Patricia Lambert's False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison's Investigation and Oliver Stone's Film JFK

by Dave Reitzes

JFK assassination book: False Witness Among those who research the possibility of conspiracy in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, there is no other single issue as contentious and divisive as that of Jim Garrison and his legendary investigation. One's opinion of Garrison will inevitably color the way one perceives any book or article about his ill-fated probe. I want to therefore state several relevant opinions right up front to spare the reader any effort in inferring them: Jim Garrison, ladies and gentlemen, was a fraud, and if Clay Shaw, David Ferrie or any New Orleans resident had anything to do with the JFK assassination, Garrison not only couldn't prove it, but had no basis for making any allegations in the first place. He would later literally rewrite the history of his investigation, portraying himself as a doomed David up against the Goliath of a massive government conspiracy, an image which captivated Oliver Stone, who based an influential, admirable and factually inaccurate movie on Garrison's story.

Patricia Lambert's False Witness is the latest of several books challenging the integrity of Garrison's case against Clay Shaw specifically and his self-proclaimed crusade against an alleged evil government conspiracy in general. Earlier works such as Edward Jay Epstein's Counterplot and James Kirkwood's American Grotesque effectively laid bare a number of the shortcomings in Garrison's case and his investigative methodology as a whole. Lambert's is the first, however, to thoroughly trace Garrison's story from the very beginning of his investigation, through the Shaw trial and its aftermath, and ultimately through the events that led Oliver Stone to bring the man once known as the Jolly Green Giant to the silver screen.

As a history of the Garrison investigation, False Witness is a mixed blessing. It is indeed thorough about the major issues of Garrison's case against Clay Shaw as well as definitive in its analysis of Jim Garrison's career and personality. Its major problem is that, despite the book's factual accuracy, Lambert's documentation is often less than meticulous. In fact, she has a habit of matter-of-factly asserting conclusions about which controversy continues to rage.

An example is her treatment of what is surely one of the most controversial incidents in the entire New Orleans story: the conversation that reportedly took place on November 23, 1963, between Dean Adams Andrews, Jr., and a man he would later refer to as "Clay Bertrand." Lambert states her findings plainly enough: Andrews' friend and occasional client Eugene Clair Davis called Andrews in the hospital to discuss a job he had for him. One of them -- very possibly Andrews himself -- made a remark about the fame that awaited the lawyer who represented Lee Harvey Oswald, and -- under the influence of heavy sedation and a rather vivid imagination -- Andrews found himself calling his office insisting that he had been contacted about representing Oswald. When word spread, following Oswald's death, about Andrews' claim, the opportunistic lawyer saw no need to straighten out the record -- just the opposite. To enhance his credibility, he embellished his story to include the claim that Oswald had briefly been a client of his, referred by the mysterious "Clay Bertrand." When asked by the FBI and later the Warren Commission to describe "Clay Bertrand," he came up with various contradictory tales. (Of course he contradicted himself, he would later complain -- his interrogators never would let him see copies of what he's said before!) By the time Jim Garrison began looking into the assassination in late 1966, the "Clay Bertrand" story had taken on a life of its own.

But when one flips to the endnotes to see how Lambert arrived at her account, all one finds is a citation to Dean Andrews' testimony at the Shaw trial. Having studied the Garrison episode somewhat intensively of late, I agree with Lambert's conclusion that Andrews told the truth at Shaw's trial: that there was no "Clay Bertrand"; there was only Gene Davis, who did not know Oswald, did not refer him to Andrews, did not phone Dean Andrews about representing Oswald in Dallas, and who simply had the misfortune of discussing the President's accused assassin with the wrong person at the wrong time.

New Orleans reporter Rosemary James, who "broke" the story of Garrison's investigation and covered it for the States-Item, has also written a review of Lambert's book.

Is this account factual? Yes; the record is on Lambert's side: Of all the witnesses Garrison claims in his memoirs to have had to Shaw's alleged secret life as "Bertrand," he could not put a single one on the stand. But those who are presently inclined to believe Garrison's assertion that Clay Shaw used the alias "Clay Bertrand" are not going to be persuaded. Perhaps such true believers would not be persuaded by any possible argument, but more evidence could and should have been offered.

Lambert will be taken to task by many conspiracy believers -- even those not especially persuaded by Garrison's arguments against Clay Shaw -- for wiping David Ferrie off the list of "mysterious deaths." In this case the factual record is unequivocal: David Ferrie died of natural causes; there was never any doubt about this to coroner Nicholas Chetta and autopsy pathologist Ronald Welsh, and the autopsy report refutes all claims that Garrison and his followers have put forward over the years. But Lambert's brief discussion of the episode is not about to convince those who have taken on faith Garrison's repeated allegations over the years that Ferrie's death was a murder or suicide, and she does not reproduce key documentation such as Ferrie's autopsy report that would aid her case.

What Lambert has done with regard to Ferrie, however, through interviews with key Garrison insiders, is refute an assertion of Garrison's that has gone virtually unchallenged for three decades: that his office had -- only hours prior to the discovery of Ferrie's death -- decided to arrest him. Not so, says then-Assistant DA and longtime Garrison loyalist James Alcock, confirming the accounts of Tom Bethell and others held in lower esteem by Garrison advocates. Thus a "mysterious death" becomes not so mysterious after all: Ferrie was in no danger of being arrested; in fact, he was preparing a $500,000 defamation suit against the DA's office.

But Lambert unaccountably passes over another event that helped Garrison link Ferrie, however tenuously, to an alleged plot: the murder of Florida anti-Castro activist Eladio del Valle the same day that Ferrie died. When Garrison discovered this -- some two months later -- he asserted that del Valle and Ferrie had known each other very well, had both been part of an assassination conspiracy and were both silenced by the conspiracy's "clean-up squad"; he claimed that his office had linked del Valle to Ferrie and the assassination well before the two men died.

None of this was true. Del Valle was not a suspect; he never had been and never would be linked in any manner to the Kennedy assassination. The Florida authorities developed evidence wholly unrelated to David Ferrie or New Orleans and a suspect for del Valle's murder was indicted. The assertion that del Valle even knew David Ferrie is based on the unsubstantiated claim of one individual whose credibility has been called into serious doubt and whose story contradicts the known record of Ferrie life in the early 1960s. Lambert doesn't mention any of this; del Valle's name does not appear anywhere in her book. Thus a gap which could have been easily plugged remains open to speculation. (Perhaps I'm being a little harsh on Ms. Lambert, however. A check of Garrison's memoirs reveals not even a single mention of Eladio del Valle.)

A great amount of space is devoted to the one witness that Garrison relied upon in the '60s as well as in his 1988 memoirs to link Clay Shaw to the JFK assassination: Perry Raymond Russo. Working with newly available records from Garrison's files as well as her own interviews with Russo and various insiders, Lambert achieves what even previous Garrison critics such as James Phelan and Edward Epstein couldn't: She uncovers the full evolution of Russo's story, establishing the true, deliberately obscured chronology of the hurried series of interviews that awaited Perry Russo when he came forward to talk about his onetime friend, Captain Dave Ferrie, following Ferrie's death.

While James Phelan noted that Russo's story about Shaw was contradicted by Russo's earlier statements in the press and in an interview memorandum written by Assistant DA Andrew Sciambra, Lambert has gone even further: She's determined that not only were Russo's recollections influenced by his sodium Pentathol and hypnosis sessions with the DA's office -- as outlined in Edward Jay Epstein's Counterplot -- but that the record itself had been falsified by Garrison, who reversed the chronology of two key Russo interrogations to artificially fortify Russo's story before handing them over to the HSCA. Lambert's source? The DA's very own records.

One landmark chapter examines in detail for the very first time the decision handed down by Judge Herbert W. Christenberry dismissing the perjury charges that Garrison filed against Shaw following Shaw's acquittal. Long characterized by Garrison as an unprecedented and indefensible example of the government conspiracy against him, Lambert lays out the record and finds it to be exactly the opposite: a sound and just action of jurisprudence taken against a DA who had filed charges against a citizen in bad faith.

Elsewhere, Lambert analyzes step by step how Garrison constructed for his memoirs his revisionist history of the case from bits and pieces of discredited evidence, and an appendix includes a devastating page-by-page refutation of On the Trail of the Assassins. Time and time again, Lambert shows how Garrison's assertions contradict the contemporaneous record of his investigation, including documents culled from his own files. Lambert thus strikes at the heart of the methodology that allowed Garrison to parlay his 1969 failure into a 1991 Hollywood success.

Most surprisingly of all, Lambert pulls the rug out from under the one and only element of Garrison's story given credence by the House Select Committee on Assassinations: the allegation that Clay Shaw had driven Lee Harvey Oswald and David Ferrie to Clinton, Louisiana one day in the summer or early fall of 1963. From newly discovered notes obtained from one of Garrison's original Clinton investigators, Lambert constructs the true Clinton story for the first time.

It was Clinton registrar of voters Henry Earl Palmer, a high-ranking member of the Louisiana Ku Klux Klan, who same forward with his fellow Klansman John Manchester in 1967 with a story that no one in Louisiana had ever heard before: that Lee Harvey Oswald had visited Jackson, Louisiana looking for a job at the State Hospital there, had been advised that registering to vote might boost his eligibility, and had ended up in nearby Clinton where he allegedly spoke to Palmer. From new interviews conducted by Lambert, we find out that employees at Louisiana State Hospital had been quite surprised to learn in 1967 that the alleged assassin of John F. Kennedy had once applied for a job at the hospital, something no one but the two employees who testified at Shaw's trial seemed to remember -- though neither had never discussed the incident with their co-workers.

We learn from the original 1967 Clinton notes that the witnesses' original story did not include anyone resembling Clay Shaw or David Ferrie (with the possible exception of Palmer); that witness Corrie Collins did not initially remember Oswald having been in Clinton, but rather a local man, Winslow Foster, who arrived at the CORE registration drive in a black car with another local, Estus Morgan; they were the only white people at the drive. Only in January 1968 did Collins begin to "remember" the visitor as Lee Harvey Oswald, and even then his statements do not place David Ferrie or Clay Shaw there. (Ferrie, he thought, looked somewhat familiar; Shaw less so.)

By the time of the trial, almost all the details had been smoothed out, and not only did Collins "remember" a visit from Oswald, Ferrie and Shaw, but so did the others. Manchester now suddenly "remembered" speaking to the driver of the black car, whom he identified as Clay Shaw, and who had reportedly identified himself as an employee of the International Trade Mart. In later years this would evolve into the claim that the black car's license plate had been traced to the ITM, a fact contradicted by the 1969 Shaw trial transcript. (DA James Alcock specifically states at one point that the license plate was not traced.)

David Reitzes has himself done a thorough debunking of Jim Garrison's "case" against Clay Shaw, which is available on this web site.

Again, lacking are the primary sources. For assassination researchers to discard the seemingly credible eyewitness testimony of eight separate individuals, four of whom linked Clay Shaw to David Ferrie and Lee Harvey Oswald, we need to be shown the complete record regarding the evolution of their statements. Perhaps it's just not feasible to devote that much space for source documentation in a mass-marketed book, but an effort should have been made to present at least key portions of the previously unknown 1967 material. The idea of a second volume devoted to source documents has been discussed among researchers as has the possibility of a CD-ROM database; the need for such resources is something the author, editor and publisher should have foreseen.

A minor problem with False Witness is the scant attention paid to those witnesses besides Russo who testified against Shaw. Is this inappropriate? Not insofar as the witnesses themselves merit; the testimony of such witnesses as Jessie Parker and James Hardiman, for example, were rightly considered nearly as inconsequential in 1969 as that of the infamous Charles Spiesel, whom even Garrison later disavowed. However, a new generation of Garrison advocates continues to cite such witnesses, regardless of the problems with their credibility. Had Lambert devoted two or three pages to Parker, Hardiman, and self-proclaimed handwriting expert Elizabeth McCarthy, it could have preempted dubious arguments that are bound to come from certain quarters.

Lambert also underestimates the staying power of Garrison's wholly unfounded allegation that Shaw was a CIA operative, though she does take the time to examine the claims briefly and refute in particular the misguided belief of recent vintage that Shaw was actively involved in a CIA operation called QK/ENCHANT, in which he actually had been cleared as an unwitting source of intelligence. While Lambert's position -- that there simply is no evidence to support Garrison's allegation -- is eminently reasonable, the failure to thoroughly address the issue leaves practically unopposed the issue that became Garrison's mantra for the rest of his life: that Shaw was a CIA agent whose acquittal had been assured by the CIA, which purportedly infiltrated, disrupted and sabotaged his investigation to protect the conspiracy that killed JFK.

Jim Garrison's crackpot notions about Kerry Thornley being involved in the assassination as an "Oswald double" are the subject of an essay by David Lifton, a conspiracy-oriented researcher who attempted to help Garrison.

Another weakness of False Witness is the near-total absence of Garrison's allegations of conspiracy wholly or largely unrelated to Shaw, some of which -- such as the limited investigations of Guy Banister's early '60s activities and the 1961 Houma, Louisiana munitions burglary -- have long fueled the belief that Garrison really did "have something" after all. Debate still rages over whether Banister or the Houma episode bear upon an understanding of the Kennedy assassination, and such Garrison suspects as Gordon Novel and Sergio Arcacha Smith are undoubtedly deserving of either a sound debunking or further study, whichever is more appropriate. There are also the numerous questionable indictments obtained by Garrison's office -- such as those of Kerry Thornley, newsmen David Chandler and Walter Sheridan, and several others -- that are dealt with in only the most cursory fashion, if at all. Were the book exclusively about the court case The People v. Clay Shaw, this might be understandable; in a book about "the real story of Jim Garrison's investigation," these are glaring omissions.

All of these reservations must be taken in context: Lambert's book is neither an unimportant work or an example of poor scholarship. Rather, I am lamenting that a groundbreaking, eye-opening, highly significant examination of a genuine American disgrace isn't the exhaustive and wholly definitive study I would have liked, nor is Lambert's work presented with the ample documentary resources necessary to demonstrate just how thoroughly researched and well supported are her conclusions.

The bottom line is that Lambert has exposed the real Jim Garrison for the very first time in a way that illuminates both the bizarre nature of his investigation and the personal and political forces that not only made it possible, but that enabled Garrison to rise from his own ashes two decades later with the paradoxical triumph of Oliver Stone's artistically magnificent and historically indefensible motion picture.

This review is reprinted, with permission, from Deep Politics Quarterly.

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