served on the bench until shortly before his death. In the 1990s, while still a presiding judge, he received a revival of press coverage when film director Oliver Stone produced his film JFK, casting actor Kevin Costner in the role of Garrison. Garrison served as an advisor on the film and performed a bit role as Judge Earl Warren.
Stone's film stirred controversy, as some political pundits asserted that the director had distorted the facts surrounding President Kennedy's assassination. Not surprisingly, the film served to bolster support for conspiracy theorists. “Partly filmed in a grainy semi-documentary style, with newsreels and amateur footage incorporated into it, JFK appears to reveal the truth about the Kennedy assassination,” noted Atlantic Monthly contributor Edward Jay Epstein. “From the moment it was released, its director, Oliver Stone, so passionately defended its factual accuracy that he became, for all practical purposes, the new Garrison.” After Garrison died of heart disease on October 21, 1992, at his home in New Orleans, Stone's film lived on, raising enough questions to keep the Kennedy conspiracy in the spotlight.
Flammonde, Paris, The Kennedy Conspiracy: An Uncommissioned Report on the Jim Garrison Investigation, Meredith Press, 1969.
Posner, Gerald, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, Anchor Books, 2003.
Atlantic Monthly, March 1993, Edward Jay Epstein, “The Second Coming of Jim Garrison,“p. 89.
New Yorker, November 30, 1992, Edward Jay Epstein, “Epitaph for Jim Garrison: Romancing the Assassination.”
“Jim Garrison, 70, Theorist on Kennedy Death, Dies,” New York Times, October 22, 1992, Bruce Lambert, “Jim Garrison, 70, Theorist on Kennedy Death Dies.”□