Earling Carothers "Jim" Garrison who changed his first name to Jim in the early 1960s was the Democratic District Attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana from 1962 to 1973. He is best known for his investigations into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (JFK).
Garrison remains a controversial figure. Opinions differ as to whether he uncovered a conspiracy behind the John F. Kennedy assassination but was blocked from successful prosecution by a federal government cover up, whether he bungled his chance to uncover a conspiracy, or whether the entire case was an unproductive waste of resources.
Earling Carothers Garrison was born in Denison, Iowa. His family moved to New Orleans in his childhood, where he was reared by his divorced mother. He served in the U.S. National Guard in World War II, then got a law degree from Tulane University Law School in 1949. He worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for two years and then returned to active duty with the National Guard. After fifteen months, he was relieved from duty. One Army doctor concluded he had a "severe and disabling psychoneurosis" which "interfered with his social and professional adjustment to a marked degree. He is considered totally incapacitated from the standpoint of military duty and moderately incapacitated in civilian adaptability." As it turned out, Garrison was suffering from anxiety and exhaustion that was likely due to the fact that, during World War II, he had flown 35 dangerous reconnaissance missions over France and Germany. He had also witnessed the horrors of totalitarianism first-hand when his unit entered the Dachau concentration camp one day after its liberation. Although one doctor did recommend that Garrison be discharged from service and collect 10% permanent disability, Garrison would not hear of it. Instead he applied for the National Guard where his record was reviewed by the army surgeon general who “found him to be physically qualified for federal recognition in the national army.”
Garrison worked for New Orleans law firm Deutsch, Kerrigan & Stiles from 1954 to 1958, when he became an assistant district attorney. Garrison became a flamboyant, colorful, well-known figure in New Orleans, but was initially unsuccessful in his run for public office, losing a 1959 election for criminal court judge. In 1961 he ran for district attorney, winning against incumbent Richard Dowling by 6,000 votes in a five-man Democratic primary. Despite lack of major political backing, his performance in a televised debate and last minute television commercials are credited with his victory.
Once in office, Garrison cracked down on prostitution and the abuses of Bourbon Street bars and strip joints. He indicted Dowling and one of his assistants with criminal malfeasance, but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Garrison did not appeal. Garrison received national attention for a series of vice raids in the French Quarter, staged sometimes on a nightly basis. Newspaper headlines in 1962 praised Garrison's efforts, "Quarter Crime Emergency Declared by Police, DA. — Garrison Back, Vows Vice Drive to Continue — 14 Arrested, 12 more nabbed in Vice Raids." Garrison's critics often point out that many of the arrests made by his office did not result in convictions, implying that he was in the habit of making arrests without evidence. However, assistant DA William Alford has said that charges would more often than not be reduced or dropped if a relative of someone charged gained Garrison’s ear. He had, said Alford, “a heart of gold.”
After a conflict with local criminal judges over his budget, he accused them of racketeering and conspiring against him. The eight judges charged him with misdemeanor criminal defamation, and Garrison was convicted in January 1963. (In 1965 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction and struck down the state statute as unconstitutional.) At the same time, Garrison indicted Judge Bernard Cocke with criminal malfeasance and, in two trials prosecuted by Garrison himself, Cocke was acquitted.
Garrison charged nine policemen with brutality, but dropped the charges two weeks later. At a press conference he accused the state parole board of accepting bribes, but could obtain no indictments. He accused the state legislature of the same, but held no investigation. He was unanimously censured by the legislature.
In 1965, running for reelection against Judge Malcolm O'Hara, Garrison won with 60 percent of the vote.
New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison began an investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy in the fall of 1966, after receiving several tips from Jack Martin that a man named David Ferrie may have been involved in the assassination. The end result of Garrison's investigation was the arrest and trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw. Garrison's key witness against Clay Shaw was Perry Russo, a twenty-five year old insurance salesman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. During the trial, Russo testified that he had attended an "assassination party" at David Ferrie's apartment, where Shaw, Ferrie, and Lee Harvey Oswald had discussed killing President Kennedy.
Russo’s version of events has been questioned by some historians and researchers, such as Patricia Lambert, once it became known that part of his testimony was induced by hypnotism, and by the drug Sodium Pentothal (sometimes called "truth serum"). Indeed, the early version of Russo's testimony, as told in the DA memo, before he was subjected to Sodium Pentothal and hypnosis, fails to mention an "assassination party" and says that Russo met Clay Shaw on two occasions, neither of which occurred at the "party." However in Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins, he says Russo has already told of the party at David Ferrie's before any "truth serum" was admitted. The jury didn't see enough evidence to convict Shaw. A verdict of not guilty was given.
Garrison was able to subpoena the Zapruder film from Life magazine and show it to the public for the first time. Until the trial, the film had rarely been seen, and bootleg copies made by assassination investigators working with Garrison led to the film's wider distribution.
In 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations found that Lee Harvey Oswald's stint in the New Orleans Civil Air Patrol (C.A.P.) fit the timeline of David Ferrie's Civil Air Patrol service. Committee investigators also found six witnesses whose statements led them to believe that Oswald had been present at Civil Air Patrol meetings headed by David Ferrie.
In 1993, the PBS television program Frontline obtained a group photograph, taken eight years before the assassination that showed Oswald and Ferrie at a cookout with other Civil Air Patrol cadets. However, as Frontline executive producer Michael Sullivan said, "one should be cautious in ascribing its meaning. The photograph does give much support to the eyewitnesses who say they saw Ferrie and Oswald together in the C.A.P., and it makes Ferrie's denials that he ever knew Oswald less credible. But it does not prove that the two men were with each other in 1963, nor that they were involved in a conspiracy to kill the president." However, Ferrie flat out denied ever knowing Oswald or Shaw, despite several witnesses who claimed to see the three of them in much of 1963.
HSCA Chief Counsel G. Robert Blakey wrote, in his book The Plot to Kill the President, that the Committee "...was inclined to believe that Oswald was in Clinton [Louisiana] in late August, early September 1963, and that he was in the company of David Ferrie, if not Clay Shaw" and that numerous witnesses in Clinton, Louisiana "...established an association of undetermined nature between Ferrie, Shaw and Oswald less than three months before the assassination."
In a 1992 interview, Edward Haggerty, who was the judge at the Clay Shaw trial, stated: "I believe he [Shaw] was lying to the jury. Of course, the jury probably believed him. But I think Shaw put a good con job on the jury."
In 1978, he was elected as a state Circuit Court of Appeals judge and served in this capacity until his death.
After the Shaw trial, Garrison wrote three books on the Kennedy assassination, A Heritage of Stone (1970), The Star Spangled Contract, and the best-seller, On The Trail of The Assassins (1988).
The 1991 Oliver Stone film JFK was largely based on Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins as well as Jim Marrs' Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. Kevin Costner played a fictionalized version of Garrison in the movie. Garrison himself had a small on-screen role in the film and ironically as United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Garrison appeared as himself in the 1987 film The Big Easy starring Dennis Quaid