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Intriguing Mystery – The Secret Service and the JFK
Donald E. Wilkes Jr.
University of Georgia School of Law
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Wilkes, Donald E. Jr., “Intriguing Mystery – The Secret Service and the JFK Assassination” (2012).
The Secret Service and the JFK Assassination
The conclusion seems inescapable that the Secret Service bungled its responsibilities prior to and
during the assassination of JFK.
Donald E. Wilkes, Jr.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
“Kennedy was killed by a breakdown in a protective system that should have made the
assassination impossible.”—Robert Groden and Harrison Livingston,
High Treason (2d ed.
“The extremely poor performance of the president’s bodyguards has led some people to suspect
the Secret Service was somehow involved in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, although there has
never been any proof that this was so.”—James P. Duffy and Vincent L. Ricci,
Assassination of John F. Kennedy
“The reason for their [the Secret Service’s] neglect remains one of the intriguing mysteries of the
[Kennedy] assassination.”—Michael L. Kurtz,
Crime of the Century (1982).
A Major Malfunction
On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, in broad daylight, at half past noon, and despite his Secret Service
protection, President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in the head while sitting in his midnightblue
1961 Lincoln Continental open limousine as it slowly motorcaded through Dealey Plaza in
downtown Dallas, TX. (President Kennedy also received several nonfatal bullet wounds. Texas
Gov. John Connally, seated on a jump seat in front of JFK, suffered multiple nonfatal bullet
Based on the information now available nearly 50 years after the assassination, there is a
consensus among those who have investigated President Kennedy’s Secret Service protection.
The consensus: JFK’s protection was inadequate. Indeed, the protection was so defective that it
dangerously increased the likelihood that an assassination plan involving one or more concealed
snipers firing into the presidential limousine would succeed. By making the murder of JFK easier
and the undetected escape of the assassins more likely, this Secret Service bungling contributed
to the assassination.
Typically, the Warren Commission whitewashed the Secret Service, finding that on the whole
there had been no fundamental lapse in Kennedy’s protective security, although it did fault the
Secret Service for not conducting a prior inspection of the buildings along the motorcade route.
The master rule of physical protection of heads of state by security officials is that meticulous
preparation of protective measures will preclude any successful assassination attempt. But there
was no meticulous protection on Nov. 22, 1963. The Secret Service made the killing of a
president, which could have been prevented, possible. The awful truth, kept from the public for
years, is that but for the Secret Service’s blunders President Kennedy would not have been slain.
This is not to deny that most Secret Service agents in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 did their best. Nor
is it a criticism of the Secret Service of today.
The consensus that JFK’s protection was seriously flawed began emerging in 1979 when, after a
two-year reinvestigation of the assassination, the U.S. House of Representatives Select
Committee on Assassinations issued a Final Report, which concluded devastatingly that “the
Secret Service was deficient in the performance of its duties.”
Specifically, the Assassinations Committee found that:
• “The Secret Service possessed information that was not properly analyzed, investigated, or
used by the Secret Service in connection with the President’s trip to Dallas.”
• “Secret Service agents in the motorcade were inadequately prepared to protect the President
from a sniper.”
• “[In] the physical protection of the President… [there was a] failure to arrange for prior
inspection of buildings along the motorcade route… and a lack of discipline and bad judgment
by some members of the Secret Service protective detail in Dallas, who were drinking on the
night before the assassination.”
• Due to Secret Service directives, escort security for the presidential limousine during the Dallas
motorcade “may have been uniquely insecure.” The day before the Dallas visit, at a meeting with
local police officials to finalize the arrangements for the motorcade, the Secret Service oddly
ordered “a reduction of security of protection in terms of [the] number and placement of [Dallas
police] officers” who would escort the limousine during the motorcade through the city. For
example, the number of police motorcycles accompanying the limousine itself was reduced from
eight to four, and unusually these four motorcyclists were directed not to flank the limousine but
instead to stay behind the limousine’s rear fender. By contrast, when the president motorcaded
through Houston on Nov. 21, his limousine was flanked by six motorcycles.
• “Besides limiting the motorcycle protection, [the Secret Service] prevented the Dallas Police
Department from inserting into the motorcade, behind the Vice-Presidential car, a Dallas Police
Department squad car containing homicide detectives.”
The current consensus that the Secret Service was derelict in its duties is supported by an
abundance of information that necessarily also confirms the verdict reached by the House
Assassinations Committee 30 years ago. That information includes:
• In the months preceding the assassination the Secret Service became aware of several reported
plots to shoot JFK, although this startling fact was unknown to the public until years after the
Warren Commission’s official investigation.
In March 1963, more than six months before the assassination, the Secret Service
received a postcard warning that JFK would be assassinated while riding in a motorcade.
This warning resulted in additional protection being furnished the president when he
visited Chicago that month.
In October 1963 the Secret Service received reports of one or more plots to shoot JFK
with high-power rifles when he motorcaded through Chicago on a visit scheduled for
Nov. 2. The visit was cancelled at the last minute.
In the words of the House Assassinations Committee, in planning for the Dallas trip “the
Secret Service failed to make appropriate use of the information supplied it by the
Chicago threat in early November 1963.”
On Nov. 9, 1963, a violence-prone racist agitator from Quitman, GA named Joseph
Adams Milteer had a lengthy conversation in a Miami, FL hotel room with a man named
Willie Somersett, in the course of which Milteer told Somersett about a plot that was
afoot to assassinate JFK. Unknown to Milteer, Somersett was a police informer
surreptitiously tape-recording the conversation. The transcript of that taped conversation
reveals that Milteer told Somersett that the killing of Kennedy “was in the working,” that
the president could be killed “[f]rom an office building with a high-powered rifle,” that
the rifle could be “disassembled” to get it into the building, and that “[t]hey will pick up
somebody within hours afterward, if anything like that would happen just to throw the
public off.” (Scholars have duly noted the resemblance of the facts that Milteer related
about this plot against JFK and the facts forming the basis of the Warren Commission’s
official account of the assassination.) Somersett promptly gave the tape recording to local
Miami police, who immediately forwarded it to both the Secret Service and the FBI.
After a hurried investigation that apparently did not include interviewing Milteer, the
Miami field office of the Secret Service prepared a file on Milteer titled “Alleged
Possible Threat Against the President.” (A photograph of the first page of the file is in F.
Peter Model and Robert J. Groden’s book JFK: The Case for Conspiracy (1977).)
Beginning late on the afternoon of Monday, Nov. 18, 1963, the Monday before the Friday
Dallas visit, President Kennedy traveled to Miami, Florida. Extra precautions were taken
there to protect the president. JFK did most of his traveling through the Miami area in a
helicopter instead of in a motorcade, and during the motorcading that did occur his open
limousine drove the entire route at speeds of 40 to 50 mph. [In the early evening of that
Monday, at the age of 19, I myself stood on the western side of Collins Avenue in Miami
Beach and watched a vibrant JFK smiling and waving at the spectators who lined both
sides of the street as his open limousine sped by at a brisk pace from my left to my right.
It was the only time I ever saw JFK in the flesh. Four days later he was a corpse.]
Information about the plot revealed by Milteer apparently was not passed on to the Secret
Service officials responsible for the trip to Dallas.
On Monday, Nov. 18, 1963, before his visit later that same day to Miami, President
Kennedy motorcaded through Tampa, FL. Prior to the Tampa visit, the Secret Service
became concerned that an attempt might be made to assassinate JFK during that visit.
The Secret Service’s concerns arose because from unknown sources it became aware of a
threat that an unidentified rifleman shooting from a window in a tall building with a high
power rifle fitted with a scope might assassinate JFK while the president was being
driven through Tampa. (A short news article mentioning the reported plot, “Threats on
Kennedy Made Here,” appeared in the The Tampa Tribune newspaper the day after the
Dallas assassination. There is a photograph of the article in Lamar Waldron and Thom
Hartmann’s book Ultimate Sacrifice (2005).) The Tampa assassination attempt was
thwarted by beefing up escort security for the presidential motorcade; over 600 law
enforcement officers protected JFK. It is unclear whether the alleged Tampa plot was
separate from or related to the assassination plot Joseph Milteer spoke of.
• The Dallas assassination can never again be viewed in isolation. It must be viewed in the
context of the various Chicago, Miami, and Tampa plots against the president reported in the
months before the assassination. We now know that the Dallas assassination occurred against a
background of several recent plots to shoot JFK, plots the Secret Service was fully aware of. The
ghastly truth appears to be that, as David Talbot writes in his book Brothers: The Hidden History
of the Kennedy Years (2007), “Kennedy was, in fact, being methodically stalked in the final
weeks of his life… In the final month of his life, John Kennedy seemed a marked man, encircled
by a tightening knot of treachery.” Because the Secret Service must have realized that JFK was
in a dangerous situation, the inadequate protection furnished him on Nov. 22, 1963 is, scholars
agree, baffling. Why, for example, did the Secret Service authorize two highly unusual sharp
turns for the motorcade in Dealey Plaza, and why was the limousine proceeding along at the
extraordinarily low speed of only 11.2 mph when it came under fire?
• In 1963 Secret Service practices required that buildings along a presidential motorcade route be
inspected in advance if either the motorcade route was a standard one that had been used in the
past or there was a specific reason to suspect the occupants or activities in a certain building.
President Kennedy’s Dallas motorcade route had been the standard route for motorcades for
years; President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, had visited Dallas in 1936 and traversed the
same route in a motorcade (although in the opposite direction). For this reason alone, the
buildings along the motorcade should have been subjected to inspection before the motorcade
traveled past them. Furthermore, as we now know, the Secret Service for months had been aware
of possible plots in several cities to shoot the president from a building, and JFK was definitely
in danger of being murdered in Dallas. A month before the assassination the U. S. Ambassador
to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, had been assaulted and spat upon by right-wing
demonstrators in Dallas simply because he was a liberal Democrat. Dallas was a city with a
deserved reputation for right-wing anti-Kennedy extremism, and there were many tall buildings
along the motorcade route. Even though there was no reason to suspect any particular building,
inspecting those buildings should, under the circumstances, have been deemed mandatory.
However, as previously noted, when President Kennedy visited Dallas no prior inspection of the
buildings along the motorcade route was made.
• With a few exceptions, Secret Service agents in the motorcade performed poorly when the
shots rang out. The 54-year old agent driving the presidential limousine failed to accelerate the
moment the shooting began. Instead he hesitated, applying the limousine’s brakes and slowing it
down to such a degree that many Dealey Plaza eyewitnesses thought the vehicle had actually
stopped; he twice swivelled his head backwards to look at Kennedy; and he did not put his foot
on the gas and speed away until after JFK suffered the fatal headshot captured in blood red on
frame number Z313 of the most memorable color home movie in history, the Zapruder film. At
the time Secret Service guidelines provided: “The Driver of the President’s car should be alert
for dangers and be able to take instant action when instructed or otherwise made aware of an
emergency.” In violation of other Secret Service procedures, the 48-year old agent in the right
front seat made no attempt to move to the president and shield him. This, it is true, would have
been difficult, because a special handlebar for the president to hold on to while standing in the
limousine made it very hard for someone in the right front seat to get into the rear compartment.
Nonetheless, the agent should at least have made an effort to get to the president. He should not
have sat there. The agents standing on the running board of the followup car that trailed the
limousine by five feet also seemed drugged with an elixir of sluggishness. After the sound of
gunfire had been heard, and while JFK was visibly reacting to bullet wounds, they stood there
dully, some looking at him, and some turning to look to behind them in the direction of the initial
shot (which most likely was a diversionary shot to deflect attention away from shooters in other
locations). Only one of the agents, the courageous and alert Clint Hill (whose book is reviewed
below), possessed the initiative, the quickness, and the physical bravery to jump from the
followup car and race to and climb on the limousine before it sped off; but by the time Hill
actually got to President Kennedy the gunfire was over and JFK mortally wounded.
U. S. Senator Ralph Yarborough, who witnessed the assassination, told the Warren Commission:
“All of the Secret Service agents seemed to me to respond very slowly, with no more than a
puzzled look… I am amazed at the lack of instantaneous response by the Secret Service when the
rifle fire began.” “Somewhere along the line,” famously writes James Hepburn (pen name of a
French intelligence service official) in his book Farewell America (1968), ‘”[the agents guarding
JFK] had neglected the first rule of security: They had lost their reflexes.”
The slow response of the agents may have been attributable to a combination of alcohol
consumption, sleep deprivation, and fatigue. In blatant violation of Secret Service regulations,
the night before the assassination nine agents, including four in the followup car, had been out
late drinking. Secret Service regulations strictly prohibited the agents on the White House Detail
from any use of intoxicating liquor of any kind (including beer and wine) while traveling with
the president. “Violation or slight disregard” of this rule was cause for removal from the Secret
Service. Furthermore, six of the nine agents stayed out until around 3 a.m., while the seventh did
not return to his room until 5 a.m. It is nearly unbelievable that despite multiple recent reports of
sinister plans to shoot the president in his limousine, agents were drinking and partying late on
the night before a visit to a dangerous place like Dallas.
• Subsequent to the assassination, the Secret Service acted as though it had something to hide by
engaging in a suspicious pattern of secretly suppressing or destroying records relating to the
assassination, even when forbidden to do so by law.
The Secret Service withheld from the public the information it possessed relating to
Joseph Milteer’s taped conversation with Willie Sommersett. Milteer is never mentioned
in the Warren Report or the 26 volumes of documents published by the Warren
Commission. The public found out about Milteer’s statements concerning plans to kill
JFK only because local Miami city police, recognizing the amazing similarity between
what Milteer said was going to happen and what (according to the Warren Commission)
did happen, gave a transcript of the conversation to a Miami newspaper reporter in 1967.
The reporter, Bill Barry, published an article about Milteer (without mentioning his
name), which included excerpts from the transcript, in The Miami News on Feb. 2, 1967.
Barry’s newspaper article was quoted at length (again without mentioning Milteer’s
name) in Harold Weisberg’s book Oswald in New Orleans (1967). Four years later, in his
book Frame-Up (1971) Weisberg published the entire transcript of the taped
conversation, together with various FBI documents relating to Milteer. This time
Milteer’s name was given. As a result the story of the Milteer plot became known to the
general public in the early 1970s. If it had been up to the Secret Service, however, the
public might still not know of the assassination plot Milteer talked about.
When the Secret Service’s Protective Research Section files for 1963 were computerized,
the original files were destroyed instead of being preserved.
As Douglas P. Horne explains in the fifth volume of his book Inside the Assassination
Records Board (2009), “in January 1995, the Secret Service destroyed Presidential
protection survey reports for some of President Kennedy’s trips in the fall of 1963.”
Among the records destroyed were those for the cancelled Chicago trip in early
November 1963. At the same time the Secret Service destroyed a folder of vital records
for the period July-November 1963. This destruction of crucial documents of historical
importance occurred notwithstanding the John F. Kennedy Assassination Materials
Disclosure Act of 1992, which provides that “all records in the possession of the
Government relevant to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy should be
released to the public at the earliest opportunity,” and even though the Secret Service had
been advised by the National Archives not to unilaterally destroy assassination records.
There are two new books by former Secret Service agents who were on the White House Detail
when the assassination occurred. The first is
Mrs. Kennedy and Me, by Clint Hill (Gallery
Books, 2012). The second is
The Kennedy Detail, by Gerald Blaine (Gallery Books, 2010).
These two books—the first written by members of JFK’s 1963 security team—provide hugely
interesting inside accounts of the tragic events in Dallas. To a limited extent they also throw
additional light on the performance of the Secret Service on Nov. 22, 1963. Clint Hill retired
from the Secret Service in 1975, Gerald Blaine in 1964.
A Brave Man
I turn first to Clint Hill’s
Mrs. Kennedy and Me. Clint Hill, who was
born in 1932 and grew up in a small town in North Dakota, was the
Secret Service agent in charge of protecting Jacqueline Kennedy for
four years—from November 1960 until December 1964. He and
another agent usually accompanied her whenever she traveled or
appeared in public. His book gives a fascinating account of his trips
with Mrs. Kennedy to exotic locations in Europe and Asia, and it
includes wonderful photos of those trips, including one of Mrs.
Kennedy standing in front of the Taj Mahal. The book’s most
astonishing photo (on p. 107) is, however, a photo taken in Virginia of
Mrs. Kennedy, an accomplished equestrienne, being thrown from her
horse, which, while rapidly approaching a rail fence to jump over it, suddenly halted after it was
frightened by the paparazzo who took the picture. Mrs. Kennedy is flying headfirst through the
air over the fence with the startled horse behind the fence. As she falls face down, she is looking
at the ground while her straight left leg is pointing skyward at an angle, and her arms are
reaching down to cushion herself from the impending impact. (The First Lady was not seriously
injured and remounted her horse and continued her ride. The photo first appeared in Life
The text of
Mrs. Kennedy and Me takes up 340 pages divided into 26 chapters. The first 21
chapters (265 pages) cover the period late 1960 until shortly before November 1963. What a
spectacular story they tell of Mrs. Kennedy’s exciting travels to such places as France, Italy,
Greece, India and Pakistan, and her memorable encounters with such exotic personages as Ayub
Khan, Gianni Agnelli, and Andre Malraux. The next four chapters (60 pages) cover the trip to
Dallas, the assassination, subsequent events in Dallas that day, the flight of Air Force One back
to Washington, D.C., the preparations for the state funeral, and the funeral itself. The new
president, Lyndon B. Johnson, ordered the Secret Service to continue protecting Mrs. Kennedy
until the end of 1964, and the book’s short final chapter (13 pages) covers that 12-month period
of gloom and mourning in Mrs. Kennedy’s life, during which (at her request) Clint Hill
continued as her primary bodyguard.
Clint Hill is a man’s man. On Nov. 22, 1963, he risked his life to help JFK and the First Lady.
He had the unspeakable physical courage to run to and leap on a vehicle into which he knew
bullets were being fired, a vehicle in which two persons had just been shot. He boarded the back
of the limousine, pushed Mrs. Kennedy (who had climbed onto the trunk) back into her seat, and
then shielded her and the dying president with his arched body as the limousine sped to the
Examining the individual frames of the Zapruder film permits a fuller appreciation of Clint Hill’s
quick-witted bravery. (Since the frames moved through the camera at a rate of 18.3 per second,
each frame captures approximately one-eighteenth of a second.) At Z332 we have our first
(albeit blurry) image of Hill, who is running toward and is just behind the limousine, and at Z333
we clearly recognize him. At Z382 Hill has boarded the limousine: both of his feet are off the
pavement and he is standing on a step specially installed in the left rear bumper area, while his
hands grip a handle specially installed on the left rear of the trunk. This was barely 10 seconds
after the first shot. Hill’s reaction time was astonishingly prompt. Meanwhile at Z371 Mrs.
Kennedy has risen out of her seat in the passenger compartment and is crawling on the trunk
towards Hill. At Z386 Hill begins reaching for Mrs. Kennedy, and at Z390 he touches or begins
pushing her in a effort to get her back into her seat. It worked. By Z393 the lower half of her
body is now back in the seat. Getting Mrs. Kennedy back into the passenger compartment was
important for her safety. Not only would she be less exposed to gunfire, but it prevented her from
being hurled from the limousine when it rapidly accelerated.
Z371 is the frame which perfectly captures for all time the essence of Clint Hill’s courageous
conduct. It is one of the iconic images not just of the Kennedy assassination but of the entire 20th
century. In the background four stunned spectators standing on green grass and looking at the
limousine can hardly believe what they are seeing. To the right of the frame the dying,
unconscious president, his face obscured by a white blob, is leaning or falling limply to his left in
his seat. In the center of the frame, Mrs. Kennedy, in her pink suit and pink pillbox hat, is on the
trunk clambering toward the rear of the limousine. On the left, Clint Hill is struggling to climb
aboard the limousine. His right foot is still on the pavement, his left foot is touching the step on
the bumper, and both his hands are grasping the trunk handlebar. We are viewing the image of a
brave man heedless of his own personal safety who is rushing headlong into grave bodily danger
in order to help a president and a first lady. Bravo, Clint Hill!
Clint Hill’s account of the assassination conflicts in several respects from the facts found by the
Warren Commission. For example, after mounting the limousine he “could see inside the back of
[JFK’s] head. I could see inside the back of the president’s head.” He told the Warren
Commission the same thing in 1964: “The right rear portion of [JFK’s] head was missing.” The
Warren Commission concluded that the president had only a small hole in the rear of his head.
Mrs. Kennedy and Me
carefully omits mention of the subnormal performance of Hill’s fellow
agents, while at the same time avoiding factual inaccuracies about the JFK assassination.
Pay No Attention
The Kennedy Detail
, the other book I want to discuss, whitewashes
the Secret Service. It attempts to continue the earlier coverup of the
major errors the Secret Service committed. It is defensive in tone
and pretends that the Secret Service did not let down President
Kennedy. It omits or misstates key facts in order to make the
performance of the Secret Service agents look better than it was.
Nastily, the book even suggests that JFK was partially responsible
for his own assassination because allegedly he forbade agents from
standing on the back of the limousine where they might have
shielded him from shooters. (The claim that JFK barred agents from
riding on the back of the limousine is almost certainly false.)
could appropriately have been subtitled Pay No
Attention to the Secret Service’s Major Malfunction.
Perhaps unintentionally, however,
The Kennedy Detail sets forth facts which are confirmatory of
the consensus critical of the Secret Service.
• Jerry Behn, the Special Agent in Charge of the White House Detail (and the most senior agent
on the Detail) was on vacation and did not accompany JFK on the trips to Florida or Texas. “He
took his first vacation in four years the week JFK was assassinated.” Oddly, however, Jerry Behn
was in his office in Washington, D.C. when the assassination occurred. “He was supposed to be
on vacation, but he’d come into the office for just a couple of hours.” As the most senior Secret
Service agent on the Detail, Behn usually was at the president’s side whenever Kennedy was
away from the White House, and on trips he occupied the right front seat of the presidential
limousine. (This means, of course, that despite the known threats to JFK’s safety posed by
gunmen, and despite the fact that he was traveling to a dangerous place, JFK was, on his visit to
Dallas, not accompanied by the experienced, supervisory agent who ordinarily was in close
personal attendance when the president appeared in public or traveled. With President Kennedy
in such apparent danger on his trip, Jerry Behn had chosen a most inopportune time to take a
• When the Special Agent in Charge was unavailable, an Assistant Special Agent in Charge
would closely accompany the president on trips and sit in the right front seat of the limousine.
Contrary to usual practice, however, Jerry Behn’s deputy, Floyd Boring, an Assistant Special
Agent in Charge of the White House Detail, was at home on an unusual day off on Nov. 22,
1963. “Agent Floyd Boring was relaxing at home on a rare day off when he got the call [telling
him of the assassination].” (This means that Boring had picked a peculiar time to take the day
off, since he knew about the dangers of the Dallas visit and also knew that Jerry Behn was not
traveling to Dallas. It also means that while on his hazardous visit to Dallas JFK unusually was
not accompanied by either of the experienced agents who usually were in close proximity to him
• Because of the absence of Behn and Boring, another Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the
White House Detail, Roy H. Kellerman, sat in the right front seat of the limousine as it
motorcaded through Dallas. Kellerman was an experienced agent. (The Dallas visit appears to
have been Kellerman’s first major trip as the supervisory agent.) It was Kellerman who
scandalously remained in his seat and made no effort to get to or shield the president when the
• At the time of the assassination, the White House Detail was in a weakened condition due to
recent resignations and transfers. Nearly one-third of the 34 agents on the White House Detail
assigned to protect JFK, including a number of experienced agents, had recently resigned or been
transferred. “In the past two months alone, eleven of the most experienced agents on the
Kennedy Detail had been replaced. It had been a purely personal choice by the agents–they’d
requested, and had been granted, transfers to field offices… [N]early a third of the agents had
decided they just couldn’t do it any more. Too many missed birthdays and anniversaries, too
many holidays away from home.” (This means that despite several known plots to assassinate the
president, the Secret Service nonetheless was permitting numbers of its experienced agents to
leave the Detail. Shouldn’t it have been obvious under the circumstances that allowing so many
experienced agents to depart was unwise?)
• Perhaps because of the recent departures from the Detail, some of the agents in Dallas were
working their first motorcade.
Ironically, therefore, despite
The Kennedy Detail’s efforts to divert blame away from the security
men who dismally failed to prevent the assassination, some of the information in the book tends
to support the consensus that the Secret Service did not do its job on Nov. 22, 1963.
Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., is Professor of Law Emeritus in the UGA School of Law.