`JFK' Is More Than a Film In City of Conspiracy Buffs

FOR many people in this city of dark memories, the names of John Kennedy, Clay Shaw, and Jim Garrison are forever intertwined in a murky world of political extremism, mobsters, and a president's death.

The filming here of Oliver Stone's controversial movie ``JFK'' in 1990 revealed that old passions about how President Kennedy died and who may have killed him still burn bright.

More recently, the unsealing of more than 500,000 pages of assassination documents at the National Archives - material in which New Orleans figures prominently - and the upcoming November commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Mr. Kennedy's death have reminded assassination buffs here that lingering suspicions may never fade away.

``It is a period that forever marks all of us in this city, all of us who may have known the principal players and harbor doubts and theories of our own,'' says Lucy Core, a former editor who knew Messrs. Garrison and Shaw.

New Orleans is important in the JFK assassination story not only because accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was born and lived here before he moved to Dallas, but also because in 1967 District Attorney Garrison accused Shaw, a local businessman, of masterminding the plot.

Garrison's investigation and the subsequent trial, which cleared Shaw, divided New Orleans residents between those who sided with the zealous prosecutor and those who viewed Shaw as a political innocent who was ruined by Garrison's endless pursuit of him.

In the intervening years, that division has only hardened.

``I have not seen a single piece of evidence in all these years that shows Clay Shaw was guilty as accused,'' says Rosemary James, a former reporter who covered the Garrison-Clay story. ``People who live in New Orleans and know the facts know that Clay Shaw never had anything to do with a conspiracy of any sort. He was just too improbable as a suspect.''

Supporters see Shaw as an urbane international businessman who improved New Orleans through his support of the arts. But Garrison viewed him as the leader of a conspiracy that included the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and political extremists from both the left and the right.

``[Garrison] was on to something, no question about it,'' says Charles Byrnes, a federal judge and friend of Garrison's who helped the former district attorney publicize his book ``On the Trail of the Assassins,'' which became the basis for Mr. Stone's film.

The trend among researchers seems to be running against Garrison and his supporters. For example, Gerald Posner's recent book, ``Case Closed,'' argues that Mr. Oswald acted alone when he shot the president.

``I certainly think that Clay Shaw was absolutely innocent,'' says Mr. Posner, whose book is now on the national best-seller lists. ``And I think what happened with the Garrison investigation was a travesty of justice. It's really a shame that Shaw's reputation has once again been tarnished for a whole new generation because of Stone's movie.''

Speculation over Shaw's role and Garrison's investigation will continue. At the National Archives, papers on the Shaw trial and Garrison's investigation are among the documents most in demand.

``Any number of people are still quite interested in the whole Garrison-Shaw angle,'' says Steve Tilley, head archivist with the JFK collection there. ``The whole Garrison-Shaw part of the Kennedy assassination is interesting to researchers because it's such a complicated and intriguing story.''

Ms. Core, whose former husband worked with Shaw, thinks the Garrison-Shaw angle remains compelling for reasons other than mystery and intrigue.

``It goes to the root of what America is and isn't supposed to be about,'' she says. ``We're supposed to be an open and free country. We're not supposed to be a country involved in coups, plots, and conspiracies.''

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