President Gerald Ford Testifies on Squeaky Fromme Assassination Attempt
The Sacramento Bee has released this remarkable video of President Gerald Ford testifying about the assassination attempt by Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme.
The testimony itself is only mildly interesting; I only watched a couple minutes. But the back story behind the tape is fascinating:
Today, nearly 38 years later, a federal judge in Sacramento has allowed the release of a largely unseen relic of the Fromme assassination attempt: the videotaped testimony Ford gave that would later be used in her trial.
The 20 minutes of testimony, which Ford gave in room 345 of the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House on Nov. 1, 1975, was conducted at the request of Sacramento defense attorney John Virga and played for jurors during Fromme’s trial.
The tape, which includes several minutes of audio discussion among lawyers and the judge before and after Ford’s testimony, was later sealed and has been largely forgotten and removed from public view in the years since.
The trial judge, Thomas J. MacBride, originally ordered three copies of the tape made to ensure that at least two were usable for trial. Once that was established, one tape was destroyed, a second was given to the president’s legal counsel and the third was shown at trial, then sealed.
One of the prosecutors in the case, Don Heller, believes the intent at one time was to destroy the tape following the trial. Instead, the tape remained in the possession of the court and, in 1987, MacBride ordered it unsealed. However, he restricted viewing and copying to the grand jury room of the federal courthouse, and only in the presence of a court clerk.
TV reporting crews trekked to the courthouse at the time to make tape copies, but access in the intervening years has been difficult. (The other copy of the videotaped testimony ended up in the possession of Ford’s presidential library in Michigan.)
The release of the tape for widespread public viewing is the result of a motion filed last month by the Eastern District Historical Society, a 12-year-old nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history of the federal court based in Sacramento.
The society petitioned U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller for the tape’s release “to preserve the historically significant deposition.”
In a recent interview, Virga said it is not a deposition. MacBride, who was present, convened court and called the case in the room where Ford testified, and it is trial testimony that was not immediately used, Virga explained.
Michael E. Vinding, an attorney and secretary for the historical society, sought permission to transfer the color videotape to DVD to preserve the president’s testimony.
“Despite the news report regarding the unsealing of the tape, I have been unable to view, much less copy, the taped deposition for safekeeping in the Historical Society’s archives,” Vinding wrote in his July 24 motion to gain access to the tape.
One week later, The Sacramento Bee filed a motion to join the effort, arguing “there is an obvious public interest, and historical interest, in the testimony of a president.”
The federal government did not object to the requests, and Mueller issued an order allowing the tape to be copied to DVD “to preserve the deposition for perpetuity.”
Mueller’s order allowed Vinding to pick up the tape from the federal courthouse downtown accompanied by Secret Service Special Agent Brian J. Korbs. From there, the tape was delivered to Sacramento videographer Patrick Kuske to copy it to DVD “without damage or alteration.”
The tape was ordered returned to the court after copying, with a DVD copy to be provided to The Bee and two to the court – one for the court clerk to retain and the other to be sent to the National Archives in Washington.
Until now, access to the tape of Ford’s testimony has been limited since it was shown in court on Nov. 15, 1975. That day, four 25-inch color televisions were brought in from McClellan Air Force Base to play the tape for a jury of eight women and four men and a courtroom jammed with reporters and spectators.
The case was the first in history featuring oral testimony from a sitting president in a criminal trial, and Ford calmly described seeing a woman in a bright red dress and thinking she was drawing near to shake his hand.
The rationale for keeping this from the public all these years eludes me.