The case for Oswald’s defense

No one saw Lee Harvey Oswald aim a gun at President Kennedy and pull the trigger. A man strongly resembling Oswald was seen with a gun shortly before the shooting, standing at the window from which shots were fired; the first description of a suspect, broadcast on the Dallas police radio, was based on that sighting. The man who gave that description to the police was unable to identify Oswald in a police lineup that weekend.

Other people resembling Oswald were in Dallas that year. Several people reported seeing Oswald or interacting with him at times when he was known to be elsewhere. Even Bill Lovelady, another Book Depository employee, was sometimes mistaken for Oswald. (He was photographed in front of the Book Depository near the time of the shooting.)

The first person to see Oswald after the murder was a police officer who entered the Book Depository immediately after the shooting. He encountered Oswald in the lunchroom on the second floor of the building. After his arrest, Oswald told the Dallas police that he had been in that lunchroom at the time of the shooting. Other employees of the Book Depository said that they had seen Oswald in the lunchroom minutes before the shooting.

The gun used to kill the President was found on the sixth floor of the Book Depository near the top of the stairs. It was linked to Oswald through a purchase order signed by Alek Hidell and was delivered to a post office box rented by Oswald; it was also linked to him through photographs showing Oswald with the rifle. Oswald’s rifle was an Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano, although a police officer first identified the gun as a German-made Mauser. No ammunition for any rifle was found among Oswald’s possessions. A paraffin test conducted by the Dallas police to determine whether or not Oswald had fired a gun on November 22 was inconclusive.

The Dallas police accomplished as poor a job handling evidence from the murder as they did protecting Oswald. Bullets, guns, and other important items of evidence were mishandled, misidentified, and moved from place to place without a clear chain of possession. The rifle itself was inspected by the Dallas police, handed over to the FBI who found no prints on the weapon, and returned to the Dallas police, who then announced that they had lifted a palm print from the gun which matched Oswald’s hand. Had Oswald lived to stand trial, his defense lawyers might well have succeeded in barring much of the significant evidence from the trial. Some investigators have suggested that the Dallas police acted almost as if they knew in advance that there would be no trial.

Perhaps the federal authorities could have been expected to perform a more professional job. Yet the Commission established by President Johnson relied upon the FBI to provide them with information for their investigation. The FBI, starting at the top with Director J. Edgar Hoover, firmly believed that Oswald was guilty and that he acted alone. As a result, FBI agents gathered information that supported the guilt of Oswald while ignoring or marginalizing information that might have proved his innocence. Given the bias of the FBI, it is not surprising that the Commission, relying on the FBI for information, concluded decisively that Oswald killed the President and that he did so acting alone.

Between the time of his arrest on the 22nd and the time of his death on the 24th, Oswald consistently denied shooting President Kennedy. If his goal was to achieve notoriety by killing the President, it is odd that he refused to claim responsibility for the murder. Oswald never had a greater opportunity to state his political beliefs than during his arrest that weekend, but all he managed to say about himself was, “I’m just a patsy,” meaning an innocent person framed for a crime.

Oswald had contempt for the governments of the United States and of the Soviet Union, but he never expressed any hatred toward President Kennedy. In fact, he was said to admire Kennedy. Oswald made it clear that he knew that the death of the President would not change the course of the American government, since Vice President Lyndon Johnson was in line to replace the President.

Oswald’s life before the weekend of the assassination is filled with contradictions. He joined the United States Marine Corps but declared himself to be a Communist and studied the Russian language. Receiving a hardship release from the Marine Corps because of a minor injury to his mother, Oswald quickly traveled to Europe and entered the Soviet Union where he renounced his American citizenship. Oswald was given a job and an apartment in Minsk, where he married a Russian woman before completing paperwork to return to the United States. In Texas, Lee and Marina associated with a community of Russians who were hostile to the Soviet government. In Louisiana, Lee claimed to represent Fair Play for Cuba, an association which supported Fidel Castro’s communist government in Cuba. Oswald also made contact with anti-Castro Cubans in Louisiana. Weeks before the assassination, Oswald traveled to Mexico City where he attempted to obtain documents from the Cuban and Soviet embassies so he could travel to Cuba.

Oswald’s relationship with U.S. government agencies is unknown. Many CIA and FBI files about Oswald are either missing or still restricted. While he was with the Marine Corps, Oswald was involved with highly sensitive missions, including operating radar in the Asian Pacific theater. His ability to travel to the Soviet Union and then return to the United States has fascinated researchers ever since Oswald’s death. Oswald most likely was not a highly-trained spy, but his time spent in the Soviet Union may still have served the purposes of the American government.

When American intelligence agencies spend a great deal of time and money training five or six Americans to act as spies in the Soviet Union, these agencies do not want to make detection of these spies easy for the Soviet government by sending only those spies across the border. Sending five or six other Americans into the Soviet Union at the same time would force the Soviet government to divide its resources among all ten to twelve Americans. With his interest in communism and his efforts to learn Russian, Oswald was an ideal candidate for the role of spy decoy. Allowing him to leave the Marine Corps early and perhaps funding his travel to Europe, the American government was able to distract the Soviet government with a decoy at little cost to the United States.

Since the United States used Oswald as a decoy to distract the Soviets from real American spies, the Soviet government most likely did the same thing. This procedure may explain why Oswald was allowed to marry Marina, a Russian girl, and to bring her back to America with him. FBI agent James Hosty, who was responsible for keeping track of the Oswalds in Dallas, has written that he was far more concerned with Marina than with Lee as a threat to the safety of the United States.

If both governments treated the Oswalds as pawns during the confrontations of the Cold War, another question should be asked: might Lee Harvey Oswald have been used in November 1963 by some conspiracy that intended to assassinate the President? Could Oswald have been the “patsy” he claimed to be, set up to take the blame for the murder so the real conspirators could go free? I will attempt to answer these questions in tomorrow’s post.