(CN) — “I'm not a conspiracy-type person. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald was 100% guilty. But as a good trial lawyer I saw a plausible defense,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup told a large gathering of lawyers and judicial colleagues who had assembled in a ceremonial courtroom Tuesday evening to hear about his latest book, the "Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald."
The novel draws heavily from volumes of evidence and testimony compiled into 26 volumes by the Warren Commission, and envisions a world where Lee Harvey Oswald had not been shot and killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby two days after his arrest for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but actually had to face a jury.
“It would have been the trial of the century,” UC Hastings Law professor Rory Little said in his opening remarks at the event hosted by the Federal Bar Association and the Northern District Court Historical Society.
Little compared Alsup’s work to “Anatomy of a Murder,” John Voelker’s acclaimed courtroom drama based on the author’s real-life experience as a defense attorney. Voelker, who wrote under the pen name Robert Traver, would later became an associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. One difference between the works, Little noted, was that Alsup wrote his while handling a full caseload in the Northern District of California. It also isn’t his first book — his other works include a memoir about growing up in segregated Mississippi, and “Missing in the Minarets,” a non-fiction work about prominent San Francisco attorney Peter Starr, who disappeared in 1933 while hiking in the Sierra.
Alsup was a student at Mississippi State University in 1963 when Kennedy was fatally shot on Nov. 22 as his presidential motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. He was in his dormitory’s common area when his dorm mother delivered the news. As they watched Walter Cronkite take off his glasses and gravely announce that president Kennedy had died at 1:00PM that afternoon, Alsup said he was “heartsick and shocked.” What followed made for a disturbing memory, as a throng of students ran up and down the quad, ringing cow bells in celebration. “They were celebrating the death of JFK. That’s how much he was hated in Mississippi,” Alsup said. “I’m sad to say that was not a good memory.”
Alsup’s interest was reinvigorated with the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination in 2013, which led him to seek out the Warren Commission’s report and its 26 volumes of testimony from the federal court’s library. He was later told that he’d been the first to ever request it. “As a trial lawyer and judge, I’ve spent years evaluating evidence. But I was so absorbed with these people,” Alsup said, referring to the testimony of everyday witnesses — a waitress, a cab driver on his way to work. “Halfway through, I began to see a possible defense for Lee Harvey Oswald. I wanted to write something to help the reader feel like they had parachuted in to 1963 and they were sitting at the elbow of these investigators and lawyers.”
The novel follows fictional protagonist Abe Summer, a Department of Justice attorney from Washington, D.C., and Elaine Navarro, a federal prosecutor out of Dallas. Both are brought in to assist real-life Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, (the “Wade” in Roe v. Wade), who faces off with Percy Foreman, a famed criminal defense attorney whose client list included James Earl Ray.
“Percy Foreman did say he wanted to represent Lee Harvey Oswald and in this case Percy gets the assignment and he does a tremendous job,” Alsup said, adding that in writing the novel, he set out to accomplish three things — make the reader feel as if they were in 1963, show how good lawyers would approach the case, and present an accurate portrayal of the real-life events.
“I wanted to explain what good lawyers do, and the true facts of what the Kennedy assassination were; not the b.s. that you see on the Discovery Channel and Fox News and CNN,” he said.
Alsup said he didn’t feel the need to visit Dealy Plaza, having scrutinized the photographs and evidence laid out in the Warren report, but in 2015, he went to New Orleans to see the house Oswald lived in with his wife Marina. “It was still just as ramshackle a place as when he lived there in 1963,” he said. “It has since become a spiffed-up lawyer’s office.”
Some details, he said, were just too ponderous to merit inclusion in the final draft, like a chapter and a half he’d written on the jury selection process. And he purposely omitted the jury’s deliberations. “This is not 12 Angry Men,” he said. “This is not about the jury, it’s about lawyers.” Alsup does reveal the jury’s decision in an epilogue.
In the final chapter, Jack Ruby attends the closing arguments with a Carousel Club stripper named Little Lynn. When Lynn expresses dismay about Oswald possibly being acquitted (due to some expert defense lawyering by Foreman), Ruby says, “No. It was his rifle, and his gun. And this is Texas.”
Kennedy’s assassination was as tragic as it was bewildering. Alsup said the prevailing mood at the time was largely one of confusion. “Anyone who was an adult at the time was devastated by it. And confused. We were still learning the facts about the assassination on Friday, and suddenly on that Sunday morning, the assassin was himself killed,” Alsup said. “It made you wonder what is happening in our country, and who could be killed next. It made it easy to believe there was some kind of conspiracy.”
For Alsup, the question of Oswald’s guilt is settled, but a public trial would have given the country a chance to make sense of the tragedy, and to heal. “We still would have lost President Kennedy, but we would have understood why. We didn’t have that opportunity, but if there had been trial, it would have helped.”
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