The JFK 100


Oswald's Alibi


Could Oswald (played by Gary Oldman) have committed the crime?

 

Oliver Stone's JFK claims that the evidence in the John F. Kennedy assassination exonerates Lee Harvey Oswald of that crime.

Early in the movie, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) discusses the evidence with investigators "Bill Broussard," "Susie Cox," and Lou Ivon:

 

JIM
Maybe Oswald didn't even pull the trigger, Bill. The nitrate test indicates he didn't even fire a rifle on November 22nd. And on top of that, they didn't even bother to check if the rifle had been fired that day.

BILL
He had his palm print on the weapon.

JIM
It went to the goddamn FBI and they didn't find a goddamn thing. It comes back a week later and one guy in the Dallas police department suddenly finds a palm print which for all I know he could've taken off Oswald at the morgue. There's no chain of evidence, Bill. And what about the two guns actually seen in the Depository? One an Enfield photographed by a newsman and the other a Mauser, described by Deputy Weitzman . . . Maybe, just maybe, Lee Oswald was exactly what he said he was, Bill -- "a patsy." Take it at face value. Lou, Susie, I'm going with my gut here. He's got an alias of Hidell to buy the rifle, "O. H. Lee" to rent the room, right? What's in a name, right? In intelligence, they're assumed to be fake. A name is sort of like a postbox number, a code -- several different people can use the same name, right? Then why can't somebody be using Oswald's name?

We see blank faces around the table.

BILL
But why?

JIM
To frame him, obviously. You got to get in your minds how the hell spooks think, Bill! They're not ordinary crooks.

LOU
I never could figure out why this guy orders a traceable weapon to that post office box when you can go into any store in Texas, give a phony name and walk out with a cheap rifle which can never be traced.

JIM
Unless he or someone else wants him to get caught. Maybe he never ordered the weapon, Lou. Somebody else did. It was picked up at the post office early morning when Oswald's time sheet shows him clocked in at his job. Lou, come alive. These things are not adding up.(1)

 

Later Garrison recites a similar series of claims to the jury at the Clay Shaw trial. He begins with the allegation that at the time of the shooting, Oswald was "probably in the second floor snack room."

 

JIM (VOICE OVER)
Eddie Piper and William Shelly [sic] saw Oswald eating lunch in the first floor lunch room around twelve. Around 12:15, on her way out of the building to see the motorcade, secretary Carolyn Arnold saw Oswald in the second floor snack room, where he said he went for a Coke . . .

In the second floor lunchroom of the Book Depository we see Carolyn Arnold, a pregnant secretary, crossing past Oswald, who is in a booth.

CAROLYN ARNOLD
He was sitting in one of the booths on the right hand side of the room. He was alone as usual and appeared to be having lunch. I did not speak to him but I recognized [him] clearly. I remember it was 12:15 or later. It coulda been 12:25, five minutes before the assassination, I don't exactly remember. I was pregnant and I had a craving for a glass of water.

On the sixth floor of the depository, Bonnie Ray Williams is eating a chicken lunch, alone.

JIM (V. O.)
At the same time, Bonnie Ray Williams is supposedly eating his chicken lunch on the sixth floor, at least until 12:15, maybe 12:20 . . . he sees nobody.

On the street, Arnold Rowland and his wife look up at the sixth floor windows and we see, from their point of view, two shadowy figures . . .

JIM (V. O.)
Down on the street, Arnold Rowland was seeing two men in the sixth floor windows . . . presumably after Bonnie Ray Williams finished his lunch and left.

We see footage of JFK coming up Houston -- waving.

Oswald walks into the second floor lunchroom as policeman Marrion Baker runs in, gun at his side. He is about 30 feet from Oswald. Roy Truly, the superintendent, runs in a moment later.

JIM (V. O.)
Kennedy was running five minutes late for his appointment with death. He was due [at the Trade Mart] at 12:25. If Oswald was the assassin, he was certainly pretty nonchalant about getting himself into position. Later he told Dallas police he was standing in the second floor snackroom. Probably told to wait there for a phone call by his handler. The phones were in the adjacent and empty second floor offices, but the call never came. A maximum 90 seconds after Kennedy is shot, patrolman Marrion Baker runs into Oswald in that second story lunchroom.

BAKER
Hey you! (to Truly) Do you know this man? Is he an employee?

TRULY
Yes he is. (as Baker moves on) The President's been shot!

Oswald reacts as if hearing it for the first time. Truly and Baker continue running up the stairs. Oswald proceeds to get a Coke and continues out of the room.

CUT TO: the sixth floor, where we see Oswald as the shooter. After firing, he runs full speed for the stairs, stashing the rifle on the other side of the loft. Our camera follows him roughly downstairs -- we hear the loud sound of his shoes banging on the hollow wood -- to the lunchroom, where Patrolman Baker and Superintendent Truly run in. Then they start to repeat the same action as seen in the previous scene.

JIM (V. O.)
. . . but what the Warren Report would have us believe is that after firing 3 bolt action shots in 5.6 seconds [sic], Oswald then leaves three cartridges neatly side by side in the firing nest, wipes the rifle clear of fingerprints, stashes the rifle on the other side of the loft, sprints down five flights of stairs, past witnesses Victoria Adams and Sandra Styles, who never see him, and then shows up cool and calm on the second floor in front of Patrolman Baker -- all this within a maximum 90 seconds of the shooting. Is he out of breath? According to Baker, absolutely not.

CUT TO: the second floor. Oswald ambles past Mrs. Reid, a secretary in the second floor office, on his way out, Coke bottle in hand and wearing his usual dreamy look . . . there's a lingering close-up on his face.

JIM (V. O.)
Assuming he is the sole assassin, Oswald is now free to escape from the building. The longer he delays, the more chance the building will be sealed by the police. Is he guilty? Does he walk out the nearest staircase? No, he buys a Coke and at a slow pace, spotted by Mrs. Reid in the second floor office, he strolls out the more distant front exit, where the cops start to gather . . .(2)

 

Let's examine these points one by one.

 

The nitrate test indicates he didn't even fire a rifle on November 22nd.

 

Nitrate tests are notoriously unreliable, more useful in coercing confessions from suspects than producing credible evidence against them. "Some years ago, in a seminar on crime detection conducted by Interpol," writes journalist James Phelan, "the paraffin test was ruled out as an indicator in investigation. The fact that the Dallas police were still using it in 1963 was a commentary on their police methods, rather than proof of Oswald's innocence."(3)

Oliver Stone neglects to mention that Oswald's right hand tested positive for nitrates; if Stone truly believes that nitrate tests are reliable, why does he not use this positive result as proof that Oswald fired the revolver that killed Officer J. D. Tippit?

 

And on top of that, they didn't even bother to check if the rifle had been fired that day.

 

There is no such test.

 

[The rifle] went to the goddamn FBI and they didn't find a goddamn thing. It comes back a week later and one guy in the Dallas police department suddenly finds a palm print, which for all I know he could've taken off Oswald at the morgue. There's no chain of evidence, Bill.

 

Lieutentant John Carl Day of the Dallas Police Department's Bureau of Identifications lifted the palm print from the rifle on the evening of November 22, 1963.

Gary Savage writes:

 

The lift of the palm print from the rifle by Lieutenant Day has sparked controversy over the years due to what has been labeled an "interrupted chain of evidence." This misunderstanding developed from the FBI's intrusion into the Dallas police investigation on the night of the assassination. The rifle was taken away from Lieutenant Day by the FBI before he had completed his analysis of it. At that time, the FBI did not receive the palm print just developed by Lieutenant Day. The print evidence stayed in the Crime Lab Office, and only the rifle was taken by FBI Agent [Vincent] Drain.

Lieutenant Day told us that, after he had photographed the trigger-housing prints and been stopped by Captain [George] Doughty, he continued work on the rifle under the order of Captain [Will] Fritz. It was at that time that he noticed a print sticking out from the barrel. He said it was obvious that part of it was under the wooden stock, so he took the stock off and finished dusting the barrel. He said he could tell it was part of a palm print, and so he proceeded with a lift.

He told Rusty [Savage's uncle, Richard Ward "Rusty" Livingston, who worked in the Dallas Police Department's crime lab in 1963] and me that he could tell it wasn't put on there recently by the way it took the fingerprint powder. He said what makes a print of this sort is a lack of moisture, and this print had dried out. He said he took a small camel hair brush and dipped it in fingerprint powder and lightly brushed it. He then placed a strip of 2" scotch tape over the developed print and rubbed it down before finally lifting the tape containing the print off and placed it on a card. He said he then compared the lift to Oswald's palm print card and was certain that it was Oswald's. He also said that after the lift, he could still see an impression of the palm print left on the barrel.

Next, Lieutenant Day had intended to photograph the area of the rifle barrel from which the palm print lift had been made, but was again interrupted by Captain Doughty at about 10:00 PM. He was told once again to stop working on the gun and release it to FBI Agent Drain, who would arrive about 11:30 PM. Lieutenant Day did not have time to write any reports about what he had found, but did have time to reassemble the rifle before Drain arrived.

Drain took the rifle from the Dallas police at midnight on the day of the assassination and flew it to the FBI laboratory in Washington, DC. The palm print lift done earlier by Lieutenant Day had left too little powder residue on the rifle barrel to be readily identified a second time when the FBI received it in Washington. The FBI was not aware that the palm print had been lifted at the time of their initial examination of the rifle. . . .

The Dallas Crime Lab received the rifle back from the FBI in a pasteboard box. It remained unopened in the evidence room along with other physical evidence in the case. After a few days passed, orders came to release all of the physical evidence to the FBI. That is when the palm print was released for the first time to the FBI.

Lieutenant Day said that a few days after all of the evidence was turned over, an FBI Agent came to his house. He wanted to know when Lieutenant Day had lifted the palm print included in the evidence they had received because they had positively identified it themselves as Oswald's palm print. Lieutenant Day got the impression from the Agent that they thought they had missed it and he could "envision J. Edgar Hoover going into orbit." He then informed the Agent that he had lifted the palm print before releasing the gun on the night of the assassination.

The FBI requested and received the remaining physical evidence from the Dallas police on the Tuesday following the assassination, not aware of the palm print's existence. To say the least, they were surprised upon discovering the palm print included with the evidence. By matching irregularities found on the rifle barrel to it, the FBI later verified that the palm print lift that was delivered was, in fact, genuine.

Lieutenant Day believed at the time that he had not completely obliterated the palm print on the barrel after his lift and later stated that he had pointed out the area of the palm print to FBI Agent Drain when turning the rifle over to him. Drain, on the other hand, did not recall being shown the palm print.

Rusty [Livingston] was standing by as Lieutenant Day gave the rifle to Drain. Rusty told me that Drain was in a hurry to leave and was distracted by another FBI agent who was hurrying him to leave. According to Rusty, "Drain was half listening to Lieutenant Day and half to the other FBI man and evidently didn't get the word about the palm print at that time."(4)

 

Oliver Stone's contention that Oswald's palm print "could've [been] taken off Oswald at the morgue" is absurd; palm prints are caused by perspiration, something dead people are well known to be lacking.

Even more importantly, a new examination of high-contrast photographs of the rifle taken by the Dallas Police Department on November 22, 1963, has yielded new evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald's fingerprints were on the rifle's trigger housing. Unlike a palm print, which is of limited evidentiary value, these photographs, of substantially higher quality than the photos examined by the FBI in 1963-64, allow for a positive identification of Oswald as the prints' owner.

Click here for information on the fingerprint evidence.

 

And what about the two guns actually seen in the Depository? One an Enfield photographed by a newsman and the other a Mauser, described by Deputy Weitzman . . .

 

No one photographed an Enfield. Stone is referring to a groundless claim of Jim Garrison's. A documentary compiled from newsreel films and released under the name of Dallas Cinema Associates shows a police officer handing his own Dallas Police Department-issue pump shotgun to another officer as he descends from the fire escape of the Texas School Book Depository. Jim Garrison made up the rest.

Meanwhile, Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman glimpsed Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano in its original place of concealment, underneath a stack of boxes; he described it as a Mauser, a German make of rifle nearly identical to the Italian Mannlicher-Carcano, but more common. Weitzman testified to the Warren Commission that he never handled the rifle or got a close look at it.(5)

WFAA-TV cameraman Tom Alyea was onhand to film the discovery of the rifle and its initial examination by J. C. Day. The weapon in Alyea's film is a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, not a Mauser.

Why doesn't Oliver Stone know this?

 

I never could figure out why this guy orders a traceable weapon to that post office box when you can go into any store in Texas, give a phony name and walk out with a cheap rifle which can never be traced.

 

Who knows? Perhaps because Oswald thought using an alias would insulate him from discovery. In the end, rhetorical questions and speculation mean little when weighed against the hard evidence.

 

Maybe [Oswald] never ordered the weapon . . . It was picked up at the post office early morning when Oswald's time sheet shows him clocked in at his job.

 

There's no telling where Stone got the idea that the rifle was picked up in the early morning; there's no record of what time the rifle was picked up.

Regardless, we know that Oswald ordered the weapon; the handwriting on the order form has been positively identified as Oswald's by numerous handwriting experts.(6)

Meanwhile, Oliver Stone himself admits, "Even if Oswald was clocked in at work when the rifle was allegedly picked up, timecards are not a good index of Oswald's whereabouts. While working for the Reily Coffee Company in New Orleans, Oswald would often read magazines next door at the Crescent City Garage. According to Book Depository records, Oswald was clocked in for a full 8-hour day on Nov. 22, 1963."(7)

 

Eddie Piper and William Shelly [sic -- Shelley] saw Oswald eating lunch in the first floor lunch room around twelve. Around 12:15, on her way out of the building to see the motorcade, secretary Carolyn Arnold saw Oswald in the second floor snack room, where he said he went for a Coke . . .

 

Irrelevant. Oswald's whereabouts at 12:00 or 12:15 are not an issue.

 

At the same time, Bonnie Ray Williams is supposedly eating his chicken lunch on the sixth floor, at least until 12:15, maybe 12:20 . . . he sees nobody.

Down on the street, Arnold Rowland was seeing two men in the sixth floor windows . . . presumably after Bonnie Ray Williams finished his lunch and left.

 

Stone doesn't seem to realize that Bonnie Ray Williams's testimony impeaches that of his own witness, Arnold Rowland. Rowland's signed, notarized affidavit of November 22, it turns out, only mentions one man, anyway. Only several months later did he begin claiming to have seen two men.(8)

 

Kennedy was running five minutes late for his appointment with death. He was due at 12:25. If Oswald was the assassin, he was certainly pretty nonchalant about getting himself into position.
 

With Bonnie Ray Williams eating lunch only a few feet away from the corner where the "sniper's nest" was set up (and the rifle presumably stashed), what choice would Oswald have had? On the other hand, since the "sniper's nest" window was concealed from the rest of the sixth floor by a shield of book cartons, it's possible that Oswald was already there, either waiting quietly for Williams to leave or unconcerned about whether there was a witness nearby. (Recall that when the rifle was found, there was a live bullet in the chamber. It is reasonable to speculate that Oswald may have intended to use this bullet, if need be, during his escape from the sixth floor.)

 

Later he told Dallas police he was standing in the second floor snackroom. Probably told to wait there for a phone call by his handler. The phones were in the adjacent and empty second floor offices, but the call never came.

 

Oswald's handler? Who was Oswald's handler? How do we know Oswald had a handler? Oliver Stone never says; he's merely speculating. Why? Because he has to account for the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was one of the very few employees in the building who stayed inside instead of heading outside to watch the motorcade.

 

A maximum 90 seconds after Kennedy is shot, patrolman Marrion Baker runs into Oswald in that second story lunchroom. . . . but what the Warren Report would have us believe is that after firing 3 bolt action shots in 5.6 seconds [sic], Oswald then leaves three cartridges neatly side by side in the firing nest, wipes the rifle clear of fingerprints, stashes the rifle on the other side of the loft, sprints down five flights of stairs, past witnesses Victoria Adams and Sandra Styles, who never see him, and then shows up cool and calm on the second floor in front of Patrolman Baker -- all this within a maximum 90 seconds of the shooting. Is he out of breath? According to Baker, absolutely not.

 

First, Stone once again distorts the Warren Commission's conclusions about the timing of the shots. The Commission never said Oswald fired three shots in 5.6 seconds.

Second, Oswald didn't leave "three cartridges neatly side by side in the firing nest;" this is a claim made by a notoriously unreliable witness named Roger Craig.

Third, it was not necessary for Oswald to wipe the rifle of fingerprints; and even if he did, he could hardly have done a thorough job: there were several partial prints found on the trigger housing.

Fourth, Victoria Adams and Sandra Styles did not descend the stairs until several minutes after the shooting, so they would not have encountered Oswald. Adams specified that she encountered TSBD employees Billy Lovelady and Bill Shelley when she reached the first floor, but these men, according to their own testimony, did not return to the building for five minutes or so after the shooting.(9)

Fifth, during the years that the public had access to the Texas School Book Depository building, numerous researchers were able to recreate Oswald's flight from the sixth floor to the second floor lunchroom without difficulty, and without being out of breath.

 

Assuming he is the sole assassin, Oswald is now free to escape from the building. The longer he delays, the more chance the building will be sealed by the police. Is he guilty? Does he walk out the nearest staircase? No, he buys a Coke and at a slow pace, spotted by Mrs. Reid in the second floor office, he strolls out the more distant front exit, where the cops start to gather . . .

 

Had Oswald been seen running, either by Mrs. Robert Reid inside the building or by a bystander outside the building, he would have been detained for questioning. Instead he walked out without attracting attention and successfully made his getaway.

Contrary to the impression given by Oliver Stone, there is no doubt about the fact that the rifle found in the Texas School Book Depository belonged to Lee Harvey Oswald; he ordered it from Klein's Sporting Goods;(10) he had his wife photograph him with it (it is identifiable by the same markings that allow it to be identified in the newsreel footage of Tom Alyea); his fingerprints and no one else's were found on it; physical evidence links this rifle, to the exclusion of all other rifles, to a bullet recovered from the motorcade;(11) one eyewitness, Howard Leslie Brennan, positively identified Oswald as the man in the "sniper's nest" window he saw fire at the President.(12) Oswald then fled the building, killed a police officer forty-five minutes later, and tried to kill a second police officer soon after that.

No doubt some will continue to insist that Lee Harvey Oswald was framed for all this. One can only hope that credible evidence is put forward to support such allegations, however, as opposed to the long-discredited claims and pure speculation offered by Oliver Stone.  

 

 

Copyright © 2001, 2011 by David Reitzes

 

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NOTES:

1. Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Applause, 1992), pp. 55-58. All quotations are from the shooting script and may vary slightly from the finished motion picture.

2. Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Applause, 1992), pp. 167-69. All quotations are from the shooting script and may vary slightly from the finished motion picture.

3. James Phelan, Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels (New York: Random House, 1982), p. 150.

4. Gary Savage, JFK: First Day Evidence (Monroe, Louisiana: The Shoppe Press, 1993) pp. 108-10.

5. Warren Commission Report, p. 645.

6. Warren Commission Report, pp. 118, 569.

7. Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Applause, 1992), p. 59.

8. Warren Commission Report, pp. 250-52.

9. Gerald Posner, Case Closed (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 264 fn.

10. Warren Commission Report, pp. 118, 569.

11. Warren Commission Report, p. 557.

12. Warren Commission Report, pp. 63-64, 143-45.

 

 

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