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Fourth International, August 1943


Walter O’Rourke

The Verdict on the Assassin of Trotsky


From Fourth International, vol.4 No.8, August 1943, pp.235-239.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


On the third anniversary of the death of Trotsky, his assassin is still attempting to obliterate the GPU’s responsibility for the crime. The Superior Tribunal of Mexico, on October 5, “will hear the appeal of ‘Frank Jacson’ from the verdict of the Sixth Penal Court which on April 16 found him guilty and (there is no death or life penalty) sentenced him to 20 years imprisonment. If the defense loses, it is certain to carry its appeal the final legal step, to the Supreme Court. These two appeals will cost a great deal and Jacson has no visible resources but, needless to say, the GPU assassin has limitless funds at his disposal. If it gains nothing else, the GPU may convey the thought that the issue is not definitively settled until the Supreme Court acts – a thought the GPU needs not only to confuse the issue but also to maintain the morale of its hireling assassin in jail. Moreover the speeches of its attorney will again, as in the lower court, serve to publicize the Stalinist slanders against Trotsky and the Fourth International. Last but not least, there is always the serious possibility that, by one means or another, the GPU will secure from the higher courts a decision which will serve to water down the damning character of the verdict of the lower court – a verdict which, to any honest analyst, clearly establishes the fact that Leon Trotsky was murdered by an assassin sent by Stalin.

That verdict is indelibly recorded in history, but there should be no illusion that it may not be upset formally. With all due respect to the juridical institutions of Mexico, we cannot forget what happened in two Mexican courts which had before them the machine-gun gang which attacked Trotsky’s home on May 24, 1940 and kidnapped and murdered Robert Sheldon Harte, member of the Socialist Workers Party. David Alfaro Siqueiros, the painter, was arrested as the leader of that attack and admitted it, as did others who were arrested – some 27 members of the Mexican Communist Party, among them David Serrano and Luis Mateos Martinez, members of its Central Committee. Yet they all managed to go free. The charge of murdering Harte was dropped, all suspicion for that crime being placed on the Arenal brothers (also prominent Stalinists), who, of course, had disappeared. Although Trotsky’s bedroom had been sprayed with 300 machine-gun bullets, a court dropped the charge of attempted homicide despite the testimony of Siqueiros’ chauffeur that, when he heard that Trotsky had lived through it, Siqueiros had cried: “All the work in vain.” By means of these decisions, the judges of two courts reduced the machine-gun attack to the minor charges of housebreaking, unlawful use of uniforms, robbery (of the two cars in the house to prevent pursuit) and damaging another’s property. On these, Siqueiros was admitted to bail and promptly fled the country, with his documents in perfect order – the Secretariat of Gobernacion (State Department) pretending not to know that he was under bail and therefore forbidden to leave the Federal District, much less Mexico. Arrested in Chile as a fugitive from Mexican justice, his release was obtained by the Mexican Ambassador!

It is well to recall, therefore, what Natalia Trotsky wrote to the Mexican press last year:

“If there had not been judges to maintain that Siqueiros assaulted our house only to rob two automobiles which he abandoned a few hundred meters away ... if there had not been judges to maintain that the gangsters of the GPU were not a gang but ‘co-thinkers’ and that the shots fired over our beds were only for ‘psychological’ effects, we would say beforehand: the GPU will fail in its attempt. But Siqueiros, assailant, assassin, incendiary and agent in the service of the GPU, is free. Why not Jacson?”

As a matter of fact, it may well be through the medium of Siqueiros that the GPU will make its next move on behalf of Jacson. At the time he led the attack on Trotsky’s home Siqueiros claimed he did so to obtain compromising documents showing Trotsky’s “fifth column” activities; but he never claimed then to have secured a single document, much less one that would compromise Trotsky. Now, however (he is in Cuba), in an interview with a reporter for the Mexican daily La Prensa, Siqueiros claims that he has a “good part” of Trotsky’s documents! The paper paraphrases what he said as follows: “And he left the Trotskyist fortress carrying with him in his automobile those precious documents, which he has in safe custody and which, when necessary, will enable him to demonstrate the service he did Mexico and the sinister work carried on by Trotsky.” “When necessary” may turn out to be the Jacson appeal.

Nevertheless, not even Siqueiros’ forgeries will be able to obliterate the verdict against Jacson in the eyes of all honest people, no matter what the appellate courts do. I should like here to give a more rounded description of the defense line and the court verdict than I was able to do in my news-reports to The Militant.

Jacson’s “New Version”

On Jacson’s person, it will be recalled, was a “confession letter,” obviously written for the eventuality that he would be killed while attempting to escape; it pretended that he was a “disillusioned” Trotskyist who had decided to kill Trotsky. Jacson had prepared for the crime by destroying all his documents, but the false passport he had used was traced and proved to be that of a dead member of the International Brigade, i.e., one collected by the GPU and provided for Jacson. Under questioning, Jacson admitted premeditation, how he entered Trotsky’s office under the pretext of getting his comments on an article, had taken a position behind Trotsky seated at his work table, and struck the fatal blow. All this Jacson admitted, his main preoccupation being to conceal his connection with the GPU. This version was not changed until the end of September 1941, thirteen months after the crime.

On January 8, 1941 an able lawyer, closely connected with the Stalinists, Octavio Medellin Ostos, entered the case and over a period of months prepared a “new version.” Jacson never again submitted to questioning in court and refused to make any statements his only act was to write the “new confession”, a document presented to the court in French on the last day permitted. Its purpose was to change his previous account of the cowardly execution of the crime and to develop his former statements about Trotsky’s wanting him to go to Russia into a theory of provocation on the part of Trotsky. The provocation was said to be both psychological and physical, the key sentences of the new version being: “he said to me with a contemptuous tone ... ‘you are nothing more than a military blunderer.’” And further on Jackson writes:

“I want to note that Leon Trotsky began to fight and shout before the blow in order to free himself from the pressure of my left hand on his coat, no doubt so as to draw his revolver but I was faster than he ...”

Another interesting innovation of the new version demonstrates that the change in line since June 22, 1941 even applies to a GPU agent’s defense in court. It will be recalled that in his original “confession letter,” Jacson intimated that United States imperialism and the Dies Committee were in league with Trotsky and would help him to send saboteurs to Russia. The Stalinist press at the time declared that Trotsky was an agent of Wall Street and “an instrument of the Yankee war of nerves against Mexico.” In Jacson’s new version, of course, not a word of this appears.

Now Jacson presents himself as a Belgian patriot: “I want to take advantage of this same statement to declare that I have always considered it an honor to die on the battlefield against the forces representative of the greatest barbarism typified by the Nazi hordes!” In an interview at the same time the summaries were presented in court, Jacson is quoted as endorsing even more frankly the current Stalinist slanders against Trotsky:

“You came to believe that Trotsky was an agent of Hitler as the Communists say?



“In the first place because of the proposition he made to me to go and commit acts of sabotage in Russia, acts that only were of interest to Germany. [Jacson forgets that in his original statement the United States and the Dies Committee were supposed to be behind this project. – W.O.] In the second place because of his confession to me that the Moscow Trials had annihilated his movement in Russia – those trials in which it was proven, as Davies confirms in his book, that the guilty were in the service of Germany and Japan. In the third place because of Trotsky’s mysterious income whose origin nobody knows.

“You think that the existence of Trotsky would represent a danger for Democracy?

“It would be a source of confusionism and doubt which the Fifth Columnists would utilize to undermine confidence in victory and in Democracy! It would be a focal point of espionage and sabotage. With good reason in the United States they imprisoned Goldman, the lawyer for Trotsky’s wife; with good reason in the United States they imprisoned also gunmen that Trotsky had at his service in Mexico and with good reason also are the mailing and sale of Trotsky works and newspapers prohibited in the United States. The Americans know what they are doing. (ASI, Mexico, February 13,1943,)”

The new version written by Jacson was the only new document presented to the court. It was supposed to replace the hundreds of pages in the court record of statements – including the first four months of Jacson’s own testimony – which contradict his new version. Trying to explain away this contradiction, it was contended that the assassin was in no condition to make statements after the crime; the bandages prevented his being able to read the documents he signed; he was maltreated by the police; he suffered from a moral depression after his crime that caused him to lose all interest in what he was saying and signing, etc. But it is clear that such allegations carry little weight if they are not supported by facts.

Medellin Ostos failed to obtain any such facts. He called in police and detectives who had questioned Jacson during the first days following the murder. Their testimony invariably showed that although Jacson had been badly beaten up when Trotsky’s guards seized him, he was in full control of his senses and was thinking quite clearly. In jail he was subjected to no maltreatment but on the contrary enjoyed favorable conditions that provoked public protests in the press against such a criminal receiving privileged treatment. It will be remembered that during the first weeks he was not held in jail but in a hospital under special guard. Thus from the very first day he was able to use his plentiful funds to buy what he wished. As for the so-called “secret injections” supposedly applied to make him talk, the lack of evidence, or rather the contrary evidence was so striking that the defense did not even mention it in its final summary before the court.

The attempt to show that the murder occurred during a fight was equally a fiasco. According to Mexican legal procedure in order for a new version to be accepted in place of a legally obtained confession, the evidence and logic in its favor must be overwhelming. For the best part of a year, the GPU’s lawyer fished for evidence. He only managed, by some very “clever” questioning, to establish that Trotsky was an agile man, that he was fairly strong, that he owned a couple of pistols and always carried one of them and such facts that a dozen or more people connected with the house could have given in five minutes.

Twice during the trial, the defense appealed to higher courts against the trial judge’s decisions: When the judge ordered the trial closed and the summaries prepared, Jacson’s lawyer pretended that the more than one year of trial-investigation was insufficient; he appealed and lost; and again, on the very day he should have presented his summary, he presented an accusation of partiality, basing it on an article in the magazine Estampa, which quoted the judge as expressing a low opinion of Jacson. However, when the author was called to testify, he declared he had never written the words quoting the judge; the article had been “improved” in the editorial office. In addition, Jacson’s attorney systematically sought adverse rulings by presenting “evidence” and asking questions of witnesses which the judge had to rule out as irrelevant. This was clearly preparation for the present appeal to the higher courts.

Jacson’s attorney likewise made strenuous efforts to discredit the Trotskyists, for the double purpose of smearing important witnesses and publicizing the stock GPU lies about Trotsky and the Trotskyists. At the head of the list of witnesses stood Natalia Trotsky, whose testimony corroborated Jacson’s own original story of the events of August 20 and placed in evidence Trotsky’s account of the attack as told in his dying breath to Natalia. Even more important, Natalia was the most authoritative witness who established that Jacson’s relation with Trotsky and the house was a distant one, limited to only a few visits. Since, above all, the GPU was interested in presenting Jacson as a Trotskyist, Natalia’s testimony, which proved just the opposite, had to be discredited if possible. This, however, proved to be impossible. To begin with, not even the GPU’s lawyer dared openly to accuse Natalia of lying about this most tragic event in her life. So he took a “benevolent” attitude, pretending to respect her suffering and years while at the same time describing her as incapable of thinking. Likewise Jacson described her as hysterical and senile and that she did not know what was going on about her; and his lawyer, in his summation, repeated this abuse. Natalia’s testimony was sufficient refutation.

The final hearings and summations brought out perhaps more clearly than any other single part of the case the fundamental political motives involved. With written conclusions presented some time before for the court to consider at its leisure, these final hearings as a rule are almost completely ignored, defending lawyers not even attending. For there is no jury system, cases are finally decided by a court of three judges; this system does not lend itself to speeches or emotional appeals. The GPU, however, submitted only a half-page of conclusions and made its entire appeal in a speech to the court. This more dramatic method was sure to get more publicity for the Stalinist anti-Trotskyist slanders which flowed from the attorney’s mouth for the greater part of his five-hour summation.

During the year of trial-investigation when evidence could have been presented, the defense never attempted to prove that Trotsky was a saboteur. The only mention of this charge was in the two Jacson “confessions.” There is not a word in the court record about the Minneapolis trial or about Trotskyists in other lands. But during his summary – in which the rules of evidence do not apply – Jacson’s attorney tried to prop up the Jacson-GPU lie that Trotsky had wanted to send him to the Soviet Union. Here is a sample:

“Mornard [Jacson] says: ‘He proposed to me that I go to Russia to commit acts of sabotage.’ Is this an absurd proposition from Trotsky’s point of view? Were there not Trotskyists in China, Manchukuo, in 1940 trying to enter Russia to commit acts of sabotage? ...

“Several of the persons who have filed through this trial, such as Jake Cooper, Albert Goldman, etc., many days before the events of Pearl Harbor in the United States were summoned to court to answer charges of two crimes; one of conspiracy, and the other of crimes of sabotage and treason. ...”

The political motivation of these and many other similar statements could not be clearer. In a document presented to the court by Natalia Trotsky in answer to the summation for Jaceon she sums up its Stalinist character as follows:

“Of all the evidence that the murder of Trotsky was organized and executed by agents of Stalin’s GPU, the defense speech made by Octavio Medellin Ostos is, perhaps, the most convincing. ...

“The defense of Trotsky’s murderer has rested its case in a very real and legal sense on the usual Stalinist slanders against Trotsky ... It is implicit in its content that the entire alibi stands or falls on the truthfulness or falseness of the Moscow Trial lies about Trotsky, the ‘saboteur.’ For, says Jacson’s defense, the murderer was provoked by Trotsky who tried to threaten him into going to the Soviet Union to commit acts of sabotage and to kill Stalin. If, as Stalin says, Trotsky was a saboteur, then the story is credible; if, as every section of the working class movement except the Stalinists say, Trotsky was not a saboteur, then Jacson’s entire story is absolutely and completely impossible. The political nature of the crime could not be posed more sharply than it has been posed by the defense.”

The Verdict of the Penal Court

In their lengthy written verdict, the judges rejected the following lies of Jacson’s defense:

1. Jacson’s story that he was sent by a “member of the Fourth International” from Paris to serve Trotsky as secretary and was in his confidence. This was the keystone of Jacson’s defense, designed to make the killing appear an “inside job” and thus absolve the GPU of responsibility for the murder. The evidence, on the contrary, demonstrated irrefutably that Trotsky had seen Jacson only a few times – and only once alone prior to the assassination – and only as the new husband of a friend of the household, Sylvia Ageloff. Refuting the assassin’s claim of intimacy, the verdict states:

“That affirmation is inadmissible, for it is illogical that an individual like Mornard [one of Jacson’s aliases] who according to his own confession took part in no activity of that party, who did not even belong to it, who [allegedly] worked as a sports writer living a life of luxury and who had only given trifling financial assistance to the party and this together with [his wife] Sylvia Ageloff, was sent to be at the side of the chief of this party and even more inadmissable is his statement that he should be held in such confidence that Trotsky would entrust him with tasks of notorious consequences in the political activity of that same political party, and that without a background in the work of the party he should be at the side of the persecuted politician.”

2. Jacson’s pretense that he became a “disillusioned Trotskyist” in Mexico and therefore killed Trotsky under a provocation.

On the contrary, states the verdict, Jacson deliberately came to Mexico to murder Trotsky:

“Mornard’s attitude since he undertakes his trip to Mexico until he succeeds in establishing contact with Trotsky and afterward, is one of falseness and artifice. [His actions] are clear proof that he did not come to carry out the mission of secretary or of aide to Trotsky nor of any other commission near him [Trotsky]; rather he came for a different and unconfessable mission that became known when he perpetrated the homicide.”

And again on the same subject the verdict states:

“From the trial record and from all the confessions of Mornard, we know that his trip to Mexico had no other object than to establish contact with the one who was later to be his victim. The court must ... declare that the trip of Frank Jacson or Jacques Mornard to Mexico was undertaken with the sole object of killing Trotsky.”

3. Jacson’s attempt to retract his earlier statements describing the cowardly manner in which he struck down Trotsky from behind; and his “new version” that Trotsky provoked him with threats and tried to draw his gun before Jacson struck.

The verdict, in great detail, shows how Jacson made no attempt for 13 months to change his original story, and then the court refutes point by point the “new version.”

4. The slanderous attacks made by Jacson’s attorney against Trotsky and his guards in an attempt to discredit their statements.

The court, by implication, rejected these attacks, citing the very statements involved as part of its proof against Jacson.

The Limitations of the Verdict

If any honest analyst takes these four major points together, he has a clear picture of the GPU’s responsibility for the crime. This could have been demonstrated even more definitively had the judges and the prosecutor not avoided two important fields of investigation.

One of these is Jacson’s source of funds. Jacson has enjoyed all the comforts and services that money could buy. Stories of celebrations held in his cell in which officials of the prison participated have already been reported in our press. He has been interviewed by various newspaper reporters, who all return with similar stories of exceptional comforts in his cell, a library, special foods, etc. Then there are the heavy costs of the case, already three years old, and which will continue probably for another eighteen months. Jacson pretend she is paying for all this from a bank account in which he deposited five thousand dollars received from his “mother.” There is no doubt that Jacson’s lawyer could clear up the question of who pays him, since the original five thousand has obviously long been exhausted. Natalia Trotsky denounced the lawyer in the press as the intermediary between the GPU and his client. He magnanimously took a “benevolent” attitude toward her, saying he would not accuse her of libel in court. Had he done so, of course, he would be forced to submit to some embarrassing questions. Jacson’s generous “mother” is supposed to be in occupied Belgium from which no funds could have been sent since war began in September 1939; during the first year and more of the trial-investigation Mexico was still at peace with Germany and the authorities could have checked up on the “mother” and her funds. But neither the prosecutor nor the investigating judge sought to examine this important question.

The prosecutor and judge did trace Jacson’s false passport, and found it to be a Canadian one originally issued to Tony Babich, who died in Spain as a member of the Stalinist-controlled International Brigade. At this point, however, the inquiry into the passport ceased, and the verdict evades commenting on the significance of such a passport. Yet it is a notorious fact that the GPU collected passports of members of the International Brigade and used them for GPU agents.

By giving no consideration to Jacson’s source of funds and his passport, the verdict evaded drawing the clear conclusion that Jacson is a GPU agent. It was erroneously reported in the New Leader by Victor Serge that the court described Jacson as a “Communist agent.” The fact is, however, that the verdict, while mentioning the accusation of Trotsky’s widow and friends, evades the issue. It justifies this evasion primarily on the basis that the prosecuting attorney had failed to make the accusation:

“This court does not intend to evaluate those statements which are not included in the accusation [of the prosecuting attorney] and, desiring that this sentence be the result only of the most implacable logic and absolutely founded in legal precepts, thus avoiding all prejudice, without making any statement on the question, limits itself to declaring that, until today, there do not exist proofs that carry legal conviction of the situation or facts described many times by these persons.”

As we have seen, however, the court was able to limit itself thus only by failing to investigate Jacson’s funds and passport. Thus it evaded not only questions of interpretation but also definite fields of investigation. This constitutes the weak point in the verdict and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. One must add that it was too much to expect that a court of Mexico, member of the “United Nations” and ally of Stalin, would have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to prove that the assassin of Trotsky was Stalin’s hireling.

How Some of Our Opponents Behave

Even though diplomatic considerations prevented the court from drawing the clear conclusion, it provided sufficient materials for the conclusion. The most important victory was the court’s rejection of the GPU’s claim that Jacson was a close friend or secretary of Trotsky. Thereby it destroyed in the eyes of all honest people the attempt of the GPU to divert attention away from its apparatus of assassination. All those who are seriously interested in fighting against the gangsterism of the GPU must give full publicity to this essential point of the verdict.

Unfortunately, however, the Stalinists are not the only ones who have spoken of the close relations existing between Trotsky and his murderer and of the easy access to Trotsky’s house which Jacson and other Stalinist agents enjoyed. J.R. Johnson, in his scurrilous article in the September 1940 New International, attributed the assassin’s success to Trotsky’s failure to understand men and his willingness to accept as genuine a profession of political agreement from anyone. Natalia refuted Johnson’s allegations, proving that, far from “talking politics” with the assassin for six months – so Johnson had asserted – Trotsky had seen him only as the husband of Sylvia Ageloff, for a few visits lasting a few minutes each time. “You have been so carried away by your factionalism that you have lost your moral equilibrium,” Natalia warned Johnson. But this warning was lost on him and his kind, including Julian Gorkin and Victor Serge here in Mexico, who made similar statements at a public meeting.

Gorkin made statements tending to identify the martyred Bob Harte as a Stalinist agent. Gorkin stated that Bob Harte’s father had declared to the Mexican police that Bob had a picture of Stalin in his room in New York just before he went to serve Trotsky as a secretary-guard. Gorkin added that he had a copy of the elder Harte’s statement. When challenged to produce it, he could not. Bob’s father had made no such statement to the Mexican police. On the contrary, this rumor first appeared in the Mexican press as a dispatch from New York after Mr. Harte, who had been in Mexico, had returned to the United States. Trotsky wired him and inquired as to its authenticity. Harte wired back immediately that it was false. All this was explained in the Fourth International three years ago, but Gorkin, like Johnson before him, is blinded by his factional hostility to Trotskyism.

During the same speech, Gorkin said that Jacson enjoyed “great facility” in seeing Trotsky whenever he wished, while Trotsky would not receive honorable and known figures of the revolutionary movement (read Gorkin) because they were political adversaries. Besides showing that this was false, Trotskyists present at the meeting indicated that these statements, made in the moments when the summaries were being drawn up for the final hearing of Jacson’s trial, could only help the Stalinists, for it was precisely this false conception that formed the basis of Jacson’s defense. Gorkin, Serge and company were very much shocked by the suggestion that they were repeating Stalinist lies and assumed a morally indignant attitude. They still pretend that it is merely a question of their right to have different opinion from the Trotskyist, but it is clear that such opinions expressed in public, together with an irresponsible use of false rumors as proof, in reality play into the hand of the GPU. Men with their experience and knowledge of Stalinist methods ought to know how to be more responsible. We can only conclude that their desire to show that Trotsky, the “sectarian,” would receive any one who pretended to side with him politically, and no one who refused to submit to his position, lead them into very dubious moral channels.

The GPU’s Problem

As long as he is alive, in jail, Jacson necessarily constitutes a problem for the GPU. There is always the danger that he may reveal his identity if he becomes desperate after long imprisonment, particularly when the international situation changes and a Mexican government unfriendly to Stalin may, for its own purposes, seek to probe further into the crime. Moreover, for a GPU agent to remain hopelessly in jail is dangerous for the morale of its other agents. It is obvious that the GPU must attempt to get him out or to silence him forever. Mexico has just renewed its relations with the USSR and Konstantin Oumansky is the first ambassador. This sinister figure is well known as an organizer of the GPU.

Recently there have been several cases of “suicides” committed by murderers in their cells. It is said that the officials are reviving in this form the “ley fuga,” the custom of former times of announcing that a prisoner had been shot while trying to escape. Will the GPU liquidate its problem by arranging for a “suicide” by Jacson in his cell? Or does it depend, for the present, on some new legal maneuvers, with the help of Siqueiros’ “documents” when the appeal is heard October 5?

Mexico, D.F.

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