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Judge Griffin and the Man Who Killed the Man Who Killed Kennedy | Part 1

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Judge Griffin and the Man Who Killed the Man Who Killed Kennedy | Part 1The president and first lady ride through Dallas on Nov. 22.
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The thing they tell you, if they were alive when it happened, is they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing that day.

“I can remember vividly.”

That’s Burt Griffin. Some Clevelanders might remember Griffin. He was a judge on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for 30 years. Cleveland Scene once called him “Gandalf” and the “wise old man of the bench.” But on that day, he wasn’t a judge yet. Wasn’t even thinking about it. Or I guess he could’ve been thinking about it — aren’t all lawyers thinking about it, just a little bit?

Anyway, Griffin was just coming back to the offices of McDonald Hopkins & Hardy, a Cleveland law firm that now just goes by the name McDonald Hopkins. It was after lunch, a bit after 1 p.m. He got on the elevator in the office building, and it was there someone told him that the president had been shot. I’m sorry, Judge Griffin, do you want to take over the story?

“I’ve told this story so many times,” says Griffin. “Repetition reinforces your memory. It can also distort it.”

This is the sort of even-handed wisdom Griffin will be dispensing frequently in this story, and you will have to get used to it.

“Anyhow,” Griffin again. “My initial reaction was, ‘those damned segregationists.’ I was sure that he had been shot by somebody who was a segregationist.”

Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested after the assassination. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

He continued on into the office, where there were no televisions. Instead, the employees of the law firm all gathered around a single radio the receptionist kept, and as they listened they learned that President John F. Kennedy was dead, killed by an assassin in Dallas.

“We closed the office, went home and watched television for the next three days.”

Soon the television said the Dallas police had arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, a 20-something ex-Marine who they believed had shot the president and then killed a Dallas police officer named J.D. Tippit. The details of Oswald’s life that trickled up from Texas were incriminating, and not just for him. It turned out Oswald had only recently returned to his home country after a short-lived defection to the Soviet Union.

“When I learned that Oswald had been arrested and had defected to the Soviet Union and so forth I thought it was probably a frame-up,” says Griffin.

In this new theory of Griffin’s, the frame-up was concocted not by segregationists but by J. Edgar Hoover and the local Dallas authorities.

“They’d found some guy who was a Communist — I wasn’t able at that point to distinguish between a Marxist and a Communist — but he was a Communist,” says Griffin.

And somewhere in those three days of television, Griffin was watching when they escorted Oswald through the basement of the Dallas police headquarters and a squat man in a fedora leapt forward, shoved a gun into Oswald’s chest and shot him. Oswald died in the same hospital where Kennedy had died two days earlier. This new shooter’s name was Jack Ruby.

Burt Griffin didn’t know that soon it would be his job to learn everything that could be learned about that squat man with the fedora. And as for his idle thoughts about a conspiracy of segregationists and/or J. Edgar Hoover skullduggery, in a few weeks it would be his job to find out if there really was a nefarious plot to murder our president. And a few decades after that, he’d sit down with some annoying writer from Columbus to talk about where he was and what he was doing on November 22, 1963.

#

I guess if you’re like me, and you weren’t alive when it happened, there’s no one particular date and time when you first learned about the JFK assassination. It sort of seeps into American life, whether you want it to or not. It’s a myth we all know by heart — a crisp, sunny November day, a young, stylish president out for an afternoon drive with his young, stylish wife. There’s a cast of characters with vague, ominous sounding names — The Umbrella Man, The Babushka Lady, The Three Tramps. There’s Dealey Plaza, a Magic Bullet, a Grassy Knoll. Have you ever heard of any other type of knoll? There’s only one knoll in the world and it’s the grassy one in Dallas. The JFK assassination has its own geography.

Judge Griffin wanted to know why any of this matters to me at my age, why I’d driven up from Columbus to talk about the killing of a president who’d never been president while I was alive. I told him it was a little bit because my mother comes from an Irish Catholic family in which John F. Kennedy’s foibles and failures are acknowledged, but the mere fact that he occupied the White House with his name and religion means something in a primal sort of way. I told him about my first exposure in the form of a children’s book I read when I was in second grade. Somehow, when Miss Mahoney passed around a basket full of thin books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, I happened to pull out the one about John F. Kennedy and his untimely demise. It had illustrations, right down to the red plume in frame 313 of the Zapruder Film. I was hooked for life.

A Secret Service agent climbs onto the presidential limousine moments after President Kennedy is shot. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks a lot, Miss Mahoney.

But in large part it’s the haunting, uniquely American mythology of it all that brought me to Judge Griffin. And at the heart of that dark fairy tale is the Lone Gunman, a character whose very existence we still question even today. But why? Why should we? How can we stop?

I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I heard the news that President Kennedy was dead, but I’ve had to hear the news about a few dozen different gunmen in my 26 years, and I remember where I was and what I was doing for just about each one. And for each one, the conspiracy theories seem to get more elaborate, more impenetrable. They beam out even before the bodies are counted, somewhere between the first press conference and the second.

How do we, as a nation, make sense of violence without resorting to the comforts of conspiracy? For an answer, I thought, maybe I needed to go back. Back to the big one, the mother of all conspiracies, and the guy — well, one of the guys — responsible for getting the facts.

#

I waited for Judge Griffin at the Panera Bread on Richmond Road, not far from Warrensville Heights. I wore a white, button-down shirt and a black tie. I’m not sure why, exactly. It felt respectful. Like how they used to dress back then. Griffin told me he’d be the guy in the red cap that said “Castine.”

The presidential motorcade makes its way through Dallas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Burt Griffin was born and raised in Cleveland, educated in the Shaker Heights school system. He went to Amherst College in Massachusetts. The draft was still in effect back then, after the Korean War, so Griffin volunteered for two years of service in the Army. He attended Yale Law School, where he was an officer of the law review. Later he clerked for a federal judge in Washington D.C. named — and Griffin wanted to emphasize that this is true — George Washington. He spent two years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Cleveland before joining McDonald Hopkins and leaving government work. But not for long.

Griffin walked up with his red Castine hat, carrying a briefcase. We shook hands and went inside.

Now, when you’re going to meet with someone and talk about the JFK assassination, you kind of want it to be in a dark parking garage somewhere, or a sketchy diner with a guy in the corner in a trench coat and aviators watching you the whole time. But that’s not convenient for either of us, so the Panera will do. We were barely inside before people started coming up to Griffin just to shake hands and say hello. Griffin sees the same faces a lot at this Panera. It was his office, more or less, as he wrote the book.

He brought the book out onto the table between us. Thick, crisp white, plastic covered and spiral bound. He calls it Searching For Truth In A Political World: Kennedy, Oswald, and Ruby. He needs a publisher, he said, and the right audience. But it’s his opus, his eager attempt to put on the record and into the minds of readers his comprehensive testament as to how it all went down. It started, of course, with the day everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. But Griffin became part of the story about a month later when he got a phone call from some guy who worked for Jones Day.

Lyndon B.

“Because I had a classmate who was a new, young lawyer at Jones Day, I got invited to cocktail parties with these Jones Day lawyers,” said Griffin.

This particular Jones Day lawyer didn’t work for Jones Day anymore. He worked for Robert Kennedy, the grieving brother of the murdered president who still served as Attorney General of the United States. The new Lyndon B. Johnson administration was in the midst of putting together the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, which would later be known for its chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren.

By December of 1963, the Warren Commission had commissioners. Now it needed lawyers.

“They were interested in diversity,” said Griffin. “In 1963… diversity meant geographic diversity. It wasn’t racial, it wasn’t gender. I was from the Midwest, they wanted someone from the Midwest.”

They also wanted someone with experience in criminal prosecution, experience with the federal judicial system, and crucially, experience with the FBI. Griffin knew how the FBI and its agents operated under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership, and he didn’t share the reverence of the Bureau common to Americans in that era of certain persuasions and complexions.

Despite the experience he’d accrued by December of 1963, Griffin remains cynically modest about how he ended up being asked to join the Warren Commission staff.

“I mean, come on, don’t think it was some great, national search for the most qualified person,” said Griffin. “It’s all a matter of luck.”

Joining the Commission meant packing up everything, moving his wife and young children to Washington, and leaving the private sector to work for the government once again. But Griffin ultimately said yes to the government’s offer.

“This may be the most interesting thing I’ll ever do in my life,” thought Griffin. “And I don’t think it’s the most important thing I’ve done, but it is the most interesting thing I’ve ever done.”

Judge Burt Griffin was a young Cleveland lawyer when he was asked to join the Warren Commission. Photo by Jesse Bethea.

Griffin doesn’t remember the details of his first day at the Warren Commission, but he vividly remembers the first staff meeting in January of 1964 when Chief Justice Warren came in to address all the young lawyers who’d be doing much of the work.

“He said, ‘your only client is the truth,’” said Griffin. “We knew people would lie to us, we knew that people would conceal things from us. But there was nobody who was overseeing us in any way, or even from the outside who was suggesting that we had to come up with some kind of an answer. In fact, we wanted it. We all knew that if we could find a conspiracy, we’d be national heroes.”

If Griffin had discovered a secret plot to kill JFK, “I’d have been the senator from Ohio, not John Glenn.”

In Griffin’s telling, the Warren Commission’s goal was never to debunk or dismiss conspiracy theories. The point was to investigate, to find and to prove the truth of what really happened, to banish the ghosts and lies from Dealey Plaza, so that every American would know exactly what happened to their president, once and for all.

It did not work.

Read Part 2 here.

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