Local Warren Commission attorney reflects on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy assassination

CLEVELAND - Like so many Americans, Burt Griffin of Shaker Heights remembers where he was 50 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963 when he got word that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. It was a generation-defining moment.

The young attorney was heading back to his office in the East Ohio Gas Building in Cleveland from lunch and was getting on an elevator when he heard someone say "the president has been shot."

He rode up to his office where he gathered with others around a radio in disbelief.

"Maybe a half hour later we heard that the president had died and that ended everything," he recalled.

Across America, offices emptied out early that Friday afternoon.   

"We went home and watched television for the rest of the weekend," he said.

He was in front of the television two days later when Lee Harvey Oswald was being transported by Dallas Police to the county jail and was shot dead on live television by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

Griffin said what he felt was shame.

"It made you feel like there was no order in the United States -- the president's shot, the shooter is shot, where's order in our society? It was very distressing," he said.

SPECIAL: JFK assassination 50 years later

What he didn't know that Sunday afternoon was how closely his life would be forever tied to what it was he just witnessed.

A few weeks later, Griffin got a call from an attorney he knew who had taken a job with the Justice Department working as an assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. They were looking for 15 attorneys to serve as counsel to the just formed Warren Commission investigating the assassination.

"When they were looking for staff around the country they were looking for someone from the Midwest who was in a certain age range and had some criminal justice experience and I had been an assistant U.S. attorney in Cleveland and had a good academic record," he remembered.

"I was one of the few people he knew who fit the bill." He was hired.

What would follow was a grueling period of 16-hour days, often seven days a week from early January of 1964 to late September.

"We were determined to find a conspiracy because we knew that the country's future was at stake and if there had been a conspiracy involved in killing the president we wanted to find that out," he said. "Now what we would have done if we had found it -- that's another question, but we definitely want to find out if there was a conspiracy."

The attorneys were placed into six teams of two people to look into the six areas of the inquiry.

"One area had to do with where did the shots come from, another area had to do with whether there was a possible foreign conspiracy and my area had to do with Jack Ruby and whether Ruby was involved in a conspiracy either to assassinate the president or to kill Lee Harvey Oswald," Griffin said.

Ruby did not testify in his own murder trial but he did want to testify before the Warren Commission, named after the chairman Chief Justice Earl Warren.

"The chief justice decided that he would be the one who would question Ruby," said Griffin, who then prepared the questions for him to ask when they arrived in Dallas.

"Ruby's first words when asked why he did it were ‘I had to show the world a Jew had guts,'" said Griffin. "Very few people are aware of that but that is what was on his mind that somehow there was going to be a wave of anti-Semitism as a result of the assassination of the president."

"Ruby was obsessed with the idea that the assassination of the president was part of some conspiracy to blame the assassination on the Jews and Ruby was Jewish. So he spent a good bit of time before he shot Oswald trying to investigate this."

"When we took Ruby's testimony, this obsession was still on his mind," which Griffin said led to an awkward moment for the chief justice once they sat down.

"Ruby asked whether any of the people taking his testimony were Jewish? Of course the chief justice wasn't Jewish, there was nobody in the room who was Jewish and so they had to find somebody who was Jewish. That was Arlen Specter."

Arlen Specter, who would go on to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate, was one of the other attorneys serving with Griffin. He had traveled to Dallas to brief Warren on his single bullet theory and was sitting outside in the hall.

"So Arlen got brought in and Ruby questioned Specter to insure that he was really Jewish and they went on with the interview," Griffin said.

In the end, Griffin found that Ruby had not conspired with the mob or anyone else to silence Oswald. He acted alone and so did Oswald.

"There's zero evidence that Oswald had any connection with any of these people or that they knew Oswald," said Griffin. "The fact of the matter was that Oswald was one of the most solitary people you're ever going to find and his life had fallen apart. This man's life had collapsed."

The Warren Commission Report is arguably the most scrutinized report in American history and Griffin said he doesn't see that changing for a number of reasons.

"One is that we did not come up with a motive. Another was an area of kind of bewilderment and disbelief how could such an insignificant person kill the most powerful person in the world and people want an answer to that."

Looking back now, Griffin said he remembers vividly walking out of their offices on the night they finished the report.

"I walked out of the Warren Commission with one of my colleagues and said ‘You know there may be some girlfriend out there who was involved with somebody who we don't even know about who was involved in a conspiracy and years later she may come forward and put the finger on this guy,'" he said.

"Or they may arrest somebody years from now who'll to save his own neck say he knew somebody who was involved in a conspiracy and he'll come forward but none of that has happened. 50 years later there's nobody that has come forward."

That's why now more than ever he stands behind the 900-page report.

"The bottom line is the evidence is overwhelming that Oswald shot the president and that no one was with him and no one was shooting from anywhere else and he wasn't involved in any conspiracy. I'm more convinced than ever."

Griffin will participate in a forum titled "JFK's Assassination and the Law: 50 Years Later" on Friday, Dec. 6 at Cleveland State University's Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

"This one's going to be enjoyable because my colleague (Warren Commission staff attorney) Howard Willins and I are going to have enough time to lay out what we know and what we did and to give people a chance to ask questions."

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