A Review of Patricia Lambert’s False Witness
by W. Tracy Parnell Ó 2000
It is almost unthinkable, but after more than 30 years New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison still has a small but loyal following that believes he was on the right track in his investigation of the Kennedy assassination and prosecution of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw.
Garrison charged Shaw with conspiring to kill the 35th President along with Lee Harvey Oswald (who, by the way, did have something to do with the crime) and David Ferrie, a pilot and self-appointed cancer researcher. After a trial that captured world-wide coverage and nearly bankrupted Shaw, he was found not guilty in less than an hour. The folly of Garrison’s investigation has been well-documented through books such as American Grotesque by James Kirkwood and The Garrison Case: A Study in the Abuse of Power by Milton Brener. Most conspiracy-oriented researchers who initially embraced Garrison dropped him like a hot potato, some even before the case came to trial.
However, with the 1991 release of Oliver Stone’s film JFK (which fictionalized the New Orleans investigation), Garrison has made a comeback that would have made Richard Nixon proud. Stone portrays Garrison as an American hero battling the military-industrial complex (and Lyndon Johnson and the CIA and the Mafia and God knows who else) in an effort to learn the truth about the assassination. His own account of the investigation, On the Trail of the Assassins (one of two books Stone used as the basis for his film), was on the New York Times Paperback Best Sellers list for 13 weeks following the film’s debut.
Considering the apparent level of credibility given to Stone’s film by the majority of the movie-going public (seeing is believing), the need for an ongoing evaluation of Garrison’s (and now Stone’s) abuses is clear. Enter Patricia Lambert and her 1998 book False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison’s Investigation and Oliver Stone’s Film JFK (M. Evans and Company Inc., New York-ISBN 0-87131-879-2). Her book provides that evaluation while offering new evidence concerning both Garrison’s methods and his own dubious background. It also provides a sharp look at Stone’s personal reasons for wanting to make JFK and his choice of Garrison as his protagonist.
Lambert’s book weighs in at a modest 352 pages. It includes an index and bibliography, an afterword, two appendices, endnotes, and 14 pages of photographs. I found the book to be very well written and almost completely lacking both the typographic and factual errors that seem to plague many recent assassination tomes. This is not surprising since, according to her bio, Lambert is an editor as well as a writer. I did note one minor “typo” and one other error that was so insignificant that I have forgotten what it was. The endnotes tend to support the issue at hand rather than serve as an “off-ramp” to other areas.
One photo of note is the picture showing Shaw and a group of men at a gay party. Theorists have long claimed that one of the men pictured is David Ferrie and therefore Garrison was justified in charging Shaw with perjury. However, Lambert shows that the man in the photo (which is amazingly clear here and suspiciously hazy in some books) was really Robert Brannon and Garrison knew this as early as 1967.
Lambert’s first successful mission in the service of truth is a chapter on Garrison himself. She reveals here for the first time information on Garrison’s father, Earling R. Garrison. It seems that the elder Garrison was arrested seven times, the first time for a mail order scheme in which he sent fountain pens to dead people C.O.D. (the relatives believing the deceased had ordered the pens paid the charges). Earling Garrison also spent time at Leavenworth and used the alias of Waldo Morrison. How all this affected “Big Jim” is unclear, but it is doubtful that it could have been positively.
Jim Garrison himself joined the Army in 1941 where he served with some distinction, flying 35 combat missions and receiving several decorations. He also attended American University in England where he studied the history of philosophy, business law, and playwriting. He was discharged in 1946 and, after an unsuccessful attempt to re-enlist, decided to study law at Tulane University. He was subsequently admitted to the bar without taking the exam due to his veteran status.
Using an application containing omissions and some falsehoods, Garrison was accepted by the FBI in 1950. After only four months in the Bureau, he left to join his reserve unit who had been called to active duty. After the first day back in the Army, he realized he had made a mistake and reported to sick call. He wrote FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and asked to be reinstated but Hoover refused. Garrison was subsequently diagnosed with chronic anxiety and other disorders leading to “a severe and disabling psychoneurosis of long duration”. His report from the Brooke Army Hospital went on to say that his illness “existed long before his call to active duty” and was “of the type that will require long-term pyscotherapeutic approach”. He was released from the Army for “physical disability” on October 31, 1951 and returned to New Orleans.
After two failed attempts to hold political office and several years in private law practice, Garrison emerged from obscurity during a televised roundtable debate between democratic candidates for district attorney in 1962. Garrison’s relaxed, self-assured manner struck a chord with the voters, and he won enough support to force a run-off with incumbent DA Richard Dowling whom he subsequently defeated. In the general election, he beat his Republican opponent by over 70,000 votes, and a New Orleans political legend was born.
After efforts to clean up the French Quarter, Garrison became embroiled in a conflict that would ultimately lead to his iron grip on the New Orleans power structure. It was this power that would later enable him to persue Clay Shaw unbridled. Reacting to Garrison’s activities on Bourbon Street (which many felt were hurting the tourist trade), eight New Orleans judges moved to cut off his funding. Garrison reacted by saying that the judges were taking too many vacations and suggested that they were affected by “racketeer influences”. The judges in turn charged Garrison with criminal defamation of character. Garrison dismissed the charges against himself, but State Attorney Jack Gremillion reinstated them. Garrison was convicted but appealed to the Supreme Court who reversed the conviction in a landmark decision. Along the way, Garrison replaced two of the judges with appointees who were sympathetic to his cause. Garrison’s hold on power was now firm, and he would use and misuse it in years to come.
Lambert shows, quite persuasively, that at the bottom of Garrison’s bogus Oswald-Ferrie scenario were the unfounded ramblings of one Jack Martin, a sometime Private Investigator. Martin began to develop his theories the day after the assassination through a speculative phone call with a friend and a television program that told of Oswald’s time in the Civil Air Patrol. Since Martin knew Ferrie was in the CAP, he saw this (through use of the same type of thinking that would later permeate Garrison’s entire investigation) as proof of an Oswald-Ferrie connection. Soon the story had grown to include allegations of Ferrie flying Oswald to Dallas and teaching him to “fire foreign weapons” among other canards.
News of Martin’s allegation soon made its way to Garrison himself, and he ordered Ferrie brought in for questioning. Ferrie was on a mini-vacation with friends in Texas at the time and unaware that he had become a wanted man. Upon his return to New Orleans, Ferrie turned himself in and submitted to questioning by the FBI and Secret Service. They released him after his story checked out. Shortly thereafter, Martin recanted his allegations concerning Ferrie to both the FBI and Secret Service. It turns out that Martin (whose real name was Edward Suggs) had a long rap sheet that included a murder charge. Additionally, his FBI file included the fact that he had been confined to a mental institution in 1956. Amazingly, the fabrications of Jack Martin were the “evidence” that Garrison would later use to tie Ferrie to Oswald.
To tie Clay Shaw to Oswald, Garrison would again use the word of another dubious character-attorney Dean Andrews. At the time of the assassination, Andrews was in the hospital under heavy sedation. Like Martin, his imagination ran wild after seeing a TV show (presumably the same broadcast Martin had viewed) on Oswald. After a telephone conversation with a friend about the tragedy in Dallas, Andrews called his secretary and informed her that he was representing Oswald. When the surprised secretary asked who had hired him, Andrews replied “Bertrand” thus invoking the name that would later be falsely tied to Shaw by Garrison. Soon Andrews (who was called to testify before the Warren Commission in 1964) would embellish his tale to include visits by Oswald to his law office in the company of “homosexuals”. Thus, by the end of the assassination weekend, the “evidence” that Garrison would later use to ruin Shaw’s life was essentially in place. However, after Ferrie was cleared and Martin recanted, Garrison would wait nearly three years to pick up on his “New Orleans Connection”.
Garrison claimed that his interest in the Kennedy assassination had been rekindled during a 1966 plane trip with Louisiana Senator Russell Long. There is no doubt that Garrison’s conversation with Long, which included discussions of Oswald’s “shooting feat” and his claim of being a “patsy”, greatly influenced his thinking about the case. Lambert offers another reason why Garrison may have turned his attention to Kennedy.
After Garrison arranged a pardon for a stripper convicted of lewd dancing, it was claimed in some quarters that her case was tied to organized crime. Garrison reacted by stating that “organized crime doesn’t exist” in New Orleans and brought the person responsible for making the charge before the grand jury. Garrison was criticized by the local media including an article by his friend David Chandler. Garrison was left reeling by this criticism and may have felt the Kennedy case could restore his name while diverting negative attention.
Whatever his true motivation, Garrison couldn’t have picked a better time frame to begin his investigation. A series of books and articles had focused a national debate on the Warren Report and the findings of the seven commissioners. Garrison began his probe by studying the 26 volumes of the WC and critical literature. He became convinced that Oswald was some type of undercover agent, based mostly on the fact that he had taken a Russian language exam while in the Marines. Garrison spoke to Dean Andrews over dinner several times during this time frame (and subsequently), and Andrews repeated his “Oswald and Bertrand” story. Garrison now sought out Jack Martin who retold his tale of Ferrie and Oswald, embellishing it even further.
Garrison brought Ferrie in for questioning, and he denied any involvement as he had three years previously. Undaunted, Garrison ordered surveillance of Ferrie, which ultimately led to a 24-hour watch. In the meantime, he worked out a “secret deal” with Life magazine (more on this later) to share information on the case. Magazine staffers were soon shocked to learn that Garrison had decided Clay Shaw was the mysterious “Clay Bertrand”. However, after a Christmas-time interview of Shaw during which Garrison was favorably impressed, he told his staff to “forget Shaw”. Unfortunately for Shaw, a new player would soon enter the game, and Garrison would change his mind again.
On February 17, 1967, the New Orleans States-Item broke the story of Garrison’s investigation. A few days later following an interview with the same paper, David Ferrie died of a berry aneurysm. The death of this important “suspect” could (and should) have signaled the end of the investigation. But Garrison got a break when a young man called a Baton Rouge newspaper to reveal that he had known Ferrie and was willing to talk. His name was Perry Russo, and he would become Garrison’s star witness.
Lambert follows the evolution of Russo’s story from its innocuous first telling (in which, among other things, he said he never saw Oswald before) to its emergence as the cornerstone of Garrison’s case just five days later. Russo’s story, which concerned an assassination plotting session at David Ferrie’s apartment involving Ferrie, Oswald and Bertrand (Shaw) came together after some leading questions and a dose of sodium Pentothal. After striking a deal with Dean Andrews in which he would neither confirm or deny that Shaw was Bertrand, Garrison had Shaw arrested for conspiracy in the death of JFK.
The trial of Clay Shaw turned out to be actually one of the Warren Commission instead. Things initially went well for Garrison’s prosecution team. Several witnesses from the small town of Clinton, LA seemed to provide another Oswald-Ferrie-Shaw sighting (more on the Clinton witnesses later). Accountant Charles Spiesel provided details about a second party involving an assassination plot. The tide turned, however, when it was revealed that Spiesel was of questionable mental stability and had his own children fingerprinted to assure their identity.
Dean Andrews had finally refused to repeat his tale, and Garrison charged him with perjury for his trouble, gaining his first conviction in the case. Perry Russo for his part repeated his story, but Shaw’s defense team with lead attorney F. Irvin Dymond successfully cast doubt on his testimony. Of particular note in that regard was the memorandum prepared by Garrison assistant Andrew Sciambra of his first meeting with Russo, which failed to mention the alleged Oswald-Ferrie-Shaw plotting session. Despite Sciambra’s testimony that his memo was flawed and 26 “corrections” by Russo, the damage had been done.
All that was left for Garrison was an attack on the Warren Commission and their report. This included the first public viewing of the Zapruder film and witnesses such as Zapruder himself, and other Dealy Plaza notables. In the end, the jury didn’t buy into Garrison’s circus and acquitted Shaw in less than an hour.
Garrison and the Media
Lambert is able to show that, far from being disinterested in media attention as he maintained, Garrison sought out the press and the publicity they could bring him. He may have even entertained ideas of a bid for the White House, explaining why he chose to prosecute Shaw when he had no case.
As mentioned previously, Garrison worked out a deal with Life magazine in which they would share information in return for an exclusive article (to be written by Richard Billings) on the New Orleans investigation. The “Jolly Green Giant” even bragged to insiders that his picture would appear on the cover of the respected publication.
However, when Billings and David Chandler began to look into the case from the New Orleans perspective, they immediately had doubts about Garrison and his probe. They met David Ferrie and found him to be “harmless” and “likeable” rather than the sinister character Garrison tried to portray. Their concern turned to horror when Garrison informed them that the focus of his investigation had shifted to Clay Shaw. An ongoing internal struggle at Life over what to do about Garrison came to a head after his arrest of Shaw. At a Miami dinner meeting with members of the senior staff, Managing Editor George Hunt finally decided to kill the Garrison story.
Garrison moved quickly to fill the void created by the cancellation. He contacted James Phelan of the Saturday Evening Post, who had previously written a piece about him that pleased Garrison. He asked Phelan to meet him in Las Vegas where he was taking a short vacation. Garrison promised to tell Phelan the “whole incredible story”.
Once in Vegas, Garrison outlined the plot for Phelan as a “homosexual thrill killing”. Phelan was not persuaded so Garrison gave him two documents. One was the memorandum by Andrew Sciambra prepared after his initial meeting with Perry Russo in Baton Rouge. The other was a transcript of an interview Russo had given while hypnotized. After receiving permission to keep the documents overnight, Phelan read and re-read them. He was astonished to find that the alleged plotting session between Oswald, Ferrie, and Shaw described by Russo while under hypnosis was completely absent from his original Baton Rouge statement.
Phelan (who had the presence of mind to copy the documents) would eventually confront Garrison and Sciambra about the memo. Garrison claimed to be unaware of the contents while Sciambra said he simply “forgot” to include the details of the alleged Oswald-Ferrie-Shaw party. Phelan wrote his story, but it was a far cry from what Garrison had imagined. Phelan’s story outlined the entire affair from its genesis in Las Vegas to the party that Sciambra forgot to mention. In another city, Garrison might have been forced to resign, but this was New Orleans and he could do no wrong.
Probably the most significant thing that came out of Garrison’s investigation was his “discovery” of the so-called Clinton witnesses. According to their story, Oswald was first seen in the small Louisiana town about 120 miles north of New Orleans in the local barber shop. Oswald explained he was seeking work at the nearby East Louisiana State Hospital and was advised to see State Representative Reeves Morgan, who suggested he register to vote. He was next seen arriving in a large black car in the company of David Ferrie and Clay Shaw and then waiting in a voter registration line. Finally, Oswald made an appearance at the hospital where he filled out a job application.
The HSCA awarded a certain amount of credibility to Garrison when it stated in its final report a belief that Oswald was in Clinton, “in the company of David Ferrie, if not Clay Shaw”. This tenuous stamp of approval ultimately led to what Lambert calls Garrison’s “fourth resurrection” - Stone’s JFK. But Lambert argues that the entire Clinton scenario is bogus and provides a new witness to bolster her claim.
Anne Hundley Dischler is that witness. Dischler worked as an assistant to Garrison investigator Francis Fruge for three months in 1967. She still has in her possession the notes from that time period. Lambert chronicles three revelations from Dischler that helped lead to her conclusions about Garrison and the Clinton episode.
First, there is Dischler’s claim that a three-by-five black and white photo of the car that allegedly delivered Oswald and his co-conspirators was used not only by Fruge, but by “others” who had visited Clinton previously. The picture purported to show Clay Shaw and Oswald in front with Ferrie and Guy Banister (who never made it to the version of events testified to by the Clinton eight) in the back. Obviously, if Garrison had a photo that accurately depicted Oswald in a vehicle with Shaw in Clinton (or anywhere else), he would have used it against Shaw at his trial. The fact that there apparently was no such photo makes the case for the use of a composite picture by Garrison to color witness testimony.
The second revelation was what Registrar of Voters Henry Palmer (who Lambert names as the original tipster in the Clinton affair) told Fruge and Dischler about Oswald’s visit to Clinton. Palmer said that Oswald had actually registered to vote and had signed the register. He further stated that the signature had been erased, and someone else had signed over it. When Fruge and Dischler tried to get a copy the next day, the page in question was suddenly “missing”. This account differs significantly from Palmer’s testimony at the Shaw trial when he stated that Oswald didn’t register to vote because he couldn’t meet the requirements. The implication again is that Garrison (or an aide) was micro-managing the investigation and had second thoughts about “Oswald” signing the register.
The final revelation taken from Dischler’s notes concerns witness Corrie Collins. At the Shaw trial, Collins testified that one man, Lee Harvey Oswald, got out of the infamous black car. However, according to Dischler’s notes, Collins said two men got out of the car, one wearing blue jeans and one dressed in white. Dischler was not able to definitely identify the man in jeans (although Collins though he might have been a “Morgan”), but she determined the man in white to be Winslow Foster, an employee of the hospital.
Through some good detective work, Lambert was able to identify the second man and offer a plausible explanation to what really happened at Clinton. First, through interviews she determined that Foster “always wore white” because of his work at the hospital. Her interview with a former wife of Estus Morgan (who frequently wore jeans and was named as one of two white men in line at Clinton by Palmer) revealed that Morgan had worked at the hospital and was friendly with Foster. Finally, Lambert shows that Morgan’s real-life situation mirrored that of “Oswald”. Morgan also wanted a job at the hospital and showed up in the voter registration line. Lambert maintains that Morgan’s “profile” was merely shifted to Oswald and in fact, Winslow Foster and Estes Morgan were the two men seen getting out of the black car not Shaw and Oswald. She also suggests that Garrison pulled the two investigators off the case before they could interview Foster and discover the entire truth.
JFK the Film
Lambert devotes a full chapter to Stone’s film and makes some solid observations. The complete list of falsehoods and distortions in JFK is beyond the scope of this review and could be a book in itself, but some discussed by Lambert are:
Patricia Lambert has done a tremendous service with the publication of False Witness. This book should be required reading for anyone seeing JFK; in fact, they should sell it at Blockbuster Video. I believe that the opinion of Stone and his film among the general public would be much different if it were. Stone knew, however, that the average movie-goer (especially generation “X” types) would not be knowledgeable about the subject, and he would be free to rewrite history.
Stone’s motive in all this? Money, of course, but also he sought in this film (as he had in Nixon and Born on the Fourth of July, among others) to inject meaning into his own Vietnam experience. Garrison’s motive in prosecuting Shaw in the first place? Most likely, he sought publicity that he hoped would help him attain higher office.
In addition to the material discussed in this review, Lambert adds a full chapter on the Christenberry decision in which Garrison was prevented from further prosecution of Shaw. Also included is an appendix, which lists the many lies and distortions of Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins.
In False Witness, Lambert shows without a doubt that Jim Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw was completely without merit. She also demonstrates that any film based on this miscarriage of justice would be congenitally flawed This is a landmark work and should be required reading for anyone studying the assassination of John F. Kennedy, particularly Garrison’s investigation.