Sunday, November 24, 2013

Television's First Live Murder

Fifty years ago, plans were being finalized in Washington for John F. Kennedy's funeral the next day.

Back in Texas, churches in Dallas were holding their usual Sunday services under most unusual circumstances. At Dallas' Northaven Methodist Church, Rev. Bill Holmes gave a sermon that is still talked about half a century later. Holmes told the congregation that Dallas could not avoid its own responsibility for the assassination even if only one man pulled the trigger.

As Holmes spoke, the suspect in Kennedy's assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down while being transferred from police headquarters to Dallas County's jail. The TV networks provided live coverage so some folks who were watching their TVs instead of attending church to pray for the Kennedys saw Oswald get shot by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner.

"The killing occurred in the presence of 70 uniformed Dallas policemen," wrote historian William Manchester. "Because NBC was televising the transfer, it was also television's first live murder."

That shooting left a gaping wound in the American experience that probably will never heal.

Because Oswald's death meant some questions will remain unanswered — no matter what kind of evidence is uncovered. There were questions that only Oswald could have answered. Investigators might have been able to establish whether he spoke the truth or not. But without Oswald's testimony — like the forensic evidence that was lost when the limousine was cleaned of blood spatter and John Connally's suit was sent to the dry cleaners — the case will forever remain unresolved.

Nothing that has been uncovered in the last half–century has definitively established the guilt or innocence of anyone.

The killing of Oswald short–circuited the American judicial system. Admittedly, it doesn't always work, but it was the only hope to get Oswald's side of the story. Maybe he would have told the truth. Maybe he wouldn't. That is the kind of thing that juries must decide, and, most of the time, jurors simply have to hope that they have seen and heard enough evidence to reach the right conclusion.

That hope was snuffed out by Ruby, acting as judge, jury and executioner, 50 years ago today — but that is only if one accepts what he said at the time. Conspiracy theorists cite Ruby's organized crime connections and speculate he was sent to rub out Oswald to keep him from talking.

In the words of John Pope of the New Orleans Times–Picayune, Oswald's death "opened the floodgates to a tsunami of speculation about Kennedy's murder." Is it any wonder that JFK conspiracy theories have found a welcome audience from an America still seeking closure for what happened here 50 years ago?

Three previous American presidents had been killed by assassins. The American public managed to achieve closure with two of them when the accused assassins were arrested, charged and eventually convicted. The absence of an assassin to convict, to hold responsible leaves a wound that does not heal easily.

The first presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was killed before he could be brought to trial, which was another supposed link between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (a list of such links has been making the rounds almost since the day Kennedy was killed, but many of the items on the list have been discredited). And, to a degree, I suppose, the assassination of Lincoln by a Southern sympathizer led to more than a decade of abuse, known to history as the Reconstruction era. Was that because there was no formal trial for Booth? I don't know.

No one disputed that Booth shot Lincoln. There was a theater full of witnesses who saw Booth leap from Lincoln's box after the shooting. I have heard of no credible witnesses who could identify Oswald as the man who fired at Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

"It would have been easier for the American people to accept any enemy, any conspiracy, any plot and then avenge John F. Kennedy," Theodore White wrote. "But what they had to face was an act of unreason, avenged by an individual act of obscenity."

That "act of obscenity" was witnessed by millions and captured on film. There was no doubt about who killed Oswald.

But doubts about who killed John F. Kennedy have lingered now for half a century.

I believe they will linger forever.

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