Judge Griffin and the Man Who Killed the Man Who Killed Kennedy | Part 3
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 55 years ago this week. Retired Cleveland Judge Burt Griffin was part of the team that investigated what happened. Part 1 of this story can be found here, and Part 2 can be found here.
“It was superficial,” said Burt Griffin of the Warren Commission’s final report, presented to President Johnson and the public in September of 1964.
The report’s final conclusion, of course, was that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy, and Lee Harvey Oswald did it. He had all the signifiers we recognize today — a troubled loner with delusions of historic greatness. If it had happened today, we’d all have Twitter fights over whether to call him a terrorist or an active shooter or what have you, nothing would be solved and no one would be satisfied. And that’s more or less how it went back then too.
“Frankly I was prepared, if people had started to criticize us… to be somewhat supportive of those people,” said Griffin. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve gone to a lot of their conspiracy conferences, because I want to know who these people are. But they’re so much obsessed with things that are completely wrong and some of them lie completely… I’ve felt it’s so much better to spend my time trying to point out where these people are horribly off-base or complete liars.”
With the final report written and the Warren Commission disbanded, Griffin returned to his old law firm in Cleveland. He would go on to join the Cleveland Legal Aid Society as that group’s executive director, and then two years later he was asked to lead the Legal Aid Society for the entire country.
“But then a major change came to my life, because my wife suddenly died of leukemia,” said Griffin. “I mean it was like, she died two days after she was diagnosed. Our kids were then five and eight.”
Once again, Griffin left Washington and came back to Cleveland, now as a single father. Ten years after John F. Kennedy’s murder, Griffin wasn’t dwelling on the assassination or the Warren Commission. Though he knew the final report was superficial, he was confident in its conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, and that his death at the end of Jack Ruby’s gun was the result of a coincidence — perhaps a series of them. And coincidence was not done with Burt Griffin.
As part of his patient willingness to engage with conspiracy theorists, Griffin agreed to attend a screening of the 1973 JFK assassination thriller Executive Action. Griffin sat through the film, which depicts a right-wing cabal plotting to kill Kennedy, and was asked to speak afterwards. He told the audience that the most accurate scene of the movie was one in which Lee Harvey Oswald buys a car. The rest was nonsense. And after that was over, Griffin met a very good friend of the filmmaker’s wife.
“She came up to me and I thought that she kind of winked and smiled at me and so forth, so I wanted to meet her,” said Griffin. “The result of that was I got invited over to someone else’s house for dinner with her and I’ve never seen anybody since.”
They’ve now been married for 43 years.
“So, that was the coincidence from the Warren Commission that changed my life.”
Not long after that, the people of Cuyahoga County elected Burt Griffin to the bench.
“You only get these jobs because you have name confusion,” said Griffin. “Anybody who claims that he or she is a judge because they’re some outstanding person is not truthful.”
Over the next 30 years, Griffin used his position to push for community service sentencing, mental health court dockets and counterbalancing prosecutorial aggressiveness, largely distancing himself from tough-on-crime theatrics.
“I was very interested in sentencing reform,” said Griffin. “And that’s one of the reasons I never had any great ambition to do anything else.”
I asked Griffin if his time on the Warren Commission ever influenced his career or his decisions as a judge. He looked off and thought for a moment, letting the sounds of a normal Monday in the Panera hang in the air.
“I think it helped me get elected.”
It wasn’t even a month after Burt Griffin and I had this conversation that a man walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and shot 11 worshipers to death. The gunman was apparently motivated in part by an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was importing “invaders” to the United States in the form of Latin American refugees.
But as Griffin and I sat across from each other in the Panera on Richmond Road, we knew nothing of what was coming. We lived in a simpler time, with only all the rest of this country’s political violence to trouble us. Mass and micro shootings alike, all the way back to the beginning.
“We’re so proud of our democracy, but we’re like a banana republic,” said Griffin. “No other country that I know of in the world has had four presidential assassinations, so what kind of great democracy are we?”
When Griffin first set out to write his book, he envisioned a reexamination of all the presidential assassinations of American history — Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy. But amid all that presidential killing — and all the other killing besides — Griffin knows the Kennedy assassination is the one that haunts us still. Perhaps in more ways than we’re comfortable with.
“This is, for you and people your age, the same thing that the McKinley assassination was for me,” said Griffin. “This is interesting past history. But the danger that I see in this is that by building up this idea that we can have a conspiratorial world, we foster this type of conspiratorial mentality, rather than getting people to say, hey let’s look at a lot more details.”
The details will get you after a while, and poke holes in your precious conspiracy theory. The details and the coincidences.
“Like it didn’t rain that day,” said Griffin. “If it’d been raining, the top would’ve been up in the goddamn limousine.”
No, it didn’t rain that day. It didn’t rain that day, and our government could not have orchestrated 9/11 in secret. The Clintons did not organize a global child prostitution network. The migrant caravan is but a caravan of migrants. And Lee Harvey Oswald was neither a patsy, nor an agent of some foreign government, nor an agent of our own government. He was an angry, disturbed young man with a gun. And when has such a person ever brought terror down upon our nation?
Conspiracy theories are extremely useful for reinforcing one’s political outlook. The JFK assassination is a perfect example. If you are a leftist, Oliver Stone type, your JFK conspiracy might implicate the vast military industrial complex. If you’re more conservative, Oswald’s Marxist sympathies and his stint in the Soviet Union might become the focal point of your conspiracy theory. Either way, it’s always your adversaries who did the bad thing. Wake up, sheeple, and all that.
But a conspiracy theory also comforts while professing to discomfort. The idea that a mythical They are pulling the levers of the universe is meant to be a wake-up call, but really the illusion of order helps many of us sleep at night. The conspiracy theory promises that all the terrible things are part of a plan, all has been considered and none of the ends are loose. The conspiracy theory promises that our history does not turn simply on the whims of unstable gunmen. The conspiracy theory absolves us of responsibility, because if our society is secretly controlled by dark forces then we are ultimately blameless for our society’s failings.
It didn’t start with the JFK assassination, of course, and it certainly didn’t end there. Violence followed by conspiracy followed by violence followed by conspiracy followed by violence followed by violence followed by violence. Remember when I wrote about the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, just 500 words ago? Since then, 12 people were shot to death in a massacre at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. The culprit was a 20-something ex-Marine. At least there don’t seem to be any widespread conspiracy theories about this one. Yet.
I don’t know if I expected Griffin to have an answer to any of this. I suppose that would’ve been silly. If someone on the Warren Commission knew how to exorcise conspiracy theories, we wouldn’t be here, would we? Fifty-five years later, Griffin knows the Warren Commission failed. Not in its core mission to find the truth, but in its unspoken mission to disseminate the truth to the public and convince us that the truth was truth.
“We all went back to our jobs,” explained Griffin. “I went back to McDonald Hopkins and went on with my life, but we should have had a process set up, one to respond to these things with real media consciousness… We also needed to have a unit in the Justice Department that made it absolutely clear that if anybody had any new information, they wanted it. And then as they were getting this new information, they should’ve been announcing what their conclusions were.”
This solution, if one can call it a solution, is a grim prospect. Playing whack-a-mole with every single lie that springs forth from every single act of violence seems impossible. OK, “seems” is a cop-out. It is impossible. We can’t have a commission for every shooting, and there are days when it feels like we are all buried under a landslide of violence and lies and somewhere in the debris is a single boulder called the JFK assassination and we can’t even sort that one out.
“I toss it back at you,” said Griffin. “Why do journalists feel that when somebody makes an outlandish statement, they’re obliged to publish it? Why don’t they just bury it and say, ‘This is some nut, why should I publish it?’”
That one took me aback. Here I must answer to the judge for all journalists — I don’t always think I am one — with my own philosophy developed not from instruction or experience, but just youthful outlook. Put it another way; I’m a 26-year-old freelancer and Burt Griffin investigated the JFK assassination. I don’t know anything about anything.
But I gave him my opinion. That I, like all journalists, have been on the receiving end of “WHY AREN’T YOU COVERING THIS????” emails. I’ve felt the dueling pressure to ignore what is unimportant but pay more attention to the obscure. Funny how everyone has their own idea of what that means. And then there’s the awkward fact that sometimes the nut who makes outlandish statements is an elected official, and there may be some value in publishing such things if only so the voting public can know that someone who appears on their ballot does, occasionally, lie.
Griffin, to his credit, commiserates. Journalists, he said, are in a “terribly difficult situation.”
“You struggle with the problem,” said Griffin. “How do you know whether I should be believed? I may be all bullshit. It’s true, it’s a very tough job that you guys have. That’s why the more I think about this the more I think the contribution I can make is to some people in academia. Get as many people as possible to be able to think critically.”
If the conspiracy theories are comfort food, critical thinking is the vegetable, and no one has yet figured out how to make the public eat it. Who shot JFK might well be the least of our troubles and frankly, at this point, it’s probably a lost cause anyway.
“I’m prepared to accept the fact that the idea around this event is never going to go away, that there was a conspiracy, that something is being hidden,” said Griffin.
Still, for all that resignation, Griffin does his part. His book, Searching For Truth In A Political World, is supposed to be just part of the solution — one whack at one mole. He doesn’t expect to make money from it. He wants it to go to history teachers, political science professors, a tool for the next generation to guide them through a world of violence. The book, “which is probably too long,” is Burt Griffin’s final chapter in the Warren Commission report, 55 years later.
It came time, eventually, to shake hands and go our separate ways. We left the Panera on Richmond Road and carried on in our wounded country, one traumatized by violence and the lies that birth violence and the lies birthed by violence. A country that would rather believe a shadowy cabal was responsible for the death of a president than think it was the delusions of an angry young white man.
Not that I can completely fault us for our fantasies. It’s a little bit disgusting that this pathetic little man got to insert himself into our national story. It’s a little bit disgusting that his gun remains in our National Archives, preserved by the same people charged with preserving our Declaration of Independence, not to mention Jackie’s pink dress. It’s a little bit disgusting that we even have to know Lee Harvey Oswald’s name. But the alternative to the Lone Gunman is infinitely worse, because the alternative is a lie.
From the Panera on Richmond Road, it’s about a two-hour drive to Columbus and something like 17 hours to Dealey Plaza. But it turns out it’s only 40 minutes to Kent State. I looked it up later. It’s 40 minutes to Kent. It’s 30 minutes to Chardon. It’s 2018, and none of the gunmen are alone.