Seven years later, when I was twenty, there was an Italian film with a title translated into English as Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. Seven years earlier, being only thirteen, that’s exactly what I was. And it was one of the four reasons I was chosen. The second was that a year earlier I’d won the under-16 target shooting championship. The third was that I was a chess nerd, and there was a tournament in Dallas the weekend before, which would make the perfect cover. And the fourth was a chance encounter at a tournament in late August in my hometown of Seattle. My opponent beat me, though not handily, but we had a long chat in the skittles room afterwards, and I guess he recognized the fellow psychopath in me. And, well, the rest is history.
I was deemed mature for my age, and so when I told my parents that the Washington Chess Federation had bought my flight to Dallas, they believed me. My dad drove me to the airport, and picked me up a week later. My new ‘friend’ met my plane in Dallas, but he didn’t make the ‘offer’ until Sunday night, after the last game of the tournament. I guess he didn’t want to break my concentration.
Not that that helped. I lost four of my six games, came home with no prize money, and so not a lot to show for the WCF’s generosity, other than $50,000 in a bank account no one else knew about until I declined a job at my uncle’s sawmill the summer before I went to college. My dad was furious, but I convinced him I’d saved enough from tournament prizes over the past seven years, including, I lied, $1100 in Dallas, at which point his face turned from anger red to, well, whatever colour pride is. Of course it helped that I was the favourite child to begin with, as my older brother was in jail for selling weed and my still-living-at-home older sister had just presented my parents with the second kid they’d have to look after.
When my new ‘friend’ detailed the offer that Sunday night, I was pretty sure he was kidding. But the details were just, well, too detailed. I was to position myself behind a kind of snow fence on what came to be known as ‘the grassy knoll’, though it wasn’t much of a knoll, and the grass wasn’t very grassy. When the car came into view, I was to focus on the target and take my shot when I thought I had it. I was not told to wait until I heard from what I was told would be the primary sniper. But it was the sound of that shot that spurred me into action, almost as if it had been subliminally programmed into me.
I do remember the head driven forward, I presume from his shot, and then driven back, presumably from mine. But I never took a second shot. Nor had I been instructed to. “Take your shot,” I was told, “slip the rifle back into the [fishing rod] tube,” and just calmly saunter away from the scene of the crime. “Do not look around to see if anyone saw you, because we’ll have a blind of four burley men surrounding you to ensure that no one does.” And, as the Warren Report was later to report, sure enough no one did.
Years later I was taking a course called “Introduction to Ethics” as an elective to fill out my engineering degree, and we were debating whether one would or would not be responsible for a murder that had been ‘overdetermined’. A hitman enters the victim’s bedroom, puts a bullet in his head, only to discover that his wife had already stabbed him six times in the heart. Is the hitman guilty of murder or not?
And of course I couldn’t help thinking about that head being driven forward by that first shot. If the man wasn’t already dead by the time I took the second shot, he soon would be. And would be whether I’d fired the second shot or gone fishing instead. The problem, or so the class was told, was that if we acquit the hitman, we’d have to acquit the wife if, unbeknownst to her, the hitman had got to the victim first. So if the head had been driven back and only then driven forward, my co-sniper could be charged with nothing more than ‘offering an indignity to a corpse’. I can’t say I felt the force of the conundrum, but it certainly intrigued me, so I wrote my term paper on it, and scored a solid A for my efforts.
Anyhow, all of this was several lifetimes ago. Lee Harvey Oswald, who I never met and knew nothing about, took the rap, and though whole libraries have been written speculating about the ‘second gunman on the grassy knoll’, he or, in my case she, was never found, and never will be. She never will be because I’ve told this story at least a hundred times. In fact it’s my signature parlour schtick. And yet no one believes me. As they say, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.
But it’s not a trick. It’s a curse. I have one claim to fame, and all my family and friends can do is roll their eyes. God works in mysterious ways? No He doesn’t. How else would He cast Satan into Hell?!
As to the moral and legal guilt of your “second gun-person”, two points:
1) Certainly in Canadian law, both gun-people in the conspiracy would be guilty of murder, regardless of whose shot “actually” killed the President and even if one shot missed altogether. The Canadian Crown does not have to prove whose bullet, or whose boot-kick, in a co-ordinated multi-perpetrator assault led to death, or even which of two or more possible gun-wielders (who won’t rat the other out) actually fired the single fatal shot. So your female engineer on the grassy knoll would be, in Canada, equally with Oswald guilty of murder no matter whose shot struck home first. (We’ll leave aside the medical hypothetical that the first wound was survivable but the second made death inevitable.)
A morally contentious issue arises if the first shot, or volley of shots, was defensible in some way — necessary to subdue a dangerous armed assailant, say — but subsequent shots by the original shooter or by someone else were gratuitous. Even if the victim is found, later, to have died as a result of the first, legitimate shots, the person who delivers the subsequent shots surely is morally and legally guilty of something more than delivering an indignity to a corpse. The resolution comes from Point 2:
2) A person is not legally dead (and therefore no longer a “person”) until a doctor pronounces him/her dead. Granted when decomposed or decapitated remains are found, there is little argument. Sure you need a death certificate and attempts to assign a cause of death, but the state of death is not at issue. But in the usual course of social mayhem, death cannot be assumed at the scene no matter how badly shot up the casualty is. So the person who visits violence on an apparently dead person, who nonetheless has not been pronounced dead, in a manner that would predictably cause death in its own right is guilty of murder (if the person were in fact still alive) or of attempted murder (if the person were, in fact or all likelihood) already dead. For the Court to properly adjudicate such a case, the pathologist would have to be very sure from her post-mortem examination, and would be expected to be cross-examined vigorously, about whether the person was in fact irretrievably dead by the first, defensible wounds and not merely grievously wounded and showing no obvious signs of life.
It could be argued that, absent a real-time declaration of death between the first defensible shots and the subsequent indefensible volley a few seconds later, the second volley constituted murder. But this would have led to the common-sense difficulty that a police officer would be found to have acted lawfully in killing an armed assailant, only to be convicted of murdering him after he was dead. But deciding not to fire the second volley would have prevented that difficulty for the police officer. The imputed state of mind of “making sure he was dead” (when he already was) surely supports morally a conviction for attempted murder,… and did legally.
In your engineering student’s case of the hitman who shoots his target only to find that the wife had already killed him, it would be attempted murder for him if the two of them acted independently, and conspiracy to commit murder for the two of them if they were acting in concert.
“Back me up in case I lose my nerve.”
“I’m shooting him as you asked just in case you didn’t hit anything vital with the knife,…and so you can’t stiff me out of my fee.”
In the Kennedy case, your second gun-person would not have her guilt reduced to indignity to a corpse unless she had burst into the ER in Dallas and fired into the President’s body after the doctor had declared him dead. If she had somehow got into the ambulance and finished him off during transport, when the President was not yet a corpse, murder would still be the likely charge since he reached the ER alive as it happened. (Remember CPR as we know it today was not invented until 1967.)
The moral significance of attempted murder is the same as murder…..the only difference is luck (or lack of skill), which should be morally silent.