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OSWALD GOES ON TRIAL : British TV Has Created the Courtroom Drama That Might Have Been

November 09, 1986|BILL BANCROFT | Bill Bancroft, a Dallas-based writer, worked as a researcher for "On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald." A 5 1/2-hour version of this fictional trial will be aired on Showtime Nov. 21 and 22, the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. All 18 hours are scheduled to be shown on Showtime in 1987.

Jury foreman Jack Morgan stood up to answer the all-important question: Had the jury reached a verdict in the case of the United States vs. Lee Harvey Oswald?

Morgan, a portly printing-machinery salesman, solemnly handed over a piece of paper. The clerk showed it to the judge and then turned to face attorneys and spectators. "We find the defendant, Lee Harvey Oswald, not guilty," he read.

Courtroom spectators erupted in emotional clapping and cheering. Hearing the reaction behind him, government prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, famous for successfully prosecuting Charles Manson, leaped to his feet with a yell.

The outburst would prejudice the jury, he cried in protest to U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton. "Sickos," he said loudly, looking directly at the spectators. "You're sick."

The reading of the verdict was planned; it was one of two possible endings to the court proceedings--the trial that Lee Harvey Oswald never had--that took place last summer in, of all places, a London television studio. The trial wasn't over yet, though: The production schedule dictated that jurors turn in both a not-guilty and a guilty verdict halfway through the taping. The jury would then finish listening to the evidence, reach a conclusion and leave directions as to which verdict should be aired.

What wasn't planned was the outburst in the courtroom. The attorney for the defense, Gerry Spence, who in real life gained national attention representing Karen Silkwood's family, had coached the 60 spectators, who, with a handful of court functionaries, were the only professional actors involved in the trial.

Bunton quickly told jurors to disregard the audience's reaction and instructed them not to consider it in their deliberations.

The outburst was a surprise; Bunton didn't know that Spence had set it up. "I would have warned the audience that they would not have any displays of emotion when the verdict was read," Bunton says now. "And if they had, I would have had the marshal clear the courtroom."

THE INCIDENT WAS YET ANOTHER IN A string of tense moments that threatened to shatter the credibility of--or, worse, halt altogether--a project that no one else had ever undertaken in the 23 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas' Dealey Plaza. London Weekend Television, which produces shows for independent TV in Britain, was bringing Lee Harvey Oswald to trial. All the evidence unearthed since the assassination was fair game, including the controversial movie of the shooting made by amateur film maker Abraham Zapruder.

Unlike a version filmed by ABC some years ago, there was no script for last summer's three-day trial, 5 1/2 hours of which will be aired on Showtime Nov. 21 and 22, the anniversary of the J.F.K. assassination.

Instead of having an actor play Oswald, a poster stood in for the defendant. And there was no predetermined outcome.

A jury that was picked at random from the federal jury rolls in Dallas heard the case argued by two of the best criminal lawyers in the United States. Actual eyewitnesses to the assassination and participants in subsequent investigations testified. A real U.S. District Court judge presided in an exact replica of a Dallas federal district courtroom. Each participant had been flown to London at LWT's expense. The project cost more than $1 million. It was not an easy project to put together. The combination of subject matter, format, lawyers' egos, witnesses' fears, distance from home, time constraints and the presence of television cameras created such tension that the production threatened to implode several times. Inevitably, compromises had to be made.

But through it all, the trial's integrity remained intact. "If you didn't know the subtle issues that have existed throughout the years," says Bugliosi, "I don't know whether you would be able to appreciate what was done at this trial. No major issue went unaddressed."

And Spence, despite his feeling that the trial suffered because of the time constraints imposed by television, says that "these people at London Weekend Television made a very valuable contribution, a brave one, an ambitious one."

"I don't think that this thing would ever have been done in this country," says Spence. "There are certain fears in this country about getting too close to this sword. If you get too close, you will cut your head off."

The idea for staging the trial developed in Britain. A few years ago, Richard Drewett, a lean, severe man who once worked as a journalist, came up with the idea of doing a modern-day trial of King Richard III, long suspected of murdering Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London in 1483. When that show was a critical success, Drewett, who became executive producer of "On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald," and Mark Redhead, an associate producer at London Weekend, set out to find an encore.

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