Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Offspring of Camelot’s Demise: The Legal Legacy of JFK’s Assassination

A myriad of changes in the law, spanning criminal procedure, civil rights and employment law among others, were triggered by the death of President Kennedy 50 years ago. Both federal and Minnesota law and practice reflect that legacy.

Now that the splurge of media attention to the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy last month has subsided, it is an opportune occasion to recall some of the major ways his assassination, a little over five decades ago, changed the law in the nation and Minnesota as well.

Some of the modifications are directly attributable to his assassination, while others owe their lineage more indirectly.  But they all were triggered by the momentous events that took place in Dallas just over 50 years ago and continue to reverberate.  The impact has affected the legal system in diverse ways, ranging from how criminal suspects are treated to employment practices and a great deal more.

Void & Vacancy

The legislation most closely related to the assassination was the adoption of the Presidential Assassination Act, 18 U.S.C. §871 (a).  Enacted early in 1965 and amended in 2000, the statute filled a void in the federal criminal code that did not cover assaulting or killing the president. Although another federal law, 18 U.S.C. §1751, on the books since 1917, forbade threats to the president, no prior provision explicitly addressed presidential assassination.  The post-JFK measure, making it a capital offense to kill a president or vice president, was extended in 2000 to senior executive branch staff members and established a felony for nonfatal assault or kidnapping of those individuals.

The anti-threat law, dating back to the World War I era, has been occasionally invoked by the federal courts in Minnesota.  E.g., State v. Rawland, 199 N.W.2d 774 (Minn. 1972) (delusions of presidential assassination warrant reversal of criminal charge under common law McNaughton insanity doctrine); U.S. v. Neavill, 868 F.2d 1000 (8th Cir. 1990)(reversal of conviction for threatening to kill president under federal McNaughton statute, 18 U.S.C. §17); Dautremont v. Broadlawns Hospital, 827 F.2d 291 (8th Cir. 1987)(summary judgment granted in civil action for hospital and personnel sued for involuntarily medicating a patient who made presidential assassination threats).

Another measure addressing the demise of the president in the aftermath of the JFK assassination reached a constitutional level.  The 25th amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1967, providing a means of filling a vacancy in the office of vice president through presidential nomination and congressional confirmation.  It was prompted by the frail 72-year-old then-Speaker of the House, John McCormack, standing next in line for the presidency after Lyndon B. Johnson was automatically elevated from the post of vice president upon JFK’s death.  The procedure for filling such a vacancy was, ironically, first utilized during the administration of Richard Nixon, the man whom JFK defeated for the presidency in 1960, and who later succeeded LBJ in 1968.  When Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned due to criminal corruption charges near the height of the Watergate affair in 1973, the 25th Amendment was invoked for selection of Gerald Ford as vice president.  He became president a year later when Nixon resigned, and he then utilized the same mechanism for selecting Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president.  Rockefeller was in turn succeeded by Minnesota’s own Walter Mondale, elected as vice president on the ticket with Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Criminal Changes

A series of post-JFK assassination legal changes have affected the criminal justice system.  One of them, establishment of the right to free counsel for indigent criminal defendants, actually preceded JFK’s death by ten months, but had its impact afterwards.  The ruling of the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 196 (1963), requiring counsel to be provided without request to a criminal defendant unable to afford one, was handed down in March of 1963.

But implementation of that mandate, including establishment of public defender offices and systems, did not take hold until after the public sought and heard the pleas for “legal assistance” of the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, go unheeded during the 46 hours he was in police custody until he, himself, was slain by Jack Ruby.  His unanswered requests motivated the movement to assure legal counsel is available for criminal defendants, a matter that has been addressed in Minnesota, as well.  (See, S. Herlofsky & G. Isaacman, “Minnesota’s Attempts to Fund Indigent Defense: Demonstrating the Need for a Dedicated Funding Source,” 37 William Mitchell L. Review 2 (2011), 559.)

Those suspected or accused of crimes also were the beneficiaries of another post-JFK modification of the law growing out of the Oswald imbroglio.  In 1964, less than a year after the assassination, the Supreme Court in Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478 (1964), adopted a rule barring from trials inculpatory statements made by criminal defendants lacking legal counsel.  The proscription morphed two years later into the famous Miranda warnings, stemming from Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), in which the high court mandated the well-known admonitions that law enforcement authorities must give to criminal suspects, alerting them to their rights against making incriminating statements and to counsel, if needed.

The Miranda decision was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who presided over the still controversial Warren Commission, which was appointed by the president and investigated JFK’s death.  Court watchers at the time, and since then, have observed that the treatment of Oswald while in police custody was a contributing factor in the court’s rulings in both Escobedo and Miranda.

Although retrenched slightly over the years, these decisions have stood the test of time for nearly half-a-century.  See, Harris v. New York, 401 U.S. 222 (1970) (Miranda warning not required for impeachment evidence); New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984) (“public safety” exception); Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 420 (2000)(Miranda ruling reaffirmed).

The Escobedo–Miranda case law has been the subject of litigation in the Minnesota court system as well.  Minnesota v. Tahash, 364 F.2d 922 (8th Cir. 1991) (Escobedo not retroactive, but case remanded to U.S. District Court in Minnesota to consider voluntary nature of confession.)  See also, C.P. Erlinder, “Getting Serious about Miranda in Minnesota,” 27 William Mitchell Law Rev. 2 (2000), 1941.  The high-water mark has been Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420 (1984), a decision by the Supreme Court that upheld admissibility of a confession made by a participant in a sex-offender treatment program to a probation officer.  Reasoning that the statement was not made during custodial interrogation as to trigger the Miranda requirements, the Court set aside a ruling of the Minnesota Supreme Court that excluded the statement under the Miranda doctrine.  State v. Murphy, 324 N.W.2d 340 (Minn. 1982).

Media Matters

Photo and video images from criminal trials, and even some high-profile civil proceedings, are commonplace on television today, due in no small part to the events in Dallas that late November, 1963 weekend.  Until then, court proceedings were virtually off-limits to television cameras.  But the desire for greater transparency, partially traceable to Oswald’s treatment behind closed doors, spurred the movement to allow cameras in courtrooms.  It started with pilot programs that evolved into various court rulings, statutes, and procedural rules.

Ironically, cameras are still not allowed in most federal proceedings, especially trial courts, and the Supreme Court itself.  But more ironically, in one of the first instances where camera coverage of courtroom practice was permitted, portions of the trial of Oswald’s slayer, Jack Ruby—including the return of the jury verdict that convicted him of capital murder—were televised.  That verdict was later reversed on grounds of failure to allow a change of venue. Ruby v. Texas, 407 S.W.2d 793 (Tex. App. 1966).  The case was remanded, but not retried due to Ruby’s death in early 1967.

Minnesota has lagged behind in allowing cameras and other broadcast devices in courtrooms in the state.  The practice is now governed by Rule 4 of the General Rules of Practice for the District Courts for trial proceedings and by Rule 134.10 of the Rules of Minnesota Appellate Procedure, which impose several debilitating restrictions on appellate proceedings that do not exist in a number of out-of-state jurisdictions.

The media played a large role in stirring the controversy surrounding who killed JFK, highlighted by the 1992 Oliver Stone movie JFK, which wove together many of the conspiracy theories that have been pervasive for the past half century.  That film, nominated for multiple Academy Awards, had an impact in Minnesota.  It led to enactment of the Presidential Assassination Records Act, 44 U.S.C. §2107, which established an independent agency charged with reviewing and declassifying many of the more than 5 million JFK assassination documents that were, at that time, still not available for public review.

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim of Minnesota, a native of Thief River Falls, was appointed chair of the Presidential Records Review Board, a five-member independent body that oversaw the process.  He served in that capacity for about four years, until the issuance of a final report, which noted that the number of classified documents had been reduced to a relatively scant 50,000 when the board disbanded in 1998.

Equality and Employment

At the time of his death, JFK was stymied in an effort to prod Congress to approve sweeping civil rights legislation, aimed at eliminating racial bias.  But his assassination fortified the movement, which was spearheaded by his successor, LBJ, and culminated  in the following summer with enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  While most of the focus at the time dealt with Title II of the act, which sought to remove barriers to African-Americans and other racial minorities in public accommodations and facilities, Title VII of the measure also barred discrimination in employment due to race, national origin, religion, or gender.  Less heralded at the time, that statute, 42 U.S.C. §2000e, remains the template for most employment discrimination laws at federal, state, and local levels.

The Minnesota ban on discrimination on improper grounds, including workplace bias, preceded the federal measure by nearly a decade, dating back to enactment of the Minnesota Human Rights Act in 1955.  But passage of the federal law in the wake of JFK’s death presaged expansion of the Minnesota measure, Minn. Stat. §363.01, et seq.  The state law was beefed up in 1965 and 1967, with stronger investigative and enforcement rights assigned to the Department of Human Rights in order to carry out the proscriptions against discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.

Assassination Aftermath

These developments are not the only ways that the assassination of President Kennedy some 50 years ago changed the world, the country, and this state. But they reflect some of the advances in law and law practice that find their roots in his life and circumstances surrounding his untimely death.

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the law firm of Hellmuth & Johnson, PLLC, with offices in the Twin Cities.  He is certified as a civil trial specialist by the Minnesota State Bar Association and has researched extensively and written about the assassination of JFK and its aftermath.  


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