The Clay Shaw trial testimony of Charles Spiesel (summary)

 

 

As Charles Spiesel's testimony in the trial of Clay Shaw was not transcribed by the private firm of Dietrich and Pickett, Inc., a summary by James Kirkwood is offered.

From James Kirkwood, American Grotesque, 1992 ed., pp. 231-45:

"Charles I. Spiesel," a clerk called out. Nobody had this name in his Shaw Trial Playbill, and all heads craned around to those large wooden doors underneath the clock as a dapper, balding little man marched down the aisle of the packed courtroom. Wearing a well-tailored pin-striped suit and the assured, almost righteous air of one about to perform his citizen's duty, he was sworn in. When he'd repeated his name and given his address in New York City, a breeze of hungry whispers spread throughout the court. Yes, here was a New Yorker on the stand and somehow this lent a certain nonpartisanship, which, in turn, would add a goodly amount of heft to his appearance and testimony.

Charles Spiesel spoke out in a loud clear voice in answer to preliminary questions regarding his occupation -- accounting and tax work for a New York firm, a profession he'd been in for some twenty years. There was a definite no-nonsense tone to his voice that was impressive. This was no dope addict, thief, pimp, or pusher of pornographic films -- here was a professional man.

Under direct questioning by James Alcock, Spiesel told of coming to New Orleans in May of 1963 to visit his daughter, who was attending Louisiana State University and also possibly to relocate in business in New Orleans, a city he had visited often. He went on to say he frequented a bar in the Quarter, LaFitte's Blacksmith Shop, and that one night in June he spotted a man he thought he'd flown with in the Air Force during World War II. This turned out to be David W. Ferrie. [Webmaster's note: David Ferrie never served in the Air Force, nor did he serve in any branch of the military during World War II.] According to the witness, Ferrie, another man and two women invited Spiesel to accompany them to a party at an apartment in the vicinity of Dauphine and Esplanade Streets. Spiesel sadi they climbed two flights of stairs and, after being let in by the host, he was introduced to all of the people present, ten or eleven men, including Clay Shaw. After a while, Spiesel said, the two women and the other man he'd arrived with left, and the remaining group, all men now, moved into the kitchen-dining area and sat around a large oval table, where everyone soon started knocking President Kennedy.

Spiesel: "Someone brought up the name of President Kennedy and just about everybody began to criticize him. Then someone said that 'somebody ought to kill the son of a b!'" The witness said he did not know who said those words but he claimed that at first Clay Shaw seemed "amused" at the conversation. Soon another man voiced a desire to kill the President but wondered how it could be done. According to Spiesel, the talk continued for five or six minutes, and finally it was agreed that "It would have to be done with a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight and about a mile away." Spiesel claimed Clay Shaw entered into the conversation when the talk got around to the difficulty of the killer's getaway, at which time he discussed the possibility of flying the assassin to safety with David Ferrie.

Spiesel maintained he'd been quite alarmed at the tone of the conversation, going on to add he had never seen Clay Shaw after this party but had bumped into David Ferrie two or three times. Ferrie, the witness claimed, had suggested that perhaps Clay Shaw could help him set up in business in New Orleans. Spiesel testified he'd phoned Shaw's office several times after the party but his calls had never been returned. . . .

Irvin Dymond began cross-examining Spiesel with a subtle undercoating of relish in his low easy voice. Dymond's first question was "Are you a certified public accountant?" "No," Spiesel replied. The defense lawyer soon got into his trip to New Orleans in the spring of 1963, asking Spiesel where he'd stayed upon arriving in New Orleans. "One of the hotels," Spiesel replied, "I don't recall." Ini what section of the city? Dymond wanted to know. Spiesel said it was probably in the French Quarter but he wouldn't be pinned down, adding he'd only stayed in the hotel two or three days or a week. Dymond kept him on this point until Spiesel, with a small patronizing smile, said, "If you give me a directory I'll thumb through it." Dymond then asked, "You mean you stayed in a hotel for three or four days or a week and you don't remember which hotel?" "No," Spiesel replied, not at all rattled. Spiesel said he'd then moved to an apartment for a month on Royal Street. Dymond wanted to know where on Royal Street. The witness said he thought it was probably in the 900 or 1000 block but he wasn't sure. From there, Spiesel testified, he'd moved to an apartment on Esplanade. Dymond inquired if he'd had a lease. Spiesel said no, it was on a month-to-month basis. Did he remember the landlady? The witness said he thought the owner was a doctor. How had he paid his rent? the lawyer asked. "Probably by cash," Spiesel said, adding, "If you want to check with the landlord, it's okay." But since Spiesel had not been too specific about who or where the landlord was, this might prove a formidable task.

Finally, Dymond got to the meeting at LaFitte's with Ferrie and friends. Spiesel could not recall the first or last names of either the other man or their two women companions. At this point the defense lawyer asked Spiesel if he'd ever tried to sell his story of the French Quarter party to any of the news media. "No," was the forthright reply. When Dymond pressed him, mentioning the name of a man from CBS-TV and asking Spiesel if he hadn't discussed appearing on a documentary program the network was planning, Spiesel admitted he'd been approached but firmly added he haqd not taken part in the program.

Dymond then took a short pause and then asked, "How much did you want?" There was another brief pause before the question was answered. "I told him a couple of thousand," Spiesel said, not at all flustered at having been caught up in the fine points of cross-examination, merely indicating by tone that his time was not without worth.

Dymond, warming to his task and adding a slight dollop of indulgence to his growl, went on to the party itself. Although Spiesel could remember much of the conversation, he could not recall the names of any of the other ten or eleven men present, with the exception of the defendant, Clay Shaw and David Ferrie, of course, now deceased. Spiesel was clear that Clay Shaw had not been the party's host but he did not know who the host was, mentioning at one time he thought he might have been a schoolteacher. Dymond asked him to describe the architecture of the building. Spiesel said the building had a general look about it. "Give me a general description of it," the lawyer urged. Spiesel indicated it was not a really outstanding architectural job but Dymond was interested, even if it was not noteworthy. He finally elicited from Spiesel that the outside of the building was a light brownish color, either brick or some sort of stone. Questioned about the inside of the apartment, Spiesel indicated he could give a description of the kitchen-dining area but not the large living room. How large was the living room, Dymond wanted to know. "About eight by twelve feet," was the reply. "You call that large?" Dymond asked in a flat voice. Spiesel thought about this and then said perhaps it was larger. Dymond asked him to point out an area in the courtroom that would approximate the size of the living room. Spiesel did and when he'd finished, Dymond measured this off, saying, "Let the record show the witness indicated an area approximately twenty-three feet long and twelve feet wide."

. . . Finally, Dymond had Spiesel give a vague description of the kitchen-dining area, and then pressed Spiesel to make a rough sketch of as much of the apartment as he could recall. When he finished the drawing, Spiesel mentioned it wasn't all that complete because he had not had occasion to go to the bathroom. Dymond showed the sketch to Clay Shaw and the rest of the defense team and had it passed around the jury. He then took the witness through the party and the entire conversation concerned with killing the President. After this, the lawyer asked if the witness had noticed anything unusual about Ferrie. "No," Spiesel replied. This was remarkable because anyone who had ever met Ferrie spoke first of his bizarre appearance. Dymond continued to along this line, asking Spiesel to describe Ferrie's hair. "Reddish-brown." Was it well groomed? Dymond asked. "Fairly well groomed," the witness agreed. "Did he have unusual eyebrows?" the lawyer asked. "A little thinner than most men's, not unusual outside of that," Spiesel said of David Ferrie, who, by wide acknowledgment, had messy clumps of glued-on hair and thick pasted-on eyebrows that rivaled those of the late John L. Lewis.

Now the defense lawyer went back over the testimony, returning to LaFitte's and the witness's subsequent meetings with Ferrie. Dymond appeared to be stalling. . . . The defense lawyer next asked Spiesel what had been the reason for selling his former income tax return business. James Alcock objected but Judge Haggerty permitted the question. "I'd had a pretty good tax business, but it wasn't going too well," Spiesel replied.

Finally, Dymond looked down at the defense table, paused briefly, and then glanced back up at Spiesel. "Isn't it true," the lawyer asked, "you filed a suit in New York in 1964 against a psychiatrist and the City of New York, claiming that over a period of several years the police and others have constantly hypnotized you and finally harassed you out of business?"

Why, yes, Spiesel admitted without batting an eye, he had filed a lawsuit and not only that, the suit was for $16 million.

. . . Dymond's voice was now honey-coated in condolence with Spiesel's problems as he asked why a psychiatrist and the police would want to hypnotize and harass him. Spiesel really could not say, but he casually pointed out that his father had done undercover work for the FBI and it might just be a communist conspiracy. . . .

After he had asked if it were true that Spiesel had filed his own $16-million lawsuit without aid of counsel and had furthermore acted as his own lawyer, to which he received a proudly affirmative answer, Dymond requested adjournment for the day, indicating he had new material regarding the witness and needed time to study it.

The new material was a copy of Charles Spiesel's lawsuit, which was arriving at that moment by air freight from New York City, a testament to quick and expensive investigative work. It was later reported the defense team spent $4,000 to have a hurried but nevertheless exhaustive investigation of Spiesel's life and times. . . .

[Skipping to the following morning:]

. . . Dymond introduced into evidence a copy of Spiesel's complaint Number 32,001, marked US Court of Appeals, against the Pinkerton Detective Agency and numerous other defendants. The lawyer then took his place in front of the jury and, speaking into a microphone, read portions of the suit, which claimed the defendants, during a period from January 1, 1948, to July 5, 1964, a total of sixteen years, had used a new police technique to torture him and conspired with others to torture the plaintiff in New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC, New Orleans and various other places. Spiesel claimed these defendants also harassed him, annoyed, tailed him, tapped his phones, and prevented him from having normal sex relations. . . . The defendants also kept him hypnotized for periods of time, caused him to make errors in his work because of their hypnotic control, wreaked psychological terror upon him, prevented him from making business deals and from borrowing money from public agencies, surrounded him with competitors in the tax return business, and hired "plants" to work in his office, who then acted intoxicated and annoyed and frightened his customers.

One of Spiesel's more interesting complaints accused the defendants of using disguises in their attempts top pass themselves off as his relatives for the purpose of gaining entrance to his home and also "to quickly pass by the plaintiff in public places."

The defendants also were accused of attempting to create the impression that Spiesel and his family were communists, attempting to link the plaintiff with various crimes, interfering with sign carriers advertising the plaintiff's business, conspiring to make Spiesel break the law, depriving him of his civil rights, mentally torturing, humiliating and financially ruining him. In a bar below Spiesel's office, near the building's main light switch, they also supposedly plantyed a man who enacted the equivalent of scenes out of Angel Street. Add this all up and Spiesel claimed the results forced him out of his own income tax business in 1963.

. . . Dymond delved into the business of hypnosis, asking about various people named in the suit who had, he claimed, hypnotized him, and how he knew he was being hypnotized. To this Spiesel replied, "The best way I can explain it is to give you the general definition of hypnosis, which is to come under the will of a person but be aware that it is hypnosis."

At one point, after Alcock had objected to this line of questioning, Judge Haggerty asked Dymond, "Why are you going into this?" "Do you want me to tell you in front of the jury?" Dymond asked in reply, to which the judge answered a brisk no.

Dymond then asked Spiesel how many different people had hypnotized him. Alcock again objected and Dymond glanced up at the judge, saying, "My intent should be fairly obvious to the court." "You may proceed," said the judge. Dymond asked the question again. Spiesel thought a moment and then replied, "It's hard to say. Possibly fifty or sixty."

. . . Dymond then wanted ot know if Spiesel had ever been hypnotized in New Orleans. To this question Spiesel replied, "I believe I've been follwed down by detectives." Dymond pressed for an answer about hypnosis in New Orleans until Spiesel finally said, "The point is, if I say yes you'll want to know the name of the person and I can't give it to you." Dymond then pulled his voice way down to a patently conspiratorial level and replied, "Suppose, then, I tell you I won't ask you for the person's name." Spiesel apparently thought that was fair and said, "From time to time someone has tried to hypnotize me." Again Dymond inquired how Spiesel knew when he was being hypnotized. The witness brought forth ripples of laughter when he replied, "After all this time, I'm an expert." Spiesel went on to explain: "When someone tries to get your attention -- catch your eye. That's a clue right off" . . .

Dymond soon inquired if Spiesel had perhaps been hypnotized in May and June of 1963 at the time of the party he claimed he attended. "I don't really know if it did happen," Spiesel said, adding a gratuitous piece of information: "I've been coming down here since before that, since 1961. I'd come down twice a year. Once I came down to watch LSU play Ole Miss." Dymond then entered into the area of hypnotic illusions and the implantation of thoughts.

Now, after having testified for almost an hour about his suit, his allegations and hypnosis, Spiesel said, "You must understand this case may or may not go on trial in Federal court. . . . I'd hate to take a chance of having my case thrown out by having to go into the details" -- he looked up at Judge Haggerty and blinked -- "unless Your Honor orders me to."

Dymond earned chuckles when he asked in deadly mock seriousness, "You'd hate to jeopardize a $16 million lawsuit, is that right?"

Indeed he was right and Spiesel went on to explain the amount of the suit. The number of years during which he had been inconvenienced by the defendants added up to sixteen and he was well aware that the statute of limitations might well rule out seven or eight years, so he was "covering himself." "Do you mean the damages to you are worth $1 million a year?" Dymond asked.

Spiesel replied, "That's what it amounted to."

Toward the end of this lengthy session, Dymond got Spiesel to admit that in 1965, when he'd made a trip to New Orleans, he thought he was being followed and had attempted to take depositions to this effect from the New Orleans Police Department. Said Spiesel, "At the time I was being followed around I was alone. I wanted to find out if the Police Department or the District Attorney's office was involved. But it was pretty well determined it was people from New York. I was puzzled who from New Orleans would be following me, since I knew no one here." Dymond also questioned him about whether he'd thought Aaron Kohn, the managing director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, might also be involved. Spiesel said he had indeed and that Kohn asked him if he would accept a letter stating the Metropolitan Crime Commission was not tailing him. "I said okay," Spiesel said.

Dymond's final question was "Has anyone hypnotized you on this trip to New Orleans?"

Spiesel considered for a moment, then smiled, cocked his head and said, "I'm afraid I would have to say no."

. . . On re-direct, James Alcock tried to rehabilitate the witness by concentrating on his war record, honorable discharge and his tax business, which Spiesel claimed to have built up over a period of six or seven years. Alcock's final question on re-direct was, "Have you ever been convicted of anything in your life?" "I have not," Spiesel replied.

Dymond, surprisingly enough, took him back on re-cross, asking, "Is it not a fact that fifteen suits were filed against you for bad tax returns?" "Yes," answered Spiesel, going on calmly to explain, "but they were part of the conspiracy against me."

It had been whispered around that the District Attorney's office must not have known about much of Spiesel's past activities or they would never have put him on as a witness. Now Dymond destroyed that theory when he asked, "When you conferred with the District Attorney's office about testifying in this case, did you tell them about these lawsuits and your having been under hypnosis?" "Yes, I mentioned it," Spiesel replied.

Dymond soon declared he was finished with Spiesel, who smiled at the judge, got down off the stand and had just passed the cheerless prosecution table . . . when Dymond suddenly faced the judge and requested permission to have the witness lead the court to the building where the alleged party and conspiracy talk had taken place.

James Alcock objected strongly, saying it was improbable that the witness could possibly remember the exact place. Dymond insisted, saying Spiesel had gone into a description of both the inside and outside of the building. "Your Honor, it is vitally important to our case whether he can find this building and if he does, whether the apartment is there."

The judge soon agreed. "We will have to get a New Orleans Public Service bus to take the jury and we'll have to find out who owns the buildingand get the keys to go inside." Dymond smiled and crooned, "Let's see if we can find it first." Jdge Haggerty then ordered the jury and all principals in the trial to be taken to the scene, the corner of Dauphine and Esplanade, stipulating that no testimony be given until the trial resumed in the courtroom.

. . . Soon the members of the jury were filing out onto the sidewalk [at the corner of Dauphine and Esplanade]. The crowd converged around them, the judge, the witness, Clay Shaw, bailiffs, and lawyers for both sides. Judge Haggerty turned to Spiesel and said, "Lead us wherever you wish, but don't say anything. We will put you on the witness stand later."

With that Spiesel looked across the street to a three-story brick building, the Dauphine Apartments, at 1323 Dauphine. He made for the entrance, followed by the judge, the jury, the lawyers for the prosecution, the defense team, various bailiffs, deputies and Clay Shaw himself. The press and all other spectators were kept from entering the building. They had been in the building a mere two minutes when they were led back out again by Spiesel, strutting like a bantam rooster. He now led them around the corner and into a four-story pinkish-beige stucco building with two balconies at 906 Esplanade. The group stayed in the building for twenty minutes this time before they trooped back outside onto the sidewalk.

. . . The afternoon session was short, murky, and anticlimactic. Alcock asked Spiesel if he'd been able to locate the same or a similar building as the one described in his testimony. To this the witness replied that of the two buildings he'd led them into, the second one was either the one or similar to the building in which he'd attended the party.

When Dymond questioned him, the lawyer pointed out several discrepancies between the sketch Spiesel had made of the apartment, along with his verbal description, and the actual building the court had now seen. Then he asked, "In respect to 906 Esplanade wouldn't you say that, unless structural changes have been made, you're mistaken?" Spiesel said he'd stick by his original testimony.

 

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