Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi

Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
by Vincent Bugliosi

Vincent Bugliosi is an acclaimed criminal lawyer and author, best known as the Los Angeles Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the Manson family and for the fascinating book that followed called Helter Skelter. He’s written numerous other books, including Till Death Do Us Part and The Betrayal of America, but Bugliosi's role as a television prosecutor in the 1986 simulated British trial against Lee Harvey Oswald is less well known. Yet, this performance firmly established him as an assassination buff, with a strong leaning against conspiracy theories.

In this mammoth 1,648 page book, with 1,000 additional pages of references on an accompanying CD, he aspired to debunk those theories and to conclusively establish Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone shooter in the tragic death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. (For those who want the five minute recap, watch Bugliosi on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JktLkQbtVbE).

Bugliosi addressed a variety of allegations about the murder—that both Oswald and Jack Ruby (the man who shot Oswald 48 hours after the assassination) were hired by either the mob, Secret Service, CIA or Cuban exiles; that there were actually four or five shots at the presidential motorcade, not three as the Warren Commission claimed; that the home film taken by Abraham Zapruder had been tampered with; and that Oswald was a poor marksman and never could have succeeded in killing the president with his inadequate rifle.

Let's look at some of those claims and what a few of his critics have to say about them.

Historically, according to Bugliosi, the mob has almost always used their own men, in pairs or with backup, but not alone. The few times that they deviated from this rule were to kill other mobsters, usually hiring young, poor black men to do so. Bugliosi argued that no one cared enough about mobsters, or sadly, about young, disenfranchised black men for this to have provoked much of an investigation. The likelihood that the mob would have hired two novices like Oswald and Ruby seemed ludicrous to him. Also, there’s an unwritten rule among the Mafioso that they don't kill law enforcement and when they do commit public executions, they make sure not to get caught! They certainly wouldn't have shot somebody in an open space right in front of a room full of police officers and reporters the way Jack Ruby did.

The CIA would have rejected Oswald as an emotionally unstable loner with a long history of Marxist tendencies. He never would have qualified as an agent for them because they couldn’t have relied on him to follow orders, Bugliosi argued. More importantly, Oswald was a fierce supporter of Fidel Castro. Why would he have collaborated with the CIA, who had tried to take down Castro in the Bay of Pigs? Some conspiracy theorists say that Oswald was actually quite right wing, not left, and that he was only pretending to be a Marxist. But that would have made him an exceptional actor having "pretended" to be someone he wasn't for his wife, mother, brother and anyone else who knew him, right back to his teenage years.

The number of shots fired is a more complex issue, as is the location from where they were fired. Conspiracy theorists claim that the bullet that killed Kennedy went through the front of the head and out the back of his skull, blowing his brains out. If that were true, a shooter would have had to have aimed from the infamous grassy knoll, a small hill along Elm Street in front of the motorcade. But The Warren Report stated that there were only three shots: the first one missed, the second one hit the president in the back and the third one was the fatal head shot. Supposedly, the second bullet went through the back of JFK's neck, exited through his throat, proceeded to hit Governor Connally in the back, injured his shoulder and right wrist in flight and exited through his thigh.

One can see why this scenario has been referred to as the "magic bullet" theory and why it's so hard to comprehend. Adherents to the JFK conspiracy notion, as well as many current history textbooks, place the governor directly in front of the president in the limousine. If indeed Connally had been sitting in that position, the single fatal bullet could not have hit Kennedy and then moved in such a seemingly twisted trajectory to injure Connally. However, Bugliosi stated emphatically that the governor was not sitting directly in front of the president, but rather in front of him and slightly to the left. That would have enabled our single bullet to follow a straight-line path and hit both men the way it did.

One problem with The Warren Report is its size. The original 888 page report was followed by 26 volumes (more than 50,000 pages!) of supporting documentation, thus making it virtually impossible for the average person to read. Bugliosi felt that this was unfortunate because he extolled the exhaustiveness of the report. But covering every angle and aspect of the assassination was both the report's strength and, by limiting its critical findings to a small number of intrepid readers, its weakness.

The movie JFK: The Case for Conspiracy by Robert Groden alleged that there were four or five shots, which would have necessitated a second shooter, probably operating behind the picket fence at the top of the grassy knoll. The Case for Conspiracy showed actual footage of the president and his wife arriving in Dallas and driving into Dealey Plaza, and stated that 80% of the witnesses heard a shot coming from the grassy knoll, whereas Bugliosi insisted that only four out of 494 witnesses heard a shot from that direction. Everyone else confirmed that the shot came from the Texas School Book Depository, where Bugliosi believed that Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots in succession. (One thing to keep in mind here is the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony, which has been repeatedly demonstrated by social psychologists.)

In the Groden movie, which used contemporary footage, Connally is sitting directly in front of Kennedy. Why can’t we see with our own eyes what Bugliosi says happened? Because this was the ‘60s and it was an amateur home movie. The quality of all the various videos taken that day—including the film by Zapruder, who was standing closest to the president during the shooting—was so poor that even close-up shots made it difficult to discern what happened (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-cri43ttTo&feature=related). As well, the car passed right underneath a large metal sign to the Stemmons Freeway, slightly before the shooting, further impairing our visibility.

As an example of the poor resolution of the film, Groden made a case for a "Black Dog Man" standing up on the grassy hill behind the picket fence, but when he focused in on the image, all I could think was, "Good grief! Where’s my magnifying glass? Or better yet, my telescope!" It would have taken extraordinary vision and imagination to have distinguished a human face on that film. What was disconcerting, though, in this movie, which was not even mentioned in Reclaiming History, was that Groden interviewed a number of doctors at Bethesda Hospital who either treated Jack Kennedy in the emergency room or performed the autopsy. And when he showed many of the physicians, as well as a nurse, the autopsy pictures, they all said that those were not the original photos. Groden concluded that someone had altered the original x-rays.

But Clint Bradford (http://www.jfk-info.com/groden-1.htm) discredits Groden's reputation by saying that Groden testified at the O.J. Simpson trial, stating that he had neither photographic credentials nor a high school education; made his living by studying the assassination and acting as a tour guide on the motorcade route; suffered several strokes with subsequent memory loss; and stubbornly refused to recant his testimony about a photograph of O.J.'s shoes, insisting that the picture had been tampered with when 30 other photographs reflected the same shot.

Bugliosi didn’t evaluate The Case for Conspiracy; however, he spent an enormous amount of time examining the 1991 blockbuster hit JFK by Oliver Stone. JFK followed the life of Jim Garrison, a New Orleans district attorney who became obsessed with the idea that multiple shooters had been hired to eliminate Jack Kennedy in order to advance the war in Vietnam. In 1969, Garrison fingered local businessman Clay Shaw as a participant, with no evidence whatsoever according to Bugliosi, who claimed that Garrison changed his story and his target frequently after Shaw was proven innocent by a jury in less than an hour—54 minutes to be exact. It was perfectly clear to the jury that Garrison had persecuted an innocent man. A key witness, Perry Russo, who was left out of the movie altogether, apparently made his accusations about Shaw’s involvement under hypnosis, and Garrison, through an assistant, had tried to bribe at least one witness to supply false testimony. A number of critics believe that Stone played fast and loose with the facts in JFK, but unfortunately, it became a huge hit; thus, the idea that the Warren Commission had committed the biggest cover-up of all time became imprinted in our cultural history.

Conspiracy theorists have suggested that Oswald was a lousy marksman and had an inferior weapon. But Bugliosi said that Oswald actually won marksmanship awards in the Marines for above average shooting—he was good but not an expert—and that his rifle was perfectly workable. Some believe that Oswald never had the time to fire off three rapid shots with that type of rifle, but both CIA simulations using Oswald's actual gun and CBS simulations using the exact model of Oswald's gun have proven that it could be done in even less time than it took Oswald.

There are some conspiracy buffs who think that the Zapruder film was spliced because certain frames were missing. Bugliosi explained that Life magazine damaged a few frames accidentally after Abraham Zapruder sold them his film, but wisely he had made several other copies, which were not damaged. Ergo, the missing frames are still available and nothing out of the ordinary occurred in them.

What we do know about Lee Harvey Oswald, Bugliosi stated, is that he owned the rifle, his prints were on it, there were three bullet casings with his prints on them on the sixth floor of the Book Depository where he’d been standing, and he was a Marxist who opposed American government. That’s Bugliosi’s story and he’s sticking to it. But there are those who vehemently disagree with his ballistic interpretation, like James DiEugenio.

In his article, "Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and Bugliosi's Bungle: A Comprehensive Review of Reclaiming History", which is a lengthy but worthwhile read, DiEugenio disagreed with just about everything that Bugliosi suggested, including the extent of Oswald’s shooting ability; the price, make and serial number of Oswald's rifle; and Oswald's ownership of the gun found on the sixth floor. Claiming that the rifle was the central piece of "evidence" in Bugliosi’s case, DiEugenio summarily dismissed his argument as woefully lacking (http://www.ctka.net/2008/bugliosi_review.html).

And in "Review of Reclaiming History: A Closed Mind Perpetrating a Fraud on the Public," James H. Fetzer stated that Bugliosi took a prosecutorial rather than scientific approach in his reasoning. Bugliosi had four basic premises, which Fetzer claimed were all erroneous: one, that a single bullet could have gone from Kennedy's body into Connally's as it did [Retort—the solitary bullet theory is anatomically impossible]; two, the shooter was on the sixth floor of the Book Depository [the wounds couldn't have been sustained with a downward motion, thus, the shooter needed to be lower down in the building, such as on the second floor or out on the knoll]; three, he used a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano [the bullets that hit the president and the governor were high velocity and a Mannlicher-Carcano is a low velocity rifle]; and four, the shooter was indeed Lee Harvey Oswald [yet Oswald was seen within 90 seconds of the shooting downstairs in the lunchroom so he couldn't have been on the sixth floor]. Fetzer, instead, postulates several shooters and probably six shots. (http://www.blackopradio.com/fetzerreview.htm)

Fetzer also believes that the Zapruder film and the autopsy x-rays were altered, and that another brain was substituted for the president’s. In addition, Fetzer supports the idea that the US federal government masterminded the 9/11 attacks.

Reclaiming History implores readers to use common sense. Bugliosi is convinced that people just can’t keep secrets, and for government agencies, including Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and future President Gerald Ford, to have conspired to prevent the American people and the rest of the world from knowing what happened to Jack Kennedy, and then for not one of them to have spoken a word about it, including a deathbed confession, for 46 years, says it all.

In addition, Oswald died leaving $183 in the bank. If he had been a paid marksman, who paid him and how? And if he was bought off, why did he shoot the president with a $12 mail order rifle? Why not provide him with not only an excellent weapon but also an airtight escape route afterwards? Was someone there to pick Oswald up after the dirty deed? No, he was wandering the streets alone, waiting for a bus. And it would have been rather sloppy of the CIA or the FBI to have allowed their main hitman to have been interrogated by the police for almost 48 hours before he was killed. If a government agency hired Oswald to kill Kennedy, they most certainly would have picked him up in a secure vehicle immediately afterwards and driven him to his death.

Lastly, Bugliosi said that the motorcade route going down Elm Street and passing the Book Depository was only established four days before the assassination, which would have seriously undermined a collaborative plan. For weeks beforehand, Oswald had applied for different jobs because he didn’t like the Depository, and the night before, instead of staying in and making contact with his "connections," he went to visit his estranged wife Marina to beg her to return to him.

How can we know whose "facts" are correct? It’s hard to ascertain the whole story without reading The Warren Report and many of the major pro-conspiracy and anti-conspiracy books, examining the film evidence and x-rays, having a medical background or consulting with medical experts, and otherwise expending an inordinate amount of time on the project. However, when alleging a cover-up of such magnitude, the burden of proof is on the accusers. Where is their evidence? Just because they pose questions that may never be answered doesn’t mean that there was a massive conspiracy. Often times when presented with an overwhelming amount of information, one must resort to Occam’s razor, which states that the simplest explanation, requiring the least amount of suppositions, is usually true.

Bugliosi made numerous excellent and compelling points. The entire Kennedy family accepted the lone gunmen theory, including Jacqueline, the late RFK, Teddy, and JFK’s now deceased son, John Jr.; the latter even agreed reluctantly to talk to Oliver Stone to discuss his movie and walked out of the meeting disgusted. If even one Kennedy had been dubious of the Warren Commission’s findings, surely they would have used every ounce of their impressive political muscle to call for an inquiry, which none of them ever did.

Aside from the length of the book, one criticism that I have of Reclaiming History is that Bugliosi is clearly self-righteous and condescending towards anyone who doesn’t share his point of view. He doesn’t suffer fools lightly and believes that all conspiracy theorists are just that.


Bradford, Clint. "JFK Assassination Research Materials: Robert Groden and OJ." (http://www.jfk-info.com/groden-1.htm, accessed May 18, 2009.)

Bugliosi, Vincent. Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, WW Norton, 2007.

Bugliosi, Vincent. "No Evidence for JFK / Oswald Conspiracies." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JktLkQbtVbE, accessed May 12, 2009.)

Groden, Robert. JFK: The Case for Conspiracy, Delta, 2003.

"JFK: The Assassination Movie." (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/jfkmovie.htm, accessed May 4, 2009.)

"JFK." Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JFK_(film), accessed May 8, 2009.)

DiEugenio, James. "Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and Bugliosi's Bungle: A Comprehensive Review of Reclaiming History, Part 1, Questioning the Prosecutor's Case." (http://www.ctka.net/2008/bugliosi_review.html, accessed May 9, 2009.)

Fetzer, James H. "Review of Reclaiming History: A Closed Mind Perpetrating a Fraud on the Public." (http://www.blackopradio.com/fetzerreview.htm, accessed May 14, 2009.)

Stone, Oliver. JFK, Warner Home Video, 1991.

Von Pein, David. "Re: James DiEugenio versus Vincent Bugliosi (and David Von Pein)." (http://groups.google.com/group/alt.conspiracy.jfk/msg/10311d20ec887ac?pli=1, accessed May 9, 2009.)

"Warren Commission." History Matters. (http://www.history-matters.com/archive/contents/contents_wc.htm, accessed May 12, 2009.)

"Warren Commission." Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Commission,
accessed May 9, 2009.)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Mad or Bad?

According to PBS Frontline, there are over one million mentally ill inmates who will be released from prison in the United States within the next 18 months; the majority of these will not be able to function outside of a supervised environment, and will therefore be rearrested, after either causing havoc or harm to themselves or others.

We have similar problems; Corrections Canada cites research from 2004 that suggests "about 11 per cent of newly arriving prisoners had a mental disorder in 2004, compared with about seven per cent in 1997." And Capital News Online claims that "in 2007, 2,219 male inmates and 133 female inmates were identified at admission to federal institutions across Canada as having mental health problems, which marks an increase of 71 per cent and 61 per cent respectively since 1997."

Why do so many offenders have mental health problems? Well, to begin with, there was a strong civil rights movement on behalf of psychiatric patients back in the 1970s. In a well-intentioned attempt to better serve these people in the community, rather than to warehouse them, perhaps for a lifetime, the patients were deinstitutionalized. Theoretically, this could have been a good thing if the appropriate community supports had been in place, but they weren't.
As a result, many people with mental health issues, particularly those with psychotic features such as paranoid schizophrenics and those with bipolar illness, often stopped taking their medication when they weren't in the hospital. This is easy to understand because sometimes meds need to be administered three times a day. That's hard enough for a high functioning person to manage and extremely difficult, if not impossible, for someone who doesn't have the skills to carry around a daily planner, a pillbox, or to make appointments in advance with the doctor and the pharmacy to refill prescriptions.

Often the mentally ill are arrested for small infractions initially, Frontline states in two fascinating documentaries on the plight of the mentally ill in prison: The New Asylums (2004) and The Released (2009), both of which are available to watch in their entirety online: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/released/view/. They may steal something at the 7-11 or commit a robbery or break into a house because they're convinced that bin Laden is there or someone is trying to kill them. Since long-term psychiatric care and rehabilitation are a thing of the past, these people are frequently jailed and then put into minimum security. They don't often do well there, having difficulty following orders or simply feeling too agitated and restless to comply with a strict regimen, and may increase their aggressiveness or violence, forcing the system to put them in maximum security. And, of course, the penitentiary is not equipped to deal with anyone who is suicidal, self mutilating or hallucinating.

Sadly, one of the best ways for someone with psychotic episodes who is breaking the law to get help is within the institution rather than the community. This has to change. Otherwise, there will be a continual revolving door of the mentally ill, who clearly do not belong in prison, going back and forth. Frontline interviewed several of these people, notably black men, who did very well inside the penitentiary but instantly decompensated when they were released because they stopped taking their meds, lost them or ran out, and ended up being homeless. When someone is homeless, they can't receive Social Security benefits (or welfare and disability in Canada), and things predictably go from bad to worse.

What's the solution? "We need to have something that starts from the intake, the assessment, even to the community release," said Dr. Francoise Bouchard, Director General of Health Services for the Correctional Services of Canada.

True enough. But we also need adequate community resources and psychiatric care, diagnosis and treatment to help those with mental challenges, and prevent them from entering the penal system in the first place.

Sigrid Macdonald
Ottawa, Ontario