Thomas Downing

Thomas Nelms Downing was born in York County, Virginia, on 1st February, 1919. After graduating from Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, he served in the United States Army (1942-46). After the Second World War Downing worked as a lawyer and substitute judge in Warwick.

A member of the Democratic Party, Downing was elected to Congress in 1958. Downing was one of the first to question the credibility of the Warren Commission and began a campaign for a new investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Downing said he was certain that Kennedy had been killed as a result of a conspiracy. He believed that the deaths of Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli were highly significant. He also believed that the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had withheld important information from the investigation. Downing was not alone in taking this view. In 1976, a Detroit News poll indicated that 87% of the American population did not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who killed Kennedy.

Downing was appointed as chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He named Richard Sprague as chief counsel of the Gaeton Fonzi was to later say: "Sprague was known as tough, tenacious and independent. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind when I heard of Sprague's appointment that the Kennedy assassination would finally get what it needed: a no-holds-barred, honest investigation. Which just goes to show how ignorant of the ways of Washington both Sprague and I were".

Sprague quickly assembled a staff of 170 lawyers, investigators and researchers. On 8th December, 1976, Sprague submitted a 1977 budget of $6.5 million. Frank Thompson, Chairman of the House Administration Committee made it clear he opposed the idea of so much money being spent on the investigation.

Smear stories against Sprague began appearing in the press. David B. Burnham of The New York Times reported that Sprague had mishandled a homicide case involving the son of a friend. Members of Congress joined in the attacks and Robert E. Bauman of Maryland claimed that Sprague had a "checkered career" and was not to be trusted. Richard Kelly of Florida called the House Select Committee on Assassinations a "multimillion-dollar fishing expedition for the benefit of a bunch of publicity seekers."

On 2nd February, 1978, Henry Gonzalez replaced Downing as chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Gonzalez immediately sacked Richard Sprague as chief counsel. Sprague claimed that only the fill committee had the power to dismiss him. Walter E. Fauntroy agreed with Sprague and launched a campaign to keep him as chief counsel. On 1st March, Gonzalez resigned describing Sprague as "an unconscionable scoundrel"

Downing retired from Congress in 1976.

Thomas Nelms Downing died on 23rd October, 2001.

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas Nelms Downing, interviewed by the Sixth Floor Museum (11th February, 1998)

The acoustical evidence... was the best evidence the Committee had, and after you said that, you haven’t said too much. I mean, a lot of people won’t buy those two bullets being so close together. But that is certainly the best evidence the Committee could come up with, and that’s just sitting in the Justice Department now.

I think the main opposition to the theory of assassination by more than one person is a fact that now that - how many years? - thirty years nearly have elapsed, and not one person has broken the silence… not one person. And that is almost believable. Now, if the mafia did it, they say the mafia can keep secrets.