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Relatives press fight to reopen Booth grave Appeals court will study bid to confirm whether body is Lincoln assassin's

They're still trying to dig up John Wilkes Booth -- or whoever is in his grave in Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery.

Booth relatives who want to disinter the body buried in 1869 as that of President Lincoln's assassin will ask the Court of Special Appeals today to authorize the exhumation.

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Saying the case concerns "the preservation of the accuracy of American history," Mark S. Zaid, lawyer for the Booth relatives, is asking the court to help "expose a 130-year-old historical fraud."

Booth shot the president in Ford's Theater in Washington, April 14, 1865. Controversy has existed for decades over whether Union troops fatally wounded Booth at a farm in Bowling Green, Va., 12 days later, or whether he escaped and lived for years under assumed names in other states.

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The relatives ask the appellate court either to authorize the exhumation or to order a new trial with specific instructions to the judge on proper legal standards.

In court papers, Zaid says that Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan permitted Green Mount officials an improper degree of intervention in last year's four-day trial. Zaid says a cemetery cannot block an exhumation, especially one requested by the relatives.

Francis J. Gorman, Green Mount's lawyer, disputes this contention, saying that nothing in the law prevents a cemetery from presenting all the evidence it can "to assist the court in arriving at a just and proper decision."

Kaplan went beyond the cemetery's opposition in ruling against Lois White Rathbun and Virginia E. H. Kline, distant Booth relatives who brought the case to court.

Kaplan said the law requires that graves remain undisturbed unless there are "substantial, compelling or valid" reasons to reopen them. He found the relatives' arguments unpersuasive.

Kaplan said he found "convincing" the testimony about the historical evidence of Booth's death at the Virginia farm. The judge named at least 18 people who identified Booth's remains between his death in 1865 and his reburial in Baltimore in 1869.

Most historians -- including several who testified before Kaplan -- accept the government's evidence that Booth was killed at the farm. His body was identified at the farm and in Washington, where it was buried until it was released to his family in 1869 for reburial in Baltimore.

In his brief, however, Gorman attacks the case as a publicity-seeking endeavor.

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He criticizes Zaid and Nathaniel Orlowek, the amateur researcher who has pursued the Booth mystery for years and who has appeared on television to talk about the case.

"Should the wishes and burial arrangements of John Wilkes Booth's immediate family and next of kin in 1869 prevail over the 1995 efforts undertaken by a publicity-seeking history buff and his attorney to cause an exhumation in order to gain media attention and/or financial benefits from television and movie productions?" Gorman writes in his brief.

History is on the side of those who say Booth's remains lie in Green Mount Cemetery, Gorman says. The original request was "frivolous" and the appeal was brought "in bad faith," he says.

Regardless, says Green Mount chairman William Trimble, a court ruling would not end the controversy. "True believers will always believe the world is flat, and that John Wilkes Booth escaped."

Pub Date: 5/08/96


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