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Constitutional Question Hovers Over JFK Assassination Review

Constitutional Question Hovers Over JFK Assassination Review.

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 of Louisiana.

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.

Noble Task

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 disclosure?

"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 the president."

Bizarre Dispute

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.

Litigation Possible

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.