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On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald (1986)

| Documentary | TV Movie
A documentary in which surviving witnesses are recalled to determine the guilt or innocence of the man believed to have murdered President John F. Kennedy.




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A docudrama about the events surrounding the assassination of the 35th United States President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, in 1963, based on eyewitness and other testimonies.

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Cast overview, first billed only:
Himself - Narrator
Lee Harvey Oswald ...
Himself (archive footage)
Earl Warren ...
Himself (archive footage)
Vincent Bugliosi ...
Gerry Spence ...
Lucius D. Bunton ...
Wesley Frazier ...
Himself - (as Wesley Buell Frazier)
Charles Brehm ...
Harold Norman ...
Eugene Boone ...
Marrion L. Baker ...
Ted Callaway ...
Johnny Brewer ...
Cecil Kirk ...
Charles Petty ...


A documentary in which surviving witnesses are recalled to determine the guilt or innocence of the man believed to have murdered President John F. Kennedy.

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28 February 2013 | by See all my reviews

Real courtroom lawyers looking to see a couple of the heads of their profession exhibiting superior advocacy skills will be mostly disappointed with this. While featuring not only probably the most famous prosecutor of all time, Vincent Bugliosi (and never forget that the "g" is silent!), but one of the greatest defense lawyers of all time, the once-illustrious Gerry Spence, their appearances here come across like they have been both rushed and dumbed down for television (and drastically shortened, as well), and worse still, that they did a bare minimum of preparation, compared with a real trial, there being no real client's actual fate at stake in the outcome. It reminds you of pre-season NFL football games,where the top talent is usually not working very hard since the games don't count. Possibly the most realistic aspect of their presentations is the intense, even petty competitiveness often evident between the two, neither of them wanting to be upstaged by the other.

That said, and bearing in mind that these guys cheat so much on the rules that there is a great deal of technically improper technique, including massive infusions of normally inadmissible hearsay and opinion testimony, they do throw in a few bits of their own tried and true schtick which a lawyer can profit from, and the newbie advocate could pick up a few bits of basic examination technique here and there. A much better (though again significantly abbreviated) appearance is made by the judge here, who is is 100% authentic and great fun to watch, doling out at intervals classic examples of judicial wit and refusing to cut Spence and his famous, over-sized head any slack that he can possibly avoid. And even though the IMDb says this was made by Pinewood Studios of England, the courtroom setting appears perfectly authentic for a contemporary Texas courtroom, and the proceedings even include the judge admonishing counsel and a witness at one point not to talk over one another because of the problems that causes the court reporter, who is a gal sitting right there front and center tapping away, just as in a real trial. And finally, while the case is styled UNITED STATES v. LEE HARVEY OSWALD, to a considerable extent has the more informal look and feel reminiscent of Texas state court, rather than federal, proceedings.

More important than the frequently disappointing advocacy demonstration, however, is what this mock trial shows about the JFK assassination. For the first time (and in an adversarial setting, always the best for drawing out facts) the general public gets a glimpse of some of the eyewitnesses that you never get to see, or even to hear about, in the more usual documentary of the assassination, the kind of witnesses that would actually testify had this been a real trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. This infusion of basic reality into a genre of documentary that is normally consumed by conspiracy theories and edited set-piece interviews of larger-than-life grandstanders is not only welcome but is really the one thing that can make this worth watching (even though unfortunately it was apparently substantially abbreviated in order to better suit the needs of recorded television). The expert witnesses likewise were informative even as their presentations, too, were apparently heavily edited or otherwise truncated in some places.

I thus found it frustrating that I could not have a chance to examine some of these people myself, to ask some of the obvious questions that never made it to the screen for some reason or other. For example, one significant bit left out was how firing from the sixth floor window at a moving automobile could be much the same as firing at a stationary target, as the prosecution gun expert mentioned briefly on cross-examination but without greater elaboration on redirect examination, since no redirect examination occurred on film at all. Having visited the crime scene myself, I had come to the same conclusion before ever seeing this, yet the typical viewer would not have that advantage. Another critical area of evidence in understanding the significance of the "pristine" or "magic" bullet that was not dealt with in either this or any other such documentary I've ever seen was the nature of Governor Connolly's thigh wound, and how consistent that was with the finding of the bullet on a stretcher. While much was made about the circumstances of the Kennedy autopsy in terms of its effect on the conclusions made by various investigations, one wonders what could be made of Connolly's treatment for his injuries.

Even apart from what they could say about the facts of the assassination, the witnesses in this case are instructive to lay people curious about trial work as displaying a great deal of very typical witness behavior. In this regard, it is also great fun to watch humble witnesses sticking up for themselves against the overly bloated ego of Gerry Spence, in yet another example of courtroom realism. On the other hand, one aspect of the witness testimony that is underplayed in this piece is the indication that many of them seem to have had a secondary career (at least) as JFK assassination witnesses, something that should have been explored in much greater detail in reference to the credibility of their testimony.

In conclusion, even with all of its flaws this is something that is worth plowing through for people interested in the subject matter or trial advocacy for what it shows in terms of the matters discussed here. In particular, it examines what must be the focus of any inquiry seriously aimed at understanding the John F. Kennedy assassination, the particular details of Lee Harvey Oswald's involvement itself, something that is all-to-frequently overly marginalized in other treatments of the subject. It especially shows why the Warren Commission's conclusion could come out the way it did even without the resort to a raft of enigmatic suggestions of conspiracies or cover-ups of elephantine and essentially fictive proportions.

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