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Passion for justice drives author Ludovic Kennedy

LUDOVIC Kennedy, a British author, broadcaster, and journalist, is the sort of liberal-minded man for whom Archie Bunker would probably reserve a few choice insults. In fact, Alf Garnett, British prototype for that fictional American TV stick-in-the-mud, did once mention Mr. Kennedy -- and his words were not flattering. But for Kennedy, they certainly signified a humorous seal of approval. A down-to-earth, warmhearted humanist, he enjoys speaking out against whatever he sees as cant, injustice, partisan thinking, or mere dogmatism. In his 30 years as a reporter and presenter of current-affairs programs, he has built an amiable but trenchant TV image, which by now has almost achieved a grandfatherly status. In Britain he is a household name. On TV today he chairs the popular, award-winning ``Did You See?,'' which he calls ``a lighthearted look at the week's television.''

But television, he told me in a recent interview, has been more his ``bread-and-butter job,'' while the ``investigative'' side of his talent has mainly found its outlet in writing. He is the author of plays, documentaries, articles, and books, and his main themes have been naval history and the miscarriage of justice. With four books now published on the latter, he might be called a master of the ``who-didn't-do-it.'' His first three books in the genre, all on miscarriages of British justice, resulted in the posthumous ``free pardon'' for one man and release from prison for three others serving life sentences for murders he proved they did not commit.

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His current project is his first look at an American case: the kidnap and murder of the Lindbergh baby and the subsequent execution (in 1936) of Richard Hauptmann, the illegal immigrant carpenter from Germany. Kennedy is totally convinced Hauptmann was innocent.

He has presented his case first in a television documentary, and now in a book (``The Airman and the Carpenter,'' published in May in the United States, earlier in Britain), and expects that the book will be turned into a TV film or ``miniseries.''

We were talking in the small cottage that is temporary home for him and his wife, the former ballerina Moira Shearer.

His wife had stocked us up with a plateful of biscuits -- which Kennedy downed as eagerly as if he were still an Eton schoolboy or Oxford undergraduate -- and, leaning forward in an armchair, he gave absorbed attention to the interview.

Revealingly, the two people he feels have most influenced him were such eminent members of the establishment that even Bunker/Garnett would presumably have approved of them. One was a respected naval officer, killed in action early in World War II while commanding the HMS Rawalpindi. The other was a professor of law at Edinburgh University. They were, respectively, his father and his grandfather.

He told me he adored his father. ``In a way I think [my] naval books are bound up with the affection I felt for him.'' And his grandfather ``had all these [books on] notable British trials. . . . I used to spend hours as a boy . . . at the top of the stepladder in his library . . . reading them and being terribly impressed by the majesty and immaculacy of the law. I was a bit of a romantic, you see. . . . It was a greater shock to me . . . when I found out that policemen could be bent and judges biased. . . . I had this rosy view of the law.''

He loved writing the naval books. He was himself ``afloat most of the war,'' but virtually ``never saw the enemy.'' He wrote about German ships -- Bismarck, Tirpitz, the U-boats, and even Scharnhorst, which sank his father's ship -- ``simply to find out what it was like from the other side. I wondered what these people were like.''

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The ``injustice'' books, though, are a matter of compulsion. He says, ``I don't choose to -- I'm just driven to write them.'' But isn't this desire to understand the other point of view a common factor both to these books and the naval books? ``Yes, that's it absolutely.''

His aim in the ``Bismarck'' book was, as he wrote in its preface, ``not to be partisan. If [the book] is pro-anything, it is pro-humanity.'' His ``injustice'' books are also vigorously pro-humanity, specifically what he considers innocent humanity. They have all been written, he told me, chronologically.

His voice has a kind of warm dryness. ``If,'' he says, ``you start with the trial and work backwards it's terribly confusing, and it's full of argument -- frightfully boring.'' Instead, ``because in life one thing leads to another,'' he starts his story as a life history that leads up to the denouement.

The books read like novels. But they are, he maintains, strictly objective. In the Hauptmann-Lindbergh case, ``I dealt with every piece of evidence that, to my knowledge, showed Hauptmann was guilty, and proved one hundred percent that the evidence was either invented or faked. I don't see how you can get more objective than that. Can you?''

If his books have ``subjectivity,'' it ``doesn't lie in the facts. . . . It lies in the passion that I feel against authority -- and this has motivated all my books -- for railroading innocent people. I can't think of anything worse than what happened to Hauptmann. Not only . . . for a crime he didn't do, but for a crime he would have abhorred in anybody else. The whole ignominy of the world against him.''

A few people at the time did express doubts about Hauptmann's guilt, among them Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, Ford Madox Ford, some of Hauptmann's defense team, and Gov. Harold Hoffman of New Jersey. Toward the end, even the newspapers (and Kennedy has hard words for the press's treatment of the case, which assumed guilt from the start without any evidence) began to express unease.

But nobody maintained Hauptmann's innocence with more persistence than Hauptmann himself (he refused any ``confession'' despite 12th-hour offers of clemency and even of posthumous financial security for his widow and child). Except possibly Anna, his wife. She has never stopped believing him innocent of both kidnapping and murder.

It was seeing her, alive and still vigorously declaring her husband's innocence on an NBC ``Today'' show in 1981, that fired Kennedy's interest. He immediately had what he calls a ``hunch'' about Hauptmann's innocence. ``I knew it was true,'' he asserts.

FBI files and recently opened New Jersey police archives made plenty of fresh material available to him. ``Every piece of evidence I looked at,'' he said, ``confirmed that `hunch,' till I got to the stage where there was no doubt about it at all.''

He is, however, realistic about his book's capacity to quickly alter entrenched opinion. ``I don't think it's something that will take off in a blaze of trumpets.'' But he is sure the truth will gradually ``seep home.'' Hauptmann's conviction and execution, he is convinced, were due to the mass ``hallucination'' of a public determined to see him as guilty. ``It was a situation where black equaled white,'' he says. In his research he encountered the same convictions still held today. But his track recor d in Britain suggests that his respect for justice and gift for perceiving and exhaustively demonstrating the innocence of wrongly convicted people can carry a lot of weight.

He has even corresponded briefly with Charles Lindbergh's widow, the writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Kennedy says she wrote him that, ``if in fact a miscarriage of justice did occur it should not, in her view, be glossed over.'' She realized, she told him, that he was a ``serious writer'' -- ``with obvious reference to all the junky books there have been written about Lindbergh and the case,'' he pointed out. And her letter had made him wonder if ``lurking doubts'' about the case might not have ``troubled

her a little'' over the intervening years.

``After all,'' he said, ``like all writers she's after the truth. I mean: that's our purpose, our job.'' And he looked me very straight in the eye. Clearly enough it is his purpose.

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