Testimony of Josiah Thompson

Before the Assassination Records Review Board - 4/2/97
13 Next, we will hear from Mr. Josiah Thompson,

14 who is an author, one of the early authors of a widely

15 read book on the assassination, "Six Seconds in

16 Dallas," I believe.

17 Mr. Thompson, thank you for joining us today.


19 MR. THOMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Dr.

20 Marwell, distinguished members of the panel. I do not

21 have a prepared statement but sitting here, I have had

22 a few thoughts, on two basic points. One concerns the


1 anomalies concerning this film in private hands, which

2 I had much experience of in the 1960s and '70s. And

3 secondly, a question that was just asked, what is the

4 central, enormous research importance of this film. I

5 could and will give you some reasons for the centrality

6 of the film.

7 Friday afternoon, November 22nd, and Forrest

8 Sorrels is in Abraham Zapruder's office. Abraham

9 Zapruder gets his camera out of the safe. Had Forrest

10 Sorrels said, "Mr. Zapruder, I am taking that camera

11 and that film as evidence in this homicide," we might

12 still be here today, but we wouldn't be here with this

13 particular problem.

14 Forrest Sorrels did not do that. I think he

15 made a mistake. And because he did not do that, in

16 August of 1966, when I came to this very building and

17 saw the Zapruder film for the first time, what I was

18 permitted to see was a copy of a Secret Service copy.

19 In the summer of 1966, that was the only way any

20 ordinary citizen in this country could see a copy of

21 the Zapruder film, coming to the Archives, registering,

22 and having Marian Johnson screen a copy of a copy. I


1 did that. It was a miserable copy, a miserable copy.

2 I had heard through the grapevine that Life's

3 original, and Life's copies made from that original,

4 4-by-5 transparencies, were remarkably clear. Through

5 brute luck, two months later I ended up being hired to

6 co-direct Life Magazine's assassination investigation

7 and was permitted to see copies made from the original

8 4-by-5 transparencies made from the original.

9 Everything I had been told was correct, they

10 were remarkably clear. One could see the hit on

11 Connally, which was completely unclear on the copy in

12 the Archives. Dallas, November 1966. We have 4-by-5

13 transparencies. The Life team is made up of three or

14 four members. One of those members ends up either

15 stealing or destroying four of those frames, very, very

16 important frames. As a young professor of philosophy,

17 I had not a clue what was going on, but I knew

18 something was going on.

19 So three weeks later, I snuck a camera into

20 the Time-Life building and made a copy of the Zapruder

21 film against specific orders of my employer, Life

22 Magazine. I did that for two reasons. The film was in


1 private hands and private custody. I figured, I had no

2 idea what was going on at Life Magazine, figured it was

3 a power struggle of some sort and thought for posterity

4 it would be very useful to have a copy outside those

5 private hands.

6 In addition, I wanted to make certain

7 measurements on the film concerning the movement of the

8 President's head, measurements that were finally

9 published in "Six Seconds," which would give some

10 notion as to whether impressed forces on the President

11 at the time of the head shot could be interpreted as

12 either one shot or two shots. I was not permitted to

13 take the film out of the building, hence, to do that I

14 had to make a copy, I had to steal a copy.

15 The following June, we made an offer to Time,

16 Inc., my publisher and I made an offer, which was we

17 would turn over all commercial interests in the book to

18 Time, Inc., in exchange for the right to use selected

19 parts of certain Zapruder frames. We were turned down

20 flat, and on advice of counsel went forward and

21 published artists' renderings. We were sued. I lost

22 all of the earnings of the book. But we won.


1 Judge Enzer B. Wyatt of the Southern District

2 ruled in a summary judgment that we had used the film

3 as a fair use. That particular judgment mentioned by

4 Jim Lesar was in fact an enormously important expansion

5 of the doctrine of fair use where First Amendment

6 privilege is involved.

7 That is the way things stood. In other

8 words, what I am trying to explain here is that with

9 the film in private hands, all sorts of anomalies

10 occurred. The necessity of me trying to act for the

11 public good to steal a copy of the film, which is a

12 rather extraordinary event.

13 Why is this film important? It is enormously

14 important. If you want to know what happened in Dealey

15 Plaza, this film shows you, as much as any film can.

16 How could it be used by the research community? Well,

17 there have been certain quibbles about the authenticity

18 of this film. I have no doubt that it is authentic,

19 but that can be proven, that can be shown. All queries

20 and challenges to the authenticity, if this film is in

21 government hands, remains in government hands, can be

22 satisfactorily overcome. When that is done, this film


1 then becomes a baseline for all additional studies for

2 what happened in Dealey Plaza.

3 For example, the medical evidence. There

4 have been many claims of extra autopsies, faking of

5 autopsy photos, et cetera, et cetera. If the medical

6 evidence does not match what you see on the Zapruder

7 film, then you might have cause to challenge that sort

8 of evidence. Evidence of other films could be compared

9 against this film as a baseline. If they match, fine.

10 If they don't match, you know something is wrong. Much

11 more importantly, of course, is the deduction of

12 trajectories and ultimately, firing points, which can

13 only be done by great precision by using the most

14 resolved copy of the film available.

15 All of that can be done only if this film

16 remains in government hands. In 1964, J. Edgar Hoover

17 said this case would be forever open. In 1977-78, the

18 House committee judged that a conspiracy was involved

19 in the Kennedy assassination, was, in fact, probable.

20 We now know that the case really is still open at this

21 time, and as Jim Lesar pointed out, there may be a

22 federal prosecution in the future. For all those


1 reasons, this central evidence in the case should

2 remain in government hands, as it is now, and the legal

3 arguments, I think, that Mr. Lesar and the professor

4 offered should sustain you in your judgment to take the

5 film.

6 JUDGE TUNHEIM: Thank you Mr. Thompson. Are

7 there questions from the board?

8 I have a question for you. In terms of the

9 future needs and uses of this film by researchers, do

10 you think that copies made now, particularly copies

11 that might be -- the complete frame, including the

12 sprocket, copies that are digitalized, do you think

13 that serves the same purpose for the sake of

14 researchers who are examining this film, assuming you

15 that can guarantee that they do come from the original?

16 MR. THOMPSON: Yes, I don't think any

17 researchers should be fiddling around with the

18 original. I think there should be a protocol

19 established as for how a digitized copy is made with

20 the state of the art equipment, state of the art

21 techniques, state of the art algorithms, et cetera.

22 That digitized copy, which is then fully authenticated,


1 should then be the basis of all research in the future.

2 The original would simply be held as a kind of

3 reference mark that would continually be available to

4 justify the copy as a foundational copy.

5 MR. GRAFF: You seem to water down a little

6 bit in your last statement -- I realize that you don't

7 have a piece of paper in front of you -- the importance

8 of holding on to the original. Suppose you had a team

9 saying this is an accurate, true copy of the original.

10 Why would the possession of the original by the

11 government be essential?

12 MR. THOMPSON: Well, because we don't know

13 whether the techniques that we use tomorrow and the

14 protocols and algorithms we would use tomorrow to make

15 the most highly resolved copy we could make, we don't

16 know that five years from now we can't do better or ten

17 years from now we can't do better.

18 JUDGE TUNHEIM: With respect to the question

19 that Dr. Hall asked Mr. Lesar, is there a ceiling on

20 the amount that the taxpayers should pay for this film,

21 in your view?

22 MR. THOMPSON: I don't think the taxpayers


1 should pay a penny for this film. I should add that

2 the figure $150,000 that the Zapruder family received

3 from Life Magazine, I know from working at Life, did

4 not include the licensing rights. Life then sold the

5 Zapruder film to Der Stern, Paris Match, et cetera, et

6 cetera. The Zapruder family also had an interest in

7 those licensing rights. So, I have no idea whether Jim

8 Lesar's estimate as under a million dollars is

9 accurate. In my opinion, it could run as far as 3 to

10 $5 million at this point.

11 JUDGE TUNHEIM: Thank you very much, Mr.

12 Thompson. We appreciate your joining us today.

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