WASHINGTON -- Nearly 32 years after President Kennedy was slain by
an assassin at Dallas, a little-noticed constitutional confrontation
is taking shape between the federal government and the only authority
to have put a suspect on trial for complicity in the murder, the state
At loggerheads are the federal commission Congress established two
years ago to review the Kennedy assassination and the district attorney
of the parrish of New Orleans, Harry Connick, who is invoking the
sovereignty of the Pelican State to flout investigators and deny them
documents they say belong to the historical record. The federal commission,
which has been assigned the task of declassifying records related
to the assassination, has been battling Mr. Connick over grand jury
transcripts and files pertaining to the investigation conducted by
his predecessor, Jim Garrison. Garrison is the only prosecutor to
have brought someone to trial for a role in Kennedy's murder. The
man he accused, Clay Shaw, was acquitted, but 30 years after Kennedy
was killed, a movie by Oliver Stone revived Garrison's conspiracy
theories of American government complicity in the killing. It was
during the ensuing uproar that Congress created the Assassination
Records Review Board to vet the record and release as many documents
as possible to the public. In their dispute with Mr. Connick, the
board's members are taking the position that they are empowered under
federal law to retrieve any and all papers related to the Kennedy
assassination and that their work "shall take precedence over any
other law, judicial decision construing such law, or common law doctrine.
That language is from a letter the U.S. Justice Department sent to
Mr. Connick after the Louisiana prosecutor had a subpoena issued to
the federal commission commanding it to return grand jury records
Mr. Connick says belong to his parrish. Mr. Connick is arguing that
his first loyalty is to the law of the state of Louisiana and that,
while he wishes the commission well, he believes that it is wrong
and that he is under no legal obligation to obey the panel.
In colorful language befitting his reputation as the Crescent City
tsar, Mr. Connick told the Forward that he "resents" having to bow
to pressure from a Washington panel, even one with as noble a task
as untangling the mystery of who killed President Kennedy. "Washington
can't pass a rule that tells me how to run my office -- who the hell
do they think they are?" Mr. Connick told the Forward. "They can't
usurp the prerogatives of prosecutors around the country."
The JFK panel has been at work almost a year, sifting through thousands
of pages of classified documents that had been held by a variety of
government agencies, including the FBI, the Secret Service, the State
Department and the Pentagon. The staff, which works out of barren
offices in Northwest Washington, is headed by David Marwell, a former
historian with the Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations,
who played a key role in the hunt for Josef Mengele and is an authority
on the Auschwitz doctor.
Although a number of investigative bodies, including the Warren Commission,
concluded, in essence, that the killing was the work of one gunman,
Lee Harvey Oswald, questions have persisted through the years, and
a poll disclosed that 90% of Americans believe there may have been
a conspiracy to murder the president and a government coverup to protect
his killers. The panel, created to extinguish any doubts, is faced
with two tasks: to open records that have been classified, and to
seek out papers and photographs that have never surfaced, whose existence
may not even be known.
The argument with the New Orleans DA could determine how effective
the commission will be as it deals with other states that have records
they wish to obtain. Texas, where the assassination took place, is
one place that is being eyed by the JFK panel as a potential gold
mine of photographs and documents that have never surfaced and that
may be in private or governmental hands. It is known, for example,
that many more photographs were taken of the killing at Dealey Plaza
than ever have surfaced. Perhaps files or records have been stashed
away. What about other government agencies that have records but also
will be tempted to invoke legal or ethical barriers to forestall their
"I don't see my role as solving the crime of the century," observes
Kermit Hall, a board member who is also a historian. He nonetheless
characterizes the Connick dispute as "potentially an important issue,
" because the panel is at a crucial stage "where what we are engaged
in doing is more important for building the historical record as a
matter of governmental openness than it is as an exercise of who killed
While government lawyers are "busy trying to sort out the conflicting
constitutional positions" of the legal dispute between New Orleans
and Washington, Mr. Hall, a dean at Ohio State University, says he
is still counting on Mr. Connick to comply with the wishes of the
commission. "We hope that Mr. Connick, out of respect to the historical
record, would do what's necessary, and that those materials as he
promised end up in the hands of the Kennedy assassination [board].
The dispute with Mr. Connick has bizarre, almost comical overtones.
It began earlier this summer when the board descended on New Orleans
-- which assassination buffs have always viewed as an epicenter of
plots against Kennedy -- and held public hearings. Panel staffers
were allowed to comb through Kennedy files inside Mr. Connick's office,
leftover reports from Jim Garrison's probes. Mr. Connick generously
agreed to turn them over. Then, at a hearing, Mr. Connick made a dramatic
presentation, charging that when he took office 20 years ago, he discovered
that Kennedy records had been "pilfered" and that several file cabinets
filled with records compiled by Garrison as he probed an elaborate
conspiracy theory were missing.
But within days, a former investigator for Mr. Connick had surfaced
to charge that his boss had ordered him to destroy the Kennedy files
shortly after taking over as DA. The investigator, Gary Raymond, said
Mr. Connick asked him to "burn" the records, even as he protested
to his boss they might be valuable. Mr. Raymond says he took the papers
home and kept them these many years. He proceeded to turn over the
grand jury records to a local TV reporter, and ultimately to the Kennedy
panel in Washington.
Mr. Raymond's disclosures caused a stir at New Orleans. Instead of
feeling chastened or embarrassed, Mr. Connick went on a rampage, calling
his old investigator a "thief," demanding he be prosecuted, and issuing
a subpoena to the panel for the grand jury records. He didn't seem
eager to turn over the rest of the Garrison files, either.
"This matter may well wind up in litigation," Richard Brown, the Justice
Department lawyer assigned to the case, told the Forward. He refused
to discuss details of the dispute with Mr. Connick, saying he was
having discussions with Mr. Connick's staff and still hoped to achieve
an amicable solution. In his July 14 letter to the New Orleans DA,
Mr. Brown asserted the board's "broad powers" and affirmed the fact
that the grand jury records "appear to constitute assassination records
within the meaning of the JFK Act" and fall under the board's purview.
He also stated the board would not comply with the subpoena.
The immensity of the review panel's overall undertaking, combined
with the wariness with which some agencies, such as the FBI, have
greeted the work of the commission, has made it a slow-going operation.
But the panel -- whose members swear it is not an "investigative"
body -- is determined to uncover and bring to light every known scrap
of information related to the shooting that took place at Dealey Plaza
32 years ago this autumn.
Ethnic NewsWatch © SoftLine Information, Inc., Stamford, CT
Lagnado, Lucette, Constitutional Question Hovers Over JFK Assassination Review., Forward, 09-08-1995, pp PG.