Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Remember Rose for his life, not just his autopsies

"Our View" originally printed May 4, 2012, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

When he was 37 years old — with only a short time on the job — then Dallas County medical examiner Earl Rose found himself staring down presidential aides and secret service men in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Back in 1963, murdering the president was not considered a federal crime. So Rose was correct when he asserted that Texas state law required him to perform an autopsy before the president's body was allowed to be taken back to Washington.

In the chaos following that Nov. 22 shooting, however, making such claim required Rose to physically stand in the way of the people trying to rush the president's body out of the hospital.
After a period of shouting on all sides, Rose was shoved out of the way, the president's body was taken back to Washington and an autopsy was performed at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.

Rose did conduct autopsies on J.D. Tippit, the police officer who was killed after the assassination; on the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald; as well as on Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Oswald. But it's because of that one autopsy he wasn't allowed to perform that Rose has earned himself a necessary cameo in the many retellings of Kennedy's death over the past half century.
Too often, Rose gets portrayed as a small-time public official inappropriately trying to assert his authority during a time of national tragedy. It's an image of Rose that started in William Manchester's 1967 best-selling book, "The Death of a President," and continued in Oliver Stone's 1991 film, "JFK."

But over the decades, more and more people have come to realize that — if Rose had been allowed to do his job —there may have been a few more answers and a few less questions about those autopsy results.

"I think that he felt a good autopsy usually led to justice," Rose's wife, Marilyn, recently told Register columnist Kyle Munson.

Rose's autopsy might not have up come up with anything different than what the doctors in Bethesda found — his later writings show he remained confident that the president was killed by two bullets fired from behind by Oswald. But it would have represented the findings of a civilian doctor rather than military ones. And it would have preserved the chain of evidence.

"I remain convinced that the laws should not be suspended for the rich and powerful," Rose later wrote, "for in the final analysis the laws serve to protect them."

By the time Rose and his family left Dallas and moved to Iowa City five years later, the conspiracy theories about Kennedy's death were multiplying exponentially with the assassinations of Robert
Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

But Rose, now in his 40s, was settling into his new life in Iowa. He became a professor at the University of Iowa, and he often was called in for major forensic cases around the state.
Over the next half century, he and Marilyn raised six children in Iowa City, and he worked to pass on his strong sense of justice and equality to his children and his students.

Rose died early Tuesday morning at age 85, about seven years after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and eventually dementia.

And we're confident he'll be remembered locally much more for the exemplary life he led than for the one autopsy he was not allowed to perform.

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