DVD REVIEW:

ON TRIAL:
LEE HARVEY OSWALD












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"LEE WAS A VERY ORDINARY PERSON. ... PEOPLE CAN KILL A PRESIDENT WITHOUT THAT BEING SOMETHING THAT SHOWS ON THEM IN ADVANCE."
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The above quote came from the lips of Mrs. Ruth Paine in 1986, and can be heard on this first-ever DVD release of "ON TRIAL: LEE HARVEY OSWALD" (which was made available by MPI Home Video on October 28, 2008).

Ruth Paine was one of the very few people in the world who knew Mr. and Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald fairly well just prior to November 22, 1963, which was the Friday when Lee Oswald took a gun to work and assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

In July of 1986, Mrs. Paine was one of several people who travelled from America to London in order to participate in a TV "docu-trial" ("ON TRIAL: LEE HARVEY OSWALD"), a simulated courtroom trial produced by London Weekend Television.

The mock trial was 21 hours long, but more than 75% of that filmed footage was left on the cutting-room floor, with the 21 hours' worth of trial material being trimmed down to a little more than 5 hours for its original two-part Showtime cable-TV broadcast on November 21 and 22, 1986.

This 2-Disc DVD edition of "On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald" contains the entire uncut docu-trial as it was originally aired in November 1986 by the Showtime network in the United States (5+ hours of programming).

However, some portions of the original Showtime broadcast featuring host Edwin Newman and other commentators (such as Jack Anderson, Ramsey Clark, and Alan Dershowitz) have not been included on this DVD.

Very brief interview snippets with the two lead attorneys involved in the trial (Vincent Bugliosi and Gerry Spence) that were aired on TV in '86 have also been removed for this DVD presentation. But all of the in-the-courtroom footage from the original '86 Showtime broadcast appears to be intact and included in this MPI Home Video version.

Footnote regarding running time --- Each of the two DVDs in this set has an incorrect (too short) running time shown on it. Based on the printed information on the discs, the total run time is only 4 hours and 8 minutes. But the total time for both DVDs is actually 5 hours and 7 minutes, which almost certainly represents the whole program as it first aired on Showtime (minus some of the wraparound segments with Edwin Newman, et al).

At least one subsequent airing of this docu-trial on a different U.S. network (in 1988), however, does contain additional courtroom footage that is not included in this Showtime/MPI version.

But it's not entirely surprising that alternate versions of this lengthy program were produced, featuring different editing, given the fact that more than three-fourths of the filmed trial was edited out in the first place (including the entire testimony of at least one witness, Jack Tatum).

Another packaging error can be found on the back cover of this MPI DVD, where we find this absurdly-overstated blurb -- "ON TRIAL: LEE HARVEY OSWALD recalls all of the surviving witnesses...".

But quite obviously, as of July 1986 (when the Oswald TV trial took place), more than just the 21+ people who took the witness stand at this mock trial were still among the living (as far as assassination-related witnesses are concerned).

No witnesses were subpoenaed, however. The people who took the witness stand at the mock trial did so voluntarily. They were not being forced to appear. So, that fact certainly must have limited the length of the witness lists for both the defense and the prosecution to a large degree.

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ABOUT THE TRIAL:

"On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald" has the feel of a real trial (although, of course, it isn't, since the defendant in the case, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself shot and killed by Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby just two days after President Kennedy was murdered).

But "On Trial" has a real judge sitting on the bench in the London courtroom, 12 real Dallas jurors sitting in the jury box, more than 20 real sworn-in witnesses (connected in various ways to the JFK and/or J.D. Tippit murder cases) taking the witness stand to testify on behalf of either the prosecution or the defense, and two prominent U.S. trial attorneys presenting their cases in front of the jury -- Vincent T. Bugliosi for the prosecution (representing the "U.S. Government") and Gerry Spence representing the deceased defendant, Lee Oswald.

Mr. Bugliosi, in 2005, said it was his belief that the 1986 television docu-trial was "the closest thing to a trial that Lee Harvey Oswald ever had or will have". And after having watched the trial many times since '86, I have to fully concur with Vince's assessment as well.

This simulated trial was the springboard that led Bugliosi to write his mammoth and all-encompassing book on the JFK assassination, "Reclaiming History", which took Vince more than 20 years to research and write. The book was finally published in May 2007.

As mentioned previously, Ruth Paine was among the 21+ witnesses who testified in 1986 at the TV docu-trial, and Paine's testimony is among the most riveting and enlightening during the five-hour program. Even after 23 years, the raw emotion of that day back in 1963 still resonates deeply within her. Ruth's testimony is worth the price of this DVD set alone.

All of Ruth Paine's "On Trial" testimony can be seen here:


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Another standout section of "On Trial" comes during the latter portion of the program, when noted conspiracy theorist and House Select Committee on Assassinations [HSCA] member Dr. Cyril H. Wecht takes the witness stand to face off against Vince Bugliosi.

The sparks begin to fly when Bugliosi wants Dr. Wecht to explain what happened to the intact bullet that exited President Kennedy's throat, heading downward and forward, directly toward Governor John Connally in the limousine (see the video below).

Although Wecht agrees with Bugliosi that the bullet did, indeed, go completely through JFK's body without deviating from its original flight path, Cyril also contends that the bullet did not strike Governor Connally at all. Instead, evidently it vanished into thin air without a trace. (Talk about a "magic bullet".)


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Other witnesses who put in an appearance during the trial include (among a few others): Charles Brehm, Buell Wesley Frazier, Dallas police officer Marrion Baker (who actually stopped Oswald and spoke to him inside the Texas School Book Depository within minutes of JFK's assassination), Harold Norman, Johnny Brewer, Nelson Delgado, Edwin Lopez, Seth Kantor, Ted Callaway, Eugene Boone (the deputy sheriff who first discovered Oswald's rifle on the sixth floor of the Depository), William Newman, Dr. Vincent Guinn, Dr. Charles Petty, and FBI agent James Hosty (who was aware of Oswald's presence in Dallas weeks prior to 11/22/63).

(A full DVD chapter / witness list is provided later in this review.)

Vince Bugliosi puts on a strong prosecutor's case against Oswald in "On Trial", relying heavily, of course, on the wide array of physical and circumstantial evidence that easily shows Oswald to be guilty of not only killing President Kennedy, but also of murdering a second man on November 22, 1963 -- Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit, who was shot four times by Oswald on 10th Street in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff approximately 45 minutes after Kennedy was slain right in front of Oswald's workplace on Elm Street.

Gerry Spence, on the other hand, relies mainly on guesswork, unsupportable theories, and "what if" scenarios in his attempted (and anemic) defense of his "client", Lee H. Oswald.

Mr. Spence is a good showman, though, I must say that. He's fun to watch in the courtroom. And so is Bugliosi, I might add. But Spence's choice of witnesses to try and buttress his case for conspiracy was rather weak, to say the least, with only 7 witnesses called to the stand (per the final 5-hour version of the trial seen on Showtime anyway), with one of those seven being the laughable Tom Tilson. You can hear Tilson tell his crazy conspiracy-slanted tale here:


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Mr. Tilson, a Dallas police officer in 1963, tells the jury about how Jack Ruby killed President Kennedy, with Tilson witnessing Ruby's getaway just after the assassination.

Not all of Tilson's testimony was shown on TV, however. Here's the text of a portion of Mr. Tilson's testimony that didn't make the final television cut (and it's a howl too). The following paragraph comes directly from Vincent Bugliosi's outstanding and comprehensive book on the assassination, "Reclaiming History":
"I asked Tilson why, if he believed the man he pursued was Ruby, didn't he give Dallas homicide Ruby's name when he called them with his information? Unbelievably, Tilson answered, "Well, I couldn't. Somebody might go get Jack Ruby and he might not have been guilty." (Translation: Never pursue any suspect to a crime because there's always a chance the suspect might not be guilty.)" -- Vincent T. Bugliosi; Page 879 of "Reclaiming History: The Assassination Of President John F. Kennedy" (W.W. Norton)(c.2007)

In the end, thankfully, the real evidence against the defendant was able to conquer the fanciful "what ifs" in the minds of the jurors, and after six hours of deliberations, Lee Harvey Oswald was declared "Guilty" at the conclusion of the mock trial.

Three of those jurors, however, weren't convinced that there was no "conspiracy" to murder the President; but all twelve of them were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee Oswald did, in fact, kill John Kennedy.

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Here are a few random text excerpts that can be found in "On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald":
  • "The evidence that will be presented at this trial will show that there is no substance to the persistent charge by these critics that Lee Harvey Oswald was just a patsy, set up to take the fall by some elaborate conspiracy. We expect the evidence -- ALL of the evidence -- to show that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy." -- VINCENT BUGLIOSI (Opening Statement)
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  • VINCENT BUGLIOSI -- "Mr. Frazier, is it true that you paid hardly any attention to this bag?"

    BUELL WESLEY FRAZIER -- "That is true."

    BUGLIOSI -- "So the bag could have been protruding out in front of his [Oswald's] body, and you wouldn't have been able to see it, is that correct?"

    FRAZIER -- "That is true."
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  • BUGLIOSI -- "Did it sound to you like a rifle was being fired directly above you?"

    HAROLD NORMAN -- "Yes sir."

    BUGLIOSI -- "Was there any OTHER reason, in addition to the sound of the rifle, any other reason why you believed the shots were coming from directly above you?"

    NORMAN -- "Yes sir."

    BUGLIOSI -- "And what is that?"

    NORMAN -- "Because I could hear the empty hulls--that's what I call them--hit the floor; and I could hear the bolt action of the rifle being pushed back and forward."

    BUGLIOSI -- "You're familiar with a bolt-action rifle?"

    NORMAN -- "Yes sir."
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  • BUGLIOSI -- "What you're saying is that from your Neutron Activation Analysis, there may have been fifty people firing at President Kennedy that day....but if there were, they all missed....ONLY bullets fired from Oswald's Carcano rifle hit the President. Is that correct?"

    DR. VINCENT P. GUINN -- "That's a correct statement; yes."
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  • BUGLIOSI -- "Mr. Delgado, I believe you testified before the Warren Commission, that on the rifle range Oswald was kind of a joke, a pretty big joke."

    NELSON DELGADO [served with Oswald in the Marines] -- "Yes, he was." ....

    BUGLIOSI -- "Are you aware that in 1956, when Oswald first joined the Marines, and was going through Basic Training, he fired a 212 on the rifle range with an M-1 rifle, which made him a 'sharpshooter' at that time -- are you aware of that?"

    DELGADO -- "Yes."

    BUGLIOSI -- "Given the fact that Oswald was about to get out of the Marines when he was in your unit, and the fact that he showed no interest in firing on the range -- you don't attribute his poor showing on the range to his being a poor shot?"

    DELGADO -- "No."

    BUGLIOSI -- "He could have done better, you felt, if he tried?"

    DELGADO -- "Certainly."
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  • BUGLIOSI -- "While he [Lee Oswald] was at your home did he ask you for any curtain rods?"

    RUTH PAINE -- "No, he didn't." ....

    BUGLIOSI -- "Now you, in fact, DID have some curtain rods in the garage, is that correct?"

    PAINE -- "In the garage...yes."

    BUGLIOSI -- "After the assassination, they were still there."

    PAINE -- "Yes, that's right."
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  • BUGLIOSI -- "Seems to me, Doctor, that by necessary implication they are either hopelessly and utterly incompetent, or they deliberately suppressed the truth from the American public. Is that correct?"

    DR. CYRIL H. WECHT -- "There is a third alternative, which would be a hybrid to some extent of the deliberate suppression, sir..."

    BUGLIOSI -- "So, of the nine pathologists, Doctor Wecht, you're the only one that had the honor and the integrity and the professional responsibility to tell the truth to the American people! Is that correct, Doctor!?"

    WECHT -- "I'll prefer to put it this way....I'm the only one who had the courage to say that the King was nude, and had no clothes on....yes."

    BUGLIOSI -- "No further questions."
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  • "So we KNOW, not just beyond a reasonable doubt, we know beyond ALL doubt THAT OSWALD'S RIFLE WAS THE MURDER WEAPON. .... And it's obvious that Oswald carried that rifle into the building that day in that large brown paper bag. It couldn't be more obvious. As far as Mr. Frazier's testimony about Oswald carrying the bag under his armpit, he conceded he never paid close attention to just how Oswald was carrying that bag. He didn't have any reason to.

    "At this point if we had nothing else....nothing else....how much do you need?....if we had NOTHING else....this would be enough to prove Oswald's guilt beyond all REASONABLE doubt. But there's so much more. ....

    "How, in fact, if Oswald were innocent, did they GET Oswald, within forty-five minutes of the assassination, to murder Officer Tippit? Or was he framed for that murder too?! ....

    "As surely as I am standing here, as surely as night follows day, Lee Harvey Oswald--acting alone--was responsible for the murder of President John F. Kennedy."
    -- VINCENT BUGLIOSI (Closing Arguments)

MANY MORE TEXT EXCERPTS FROM THE TRIAL CAN BE FOUND HERE.

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ABOUT THE DVDs:

The video quality on these DVDs is pretty good, probably just about as good as when the program first aired in 1986. (See the 40 screen captures below.) There are no audio commentaries or additional bonus features on either of the two discs in this DVD package. It would have been great if a commentary track by Vince Bugliosi could have been included, but it wasn't. But I was surprised to find that English subtitles have been included on these DVDs, which could be considered kind of a "mini bonus" of sorts.

Some more disc data:

2-Disc set.
Single-sided discs.
Video: Full-Frame (1.33:1). In color.
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo.
Total Run Time: 307 minutes (5 hrs., 7 min.).
Menus: Non-animated; looped music on the Main Menu.
Paper Enclosures: None.
DVD Front Cover.
DVD Back Cover.

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DVD CHAPTER LIST:

DISC ONE:
1. Introduction (With Edwin Newman)
2. Opening Statement: The Prosecution
3. Opening Statement: The Defense
4. Prosecution, 1st Witness: Buell Frazier
5. Prosecution, 2nd Witness: Charles Brehm
6. Prosecution, 3rd Witness: Harold Norman
7. Prosecution, 4th Witness: Eugene Boone
8. Prosecution, 5th Witness: Marrion Baker
9. Prosecution, 6th Witness: Ted Callaway
10. Witness Recall: Buell Frazier
11. Prosecution, 7th Witness: Jack Brewer
12. Prosecution, 8th Witness: Cecil Kirk
13. Prosecution, 9th Witness: Dr. Charles Petty
14. Prosecution, 10th Witness: Monty Lutz
15. Prosecution, 11th Witness: Dr. Vincent Guinn
16. Prosecution, 12th Witness: Lyndal Shaneyfelt
17. Prosecution, 13th Witness: Nelson Delgado
18. Prosecution, 14th Witness: Ruth Paine


DISC TWO:
1. Defense, 1st Witness: Bill Newman
2. Defense, 2nd Witness: Tom Tilson
3. Defense, 3rd Witness: Dr. Cyril Wecht
4. Defense, 4th Witness: Paul O'Connor
5. Defense, 5th Witness: James Hosty
6. Defense, 6th Witness: Edwin Lopez
7. Defense, 7th Witness: Seth Kantor
8. Final Summation: The Prosecution
9. Final Summation: The Defense
10. Final Rebuttal: The Prosecution
11. The Verdict

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A FINAL WORD:

Although it wasn't a "real" trial (quite obviously), "On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald" did a nice job (at least partially) of filling a gap that had long been in need of filling -- and that is: to present the evidence against Lee Oswald in a courtroom setting, complete with the adversarial process of United States law on full display (i.e., the prosecution vs. the defense).

Lee Harvey Oswald, posthumously, had his day in court. Some conspiracy theorists maintain that the 1986 mock trial was nothing but a "sham", a "farce", a "fictional TV drama" with no real facts or truths being brought out in the courtroom.

I, however, would strongly disagree with such assertions regarding "On Trial". While not binding as an actual "Guilty" verdict in the case against Oswald, the fact remains that a lot of REAL evidence, presented by REAL witnesses, came to light in that London courtroom.

And whether Oswald was alive or not to defend himself against this evidence, it is evidence that still exists all the same (and LHO, had he lived, would have been a complete fool if he had chosen to testify at his trial, because if he had done so, his lengthy string of provable lies would have then gushed forth from the witness stand like water over Niagara Falls; and even without him testifying, those same lies would undoubtedly have still been revealed, via other witnesses).

And the evidence presented at this television docu-trial is evidence that convicted Lee Harvey Oswald of a Presidential assassination in the eyes of twelve Dallas citizens in 1986. And, in my opinion, that's a nice gap in the world of "JFK Assassination Lore" to have filled in.

David Von Pein
October 2008



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