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On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald

MPI // 1986 // 330 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // January 31st, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Jim Thomas refuses to comment on his proximity to the grassy knoll.

The Charge

It's the Trial of the Century. Maybe. Kind of. Actually, not so much.

The Case

In 1986, around the twenty-third anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, London Weekend Television arranged a trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin who was himself killed. Not content to merely assemble a bunch of actors, they gathered all of the surviving witnesses, federal judge Lucius D Bunton III from the Dallas district court, and a jury from the Dallas County juror pool. Vincent Bugliosi, who rose to national prominence by putting Charles Manson behind bars, prosecuted the case, while Gerry Spence, who never lost a trial case in a fifty-year career, defended Oswald. No actor portrayed Oswald—they simply placed a large photo of Oswald at the defendant's table. The trial was run just as any other trial—no scripts, no rehearsals. The finished trial lasted about twenty-two hours; a heavily edited version (based on an admittedly weak memory, I'd say it was around four hours) aired on Showtime. MPI has released a five-and-a-half hour version of the "trial" in a two-disc set.

This is not what you want to show someone to convince them to go to law school. The trial does not resemble the trials seen on Law & Order or Boston Legal. For the most part it's "One guy asks questions, the other guy asks some more questions, lather, rinse, and repeat for five hours." You figure out pretty quickly that the two attorneys are a study in contrasts. Bugliosi has a quick, efficient manner that plows through the evidence like a buzz saw. Spence, on the other hand, has an easy, folksy way about him; it's easy to see why he has such an amazing record. They have a number of minor confrontations, mainly due to Spence's tendency to make speeches during a witness' testimony. The producers do what they can to keep things from bogging down; for instance, instead of having to sit through each witness being sworn in, we just see the first witness sworn in. All subsequent witnesses are sworn in prior to entering the courtroom.

The trial features the Zapruder film extensively, as one might imagine, but also brings in other footage of the assassination, as well as an interview with Texas governor John Connelly that marked the first time he discussed the assassination in public.

The jury, unsurprisingly, finds Oswald guilty. Bugliosi makes a compelling case that Oswald was the shooter; it's all circumstantial, but it's hard to get around, particularly since Oswald shot and killed a Dallas police officer shortly after leaving the book depository. There's just not a lot that Spence can do. What Bugliosi doesn't do is make a good case that Oswald was the only shooter. Spence never quite makes a case that Oswald wasn't involved, but he makes a compelling case that someone else could have been, primarily based on the infamous "magic bullet," the bullet that supposedly went through Kennedy's neck, through John Connelly's chest (breaking a rib) and wrist (shattering the radius), finally embedding itself in Connelly's thigh, falling out into the floor of the car on the way to the hospital. Kevin Costner's Jim Garrison expounds on that bullet at length in JFK. While recent studies have proven the plausibility of the magic bullet theory, those studies had not been done at the time of this trial. In any event, Spence raises a lot of questions, about the bullet, about the autopsy, about Jack Ruby's mob connections, but the questions never quite coalesce into a coherent pattern. After the trial, the jury unanimously agreed that Oswald had acted alone.

The presentation is pretty good. Colors are a little muted, but still clear, and there's little evident damage. Audio is solid, though given that everyone was talking into microphones directly, that's probably not as great an accomplishment as it might initially appear. The first disc has the prosecution's case, while the second has the defense's case. For some reason, each case is broken into two parts; chapter stops are based on witnesses, making it easy to find specific testimony.

Without question, the set's biggest problem is the total absence of extras. This is the JFK assassination we're talking about, the Holy Grail of conspiracy theories, and yet we get nothing. No digitally enhanced copy of the Zapruder film, no copies of any official documents, no nothing. Not even the voir dire on the jury—it would have been entertaining to see what they said when asked the question, "Have you been exposed to any news coverage of the case?" It would have been interesting to hear the two lawyers talk about the case twenty years later.

The set represents a moderately interesting look at one of the most infamous crimes in United States history. Unless you're a dedicated JFK buff, however, there's just nothing here compelling enough to warrant a recommendation. Guilty of disappointing.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 73

Perp Profile

Studio: MPI
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 330 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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