On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald
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Among the most heinous criminal acts ever committed on American soil is the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. When accused gunman Lee Harvey Oswald was himself shot to death two days later while in police custody, Americans were denied hard answers to a brutal and bewildering mystery.
ON TRIAL: LEE HARVEY OSWALD recalls all of the surviving witnesses to determine the guilt or innocence of the man believed to have murdered JFK. First broadcast by the Showtime cable network in 1986 to mark the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, ON TRIAL: LEE HARVEY OSWALD is a daring, one-of-a-kind experiment with the goal to heal a nation.
November 22nd, 2008 marks the 45th anniversary of JFK s assassination.
Features prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi and defending attorney Gerry Spence, two of the most publicly revered legal minds of the 20th century.
... a fascinating lesson in history and law. And, not incidentally, TV s best courtroom drama ever. --Time Magazine
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Vincent Bugliosi, who writes such compelling true crime narratives, seems to be rushing by rote through his questioning as prosecuting attorney. He doesn't come off nearly as well as he does in his books. In fact Gerry Spence, appearing as Oswald's defense lawyer, himself comments on this hectic pace. When it comes his turn to cross-examine an early witness, he gets up, and with a breathless sigh, says, "Wow. Do you feel as if you've just been in a race?" The criticism appears not to register with Bugliosi who continues to fire off his prepared questions at the same break-neck speed throughout the trial.
This is a long DVD, and it seems its producers felt constrained to cut out and speed up as much as possible in order to avoid its being longer yet. In addition to Bugliosi's haste, witnesses come to and leave the stand in kangaroo leaps. Viewers might feel they have barely settled in to grasp the relevance of one witness, when that witness is dismissed from the stand and is replaced with another. There are of course virtually no side-bars or recesses to give people time to consider (or to be bored) as there would be in a real trial.
This obvious decision to "keep things moving" leaves some frustrating gaps in the testimony. For example, one witness testifies to seeing Oswald standing nonchalantly around the Book Depository cafeteria after the shooting, perhaps drinking a cola. Then a following witness testifies to seeing Oswald rushing all disheveled through the streets of Dallas, apparently escaping after having shot Officer Tippit. What happened between the nonchalance that followed Oswald's first shooting, and the reckless careening before and after he claimed his second victim?
I realize that this video format doesn't lend itself to exhaustive examination of the facts of the case. But I would have preferred a somewhat less pressured approach.
However, there is a lot of solid information here. Students of the assassination might have heard it all before. But I found a lot of new testimony to consider. There was the man who often drove Oswald to work and who drove him the day of the assassination. I hadn't thought about how Oswald got to and from work before. Then there was the woman with whom Oswald and his wife Marina were living as boarders. She gave some fresh (to me) insights into their marriage.
There is the mandatory and often graphic analysis of the head wounds that JFK sustained. So this video probably wouldn't be appropriate for children or for sensitive viewers. But there's a lot here that most history buffs would probably appreciate having summarized for them in such a dramatic contest of opposing viewpoints.
In five and hours of gripping court room testimony from real witnesses not only are these issues but the process of American trial work on display.
As a trial litigator for over twenty years, I found myself appreciating this DVD on both levels.
In terms of the trial practice aspects of this presentation I was disappointed that the DVD started with the trial itself instead of jury selection. As trial litigators and many within the lay public well know, the outcome of jury selection often is the outcome of the trial itself.
Taking Gerry Spence as an example this was most prominently on display when he obtained an acquittal for Imelda Marcos in connection with charges of corruption while serving politically with her husband in the Phillipines (where she was actually mayor of the country's capital city).
Therefore it was unfortunate that we were unable to see Spence and Bugliosi engage the jurors in pre trial questioning and just what that questioning focused on.
For that reason I found it more difficult to evaluate what the attorneys were doing because commonly the attorneys will stress themes they developed in pre trial questioning including even using key words and stock phrases developed by the jurors themselves.
That being said I was also surprised the presentation of the attorneys who often seemed too willing to engage each other in baiting type tactics such as when Gerry Spence offered that the only thing silent about Mr. Bugliosi was the pronounciation of the "g" in his name. It's been my solid experience that jurors are overwhelmingly offput by such behavior.
Likewise I was surprised at the periodic histrionics of counsel. While jurors are often ready to accept a well crafted metaphor they quickly bristle at long irrelevant stories more fueled by the orator's sound of his own voice than by any clear relevance to the case.
Additionally while I understood that there was a broadcast mandate for brevity I was surprised at the speed of counsel's presentation. Vincent Bugliosi made many, many good points but often so quickly you missed some of them.
All that being said, it was interesting just how much material was developed in the mere five and a half hours this DVD lasted. For a more thorough presentation I heartily recommend the Bugliosi book Reclaiming History (at a thinly typeset 1500 plus pages much more lengthy than either War and Peace or Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).
So: did Lee Harvey Oswald murder President Kennedy and if so did Oswald act alone or as part of a conspiracy?
While my personal prejudices would be to say "yes" and "no" in those orders (just as this jury decided), I leave the reader to the evidence itself and their own best discretion.
On the more important question of the ability of American courts to deliver justice I remain hopeful and am occassionally vindicated in that hope.
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However, Amazon have kindly arranged a refund.