Gettier and Garrison: Justified True Beliefs and JFK

Alternative Title: Review of Robert Sanger, “Gettier in a Court of Law” (Part 3)

I want to continue my review of Sanger’s paper “Gettier in a Court of Law” by returning to the Zapruder film of the assassination of JFK. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison was the first person to actually show the Zapruder film in public. Garrison screened Zapruder’s home movie during the trial of Clay Shaw, a respected New Orleans businessman. As it happens, Shaw was the only man to ever be prosecuted for the murder of President Kennedy, so I want to take a closer look at Garrison’s case against Shaw and its relation to the ideas in Sanger’s Gettier paper.

In 1966, Garrison opened a criminal investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The details of this colorful and unorthodox investigation are memorably depicted in Oliver Stone’s magnum opus “JFK,” starring Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison. (A poster of Stone’s controversial movie is pictured below.) For our purposes here, it suffices to say that Garrison’s investigation led him to conclude that a group of individuals–Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, and Guy Banister among them–were involved in a wider conspiracy to kill JFK and that Shaw, Ferrie, and Banister conspired to set up Lee Harvey Oswald as the fall-guy for the murder.

Alas, Banister had died of a heart attack in 1964, while Ferrie had died under suspicious circumstances on February 22, 1967–during Garrison’s investigation, so Garrison ended up bringing charges only against Clay Shaw, a respected businessman and founder of the International Trade Mart in New Orleans. What was the evidence against him?

  1. Clay Bertrand Alias. Three days after the assassination (November 25, 1963), New Orleans attorney Dean Andrews told the FBI that he received a telephone call from a man named Clay Bertrand, on the day of the assassination, asking him to defend Oswald. According to Garrison, Clay Shaw was the man named as Clay Bertrand in the Warren Commission Report.
  2. Russo Testimony. During the trial of Clay Shaw, which took place in January–February 1969, Garrison called insurance salesman Perry Russo as his main witness. Russo testified that he had met Clay Bertrand, who he identified as Clay Shaw in the courtroom, at a party at David Ferrie’s apartment. At the party, Russo said that Lee Harvey Oswald, David Ferrie, and Clay Bertrand/Clay Shaw had talked about killing Kennedy.
  3. Jack Martin Testimony. On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated, New Orleans private investigator Guy Banister and one of his employees, Jack Martin, were drinking together at a bar located next door to 544 Camp Street in New Orleans. On their return to Banister’s office, the two men got into a heated dispute. Banister accused Martin of having stolen some of his files and drew his .357 Magnum revolver, striking Martin with it several times. During this altercation, Martin is reported to have yelled: “What are you going to do–kill me like you all did Kennedy?
  4. Oswald’s Activities in New Orleans. Garrison’s investigation also uncovered several curious facts about Lee Harvey Oswald’s activities in New Orleans. During the summer of 1963, Oswald had opened a chapter of the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee” in New Orleans. Although Oswald was its only member, he ordered 1,000 leaflets from a local printer with the slogan “Hands Off Cuba!,” and on August 16, 1963, Oswald handed out these leaflets in front of the International Trade Mart in New Orleans (the same organization founded by Clay Shaw). Also, some of Oswald’s leaflets had the address “544 Camp Street” hand-stamped on it. Around the corner of 544 Camp Street — but located in the same building — was the address “531 Lafayette Street,” which was the address of Guy Banister Associates, the private detective agency run by Guy Banister. (As an aside, in the late 1970s, ten years after Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw, the House Select Committee on Assassinations investigated the possible relationship of Oswald to Guy Banister. The committee was unable to interview Guy Banister (who died in 1964), but the committee did interview his brother Ross Banister. Ross “told the committee that his brother had mentioned seeing Oswald hand out Fair Play for Cuba literature on one occasion” and he speculated that Oswald had used the 544 Camp Street address on his leaflets to embarrass Banister. Guy Banister’s secretary, Delphine Roberts, however, would tell the committee a far different story. According to Banister’s secretary, she saw Oswald at Banister’s office and “Oswald came back a number of times. He seemed to be on familiar terms with Banister and with the office.”)
  5. Zapruder Film. The trial of Clay Shaw was also the first time the Zapruder film was showed in public. Garrison was able to subpoena a copy of Zapruder’s infamous home movie from Life Magazine in New York City. (Life Magazine had physical possession and owned the legal rights to the Zapruder film from November 1963 until April 1975, when Life decided to return the film to Zapruder’s heirs.) After Garrison called Abraham Zapruder himself to the witness stand to authenticate the film, the District Attorney then played the movie for the members of the jury. According to Garrison, the film is evidence of a conspiracy to kill JFK because it shows that the fatal shot to President Kennedy was fired from the front of his motorcade.

Is this enough evidence to convict Clay Shaw a/k/a Clay Bertrand (assuming Shaw was, in fact, Bertrand) of conspiracy to commit murder? In a criminal case, evidence of guilt must be proved beyond all reasonable doubt, or philosophically speaking, one must have a “justified true belief” that the defendant is guilty. In my view, the case against Shaw, while not frivolous, is weak at best, and so the jury correctly acquitted Shaw of all charges. That is, given the available evidence, I could have a “justified true belief” that Shaw and Bertrand were the same person (i.e., I could believe Russo’s testimony) but still find Shaw not guilty of the criminal charges against him. Similarly, after seeing the Zapruder film and sifting through the other evidence uncovered by Garrison, I could have a “justified true belief” that the assassination of President Kennedy was the result of a criminal conspiracy — a conspiracy with deep roots in New Orleans — but at the same vote to exonerate Shaw.

I will begin wrapping up my review of Sanger and my philosophical analysis of the Zapruder film in my next post …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Gettier and Garrison: Justified True Beliefs and JFK

  1. Pingback: Postscript: the problem of photographic evidence | prior probability

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