In 1967, prosecutor Jim Garrison accused Clay Shaw of conspiring with government agencies to assassinate President John F. Kennedy — but many believe it was all for media attention.
Less than a year after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963, an official government investigation into his death found that Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had acted alone. That didn’t sit well with Jim Garrison, then the district attorney in New Orleans, Louisiana. He decided to open up an investigation of his own.
In 1967, Garrison publicly aired his doubts. He declared that the conclusions drawn by the government’s investigation, the Warren Commission, were “totally false” and called the commission itself “the official fiction.” Instead, Garrison alleged that the president had been killed by the CIA to prevent him from ending the war in Vietnam and making peace with the Soviet Union.
But though Garrison publicly accused several people of conspiring to kill the president, his investigation went nowhere. Many dismissed him as an attention seeker and a fraud. Yet Garrison unfailingly maintained that there was more to the Kennedy assassination than met the eye.
This is the story of Jim Garrison, the dogged district attorney from New Orleans featured in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK.
Jim Garrison’s Unlikely Rise To Power In New Orleans
Born on Nov. 20, 1921, Jim Garrison spent the first half of his life like many men from his generation. He enlisted in the Army shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and spent his young adulthood fighting in World War II.
That experience, which the Associated Press reports colored his thinking about “good wars” and “bad wars,” brought Garrison to Europe. He flew planes in France and Germany, and he passed through the Dachau concentration camp just one day after his fellow troops liberated it.
He returned home to New Orleans after the war, attended Tulane University Law School, and opened a law practice in the 1950s after a short stint as an FBI agent in Seattle, according to the Washington Post.
Though Garrison made little news during that period of time, The New York Times reports that he may have been privately struggling. When he started his crusade to find the truth about Kennedy’s assassination in the 1960s, newspapers reported that he suffered from “a severe and disabling psychoneurosis of long duration.” Garrison never commented on those reports.
Indeed, the 6’6″ Garrison seemed capable of doing whatever he put his mind to. According to The New York Times, he accused New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro of being soft on crime in 1962 and unexpectedly ran against the incumbent district attorney. To the surprise of many, he won in an upset.
As district attorney, Garrison wielded the power of television. According to NOLA, he often raided bars in the French Quarter and arrested sex workers with cameras in tow. (Usually, NOLA reports, he’d release them the next day.)
But everything changed for Jim Garrison on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shockingly assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Investigation Into The JFK Assassination
Like many Americans, Jim Garrison had questions about the John F. Kennedy assassination. But though the conclusions of the Warren Commission may have reassured some, they didn’t satisfy him.
As the Associated Press reports, Garrison’s suspicions were first raised when he learned more about the president’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was born in New Orleans and had spent a great deal of time in the city. Oswald, Garrison found, had offices close to U.S. intelligence agencies.
“After I realized that something was seriously wrong, I had no alternative but to face the fact that Oswald had arrived in Dallas only a short time before the assassination and that prior to that time he had lived in New Orleans for over six months,” Garrison later told Playboy.
“I became curious about what this alleged assassin was doing while under my jurisdiction, and my staff began an investigation of Oswald’s activities and contacts in the New Orleans area,” Garrison explained. “We interviewed people the Warren Commission had never questioned, and a whole new world began opening up.”
His search for the truth, which Garrison aired publicly starting in 1967, took him on a deep dive into governmental conspiracy theories. As The New York Times reports, the district attorney even appeared on The Tonight Show wsith Johnny Carson in 1968 and discussed everything from guerillas to Texas millionaires to the involvement of the police, FBI, and CIA.
Garrison came to believe, according to The New York Times, that the president had been killed because intelligence agencies feared he would withdraw from Vietnam and try to make peace with the Soviet Union and Cuba. The Associated Press additionally reports that Garrison believed that at least 18 people were involved — and he tried to prosecute two of them.
The first was David Ferrie, an anti-communist and pilot who wasn’t shy about his anti-Kennedy, anti-Cuba views. Ferrie had even been questioned by police shortly after Kennedy’s death, though he’d denied his involvement.
“We discovered a whole mare’s-nest of underground activity involving the CIA, elements of the paramilitary right and militant anti-Castro exile groups,” Garrison told Playboy. “We discovered links between David Ferrie, Lee Oswald, and Jack Ruby [who shot and killed Oswald in 1963].”
But shortly before Garrison planned to go after Ferrie, Ferrie died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm at the age of 48.
Undeterred, Garrison next focused on a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw. He tried to prosecute Shaw as a conspirator, but the 1969 trial was seen as a circus at best and homophobic at worst. Shaw was widely known to be homosexual, and NOLA reports that a great deal of his trial was focused on his tight-fitting pants. Indeed, Garrison had speculated early on that Kennedy’s death had been a “homosexual thrill killing.”
At that point, even Jim Garrison recognized that he’d hit a wall.
“We went about as far as we could go before our wings were clipped, in reaching a point, in ’69, where I couldn’t say anything without being pictured as a fool or a madman,” he told the Associated Press decades later.
The Murky Legacy Of Jim Garrison Today
Following Shaw’s trial, Jim Garrison’s reputation suffered. As The New York Times reports, he was indicted in 1973 for taking bribes to protect illegal pinball gambling. Though Garrison conducted his own defense and was acquitted, he was forced to scramble to put together a reelection campaign for his fourth term as district attorney, which he lost.
“They got me,” he told the Associated Press in 1989. “They sure got me. When they set that trial, that federal trial, for a few months before the election, they sure got me.”
Garrison landed on his feet, however. In 1978, he won a seat on Louisiana’s Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit. Garrison served as an appellate judge until the weeks before his death in 1992.
Shortly before he died, however, Jim Garrison’s story was revived in a surprising fashion. In 1991, Oliver Stone released his film JFK, which cast Garrison as a hero in search of the truth. Garrison served as an advisor on the film, and Stone drew heavily from Garrison’s book, On the Trail of Assassins, according to The New York Times.
To the end of his life, he maintained that there was more to John F. Kennedy’s death than the public knew. Speaking to the Associated Press, he suggested that people like Chief Justice Earl Warren and President Lyndon B. Johnson participated in the cover-up for the “good of the country.”
“I think that was the magic phrase from there on,” he said. “A lot of people who you would not call bad people and who were not villains responded, I think, with active participation in the cover-up as a consequence.”
Even during the interview in 1989, more than two decades after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Jim Garrison still became emotional while speaking about the president. Kennedy’s character, the Associated Press noted, had driven Garrison’s unfailing interest in the details of his death.
“He had ideals,” Garrison said. “He inspired dreams.”