Lawyer's class on JFK assassination draws crowd

Many students in a UC Santa Cruz course about the John F. Kennedy assassination were born more than three decades after the president was gunned down in Dallas.

But interest in that tragic day remains strong on campus 50 years after the fact; the course, taught by public interest lawyer and lecturer Daniel Sheehan, is at capacity with 30 undergraduates and 50 life-long learners.

“It is a very rich course,’’ said Sheehan, who is at work on a book about the assassination. “The students are really digging into it. I gave them a big, long syllabus.”

Sheehan, who graduated from Harvard Law School, has a 44-year-long legal career marked by his work on such important, and controversial cases as the Watergate burglary and the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s.

His course covers the events and circumstances of the killing, as well as various ideas, perspectives, and conspiracy theories about the murder.

Among the readings he has assigned: the Warren Commission Report on the assassination, and books by Robert Blakey and Vincent Bugliosi.

Students in the class also watched Oliver Stone’s controversial movie on the assassination. Students heard the perspective of those who strongly believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, a perspective shared by a large number of journalists and historians , but Sheehan also shares the theories of others who have far more complex ideas about the day’s events.

He noted that many in the class were not alive then, and “they start out by considering this almost like the Civil War, something from distant history. I bring them up to date, and familiarize them with the names and theories.”

When discussing each of eight different theories, Sheehan takes an advocacy position, presenting the information as forcibly as possible, “so they are moved into thinking, ‘that is perfectly rational. That sounds persuasive.”

Then, in the next class, he pokes holes in the most recent presentation. "I say, ‘you heard that presentation. It sounded convincing, (but) now we’ll look at the weak spots …. We keep ratcheting it up a category. It’s a matter of learning critical thinking. What kind of analysis is available for looking at the information? How do you evaluate the various sources and their credibility?”

While the class involves a large amount of information and analysis, the memory of the tragic day itself remains fresh and strong in Sheehan’s memory.

At the time, Sheehan was in Boston. He remembers walking the streets after hearing the grim announcement. “Boston was a ghost town,” he recalls. “Newspapers were blowing in the streets.” He remembers feeling like “the last man in the world.”