JFK Assassination: The Facts and Theories
The Search Goes On
Those obsessed with the Kennedy assassination tend to focus more on small clues. For conspiracy theorists, "solving" the case by identifying the perpetrators seems less likely than resolving some question about a piece of evidence.
Last fall, some of the leading figures among both doubters and believers gathered in Pittsburgh for a conference that marked the 40th anniversary of the event.
The Cyril Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, associated with the Duquesne University School of Law, offered a national symposium with a full panel of scholars, scientists, and principals involved. The Crime Library's Katherine Ramsland attended and filed the following report:
As thousands of mourners gathered to observe the 'X' on the road in Dallas where Kennedy was first struck down, and as Kennedy family members gathered at his graveside eternal flame in Arlington, Va., nearly 1,300 traveled the Duquesne auditorium to consider evidence for and against a conspiracy or cover-up.
In late 1963, about 52% of Americans believed that there had been more than one shooter.
In 2003, that number stood at 75%, despite the efforts on the part of several government-sponsored committees to put the controversy to rest. In 1988, the Justice Department closed the investigation, stating it found no evidence of a conspiracy. To conspiracy theorists, that may only mean that the Justice Department is part of the cover-up.
From the opening evening through the three full days of presentations, the Pittsburgh program offered panels of writers with opposing views, pathologists and others with conflicting evidence, and legal experts offering rigorous debate.
Dr. Cyril Wecht started the program with a rousing call for truth, revelation, and accuracy in reporting. The 1960s-era media, he pointed out, was dramatically different from the media today, which would cover every minute aspect of the incident. In those days, Wecht charged, reporters and editors tended to accept what they were told.
Because of that, numerous young reporters in 1963 who obligingly described the lone-gunman scenario offered by government officials made their careers. In a shameful show of capitulation, they failed to get facts when they were fresh, and due to their lack of journalistic aggression, much has been lost that will never be recovered.
After Wecht spoke, a panel of often-contradictory authors presented their positions. It was clear that only a few speakers represented the government's rendition of the story, as spelled out in the 1964 Warren Commission's findings.
On this author's panel, which included such notables as Anthony Summers and Walt Brown, debate was potent, and several speakers took pot shots taken at one panelist, Zachary Sklar, the JFK screenwriter.
Sklar, nervous at first, grew bolder when asserting that his screenplay was far more accurate than critics allowed. Yet even as he assured the audience that 80% of James Garrison's moving speech was taken from court documents, news anchor Peter Jennings was closing an ABC special program that night with the words, "Jim Garrison never made this speech."
Sklar insisted that the show's researchers had never even bothered to check.
Which version is true? Sklar invited audience members to go to court records to see for themselves, but how many media researchers would actually do that? How many ordinary people would?
In other words, how often have undocumented rumors and unchecked information been passed from one source to another, like the child's game of telephone, which at the end delivers output quite different from the original input? It could be difficult to discover whose documentation is credible, especially if those who passed on faulty information have had an agenda, such as a book to sell or a job — even a career — to maintain.
Such was the tenor of the conference: Each person who offered a presentation came prepared with those facts that supported his or her position and sometimes ignored or dismissed facts that did not. Skull fracture marks, recorded noises, crime simulations, and charts with complicated measurements were all presented from one hour to the next.
By the end of each day, it was difficult to know what to think. While each presenter did require time to lay out complex ideas, it might have been more effective to offer the key pieces of evidence and have two opposing theorists offer their explanations. That way, the audience could have considered the separate lines of reasoning side by side, rather than trying to recall earlier assertions that conflicted with present ones. It was difficult to keep track.
The second day began with a presentation of the evidentiary value of the famous Zapruder film, hailed at the conference as the single most important piece of evidence in the investigation.
The speakers included David Wrone, author of The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination.
He discussed the manner in which Zapruder had handled the film after the incident and dismissed ideas that government conspirators could have grabbed it before he sold it to Life magazine and somehow corrupted the footage to accord with the official theory.
Aside from technical impossibilities and the fact that the government did not then have the means to copy or corrupt the film in a way that would go undetected, the patriotic character of Zapruder and his family impeded such a theory. He had copied the film for the Secret Service and turned it over to Life.
The staff there laid it out, frame by frame, to process slides. Wrone says that slide No. 190 indicates that a bullet was fired from one side prior to the bullet that hit Kennedy in the neck, but it missed. In frame No. 224, the shot went through Kennedy. At the same time, the lapel flap on Connally's jacket lifts, which "single bullet" theorists claim proves that same bullet went through Connally's body.
However, it did not go through his lapel, but lower down through the body of the jacket. Wrone concluded that the inference based on the lapel movement, which could just as easily have lifted in a breeze, is incorrect. That seemed final, but he did not allow for the possibility that the flap could have moved in response to a bullet piercing the jacket below it. Wrone also contradicted later medical testimony by showing that the film frame of Kennedy lying against his wife indicates that a bullet struck the side of his head and not the back.
Eyewitness reports were discredited by several speakers, who described research in memory interference or showed how witnesses had contradicted themselves or changed their stories to align with official reports. Yet just because memory researchers have shown the existence of memory interference does not prove that these witnesses suffered from it, and none of the experts who made this claim took that final important step. They merely raised doubts.
Speaker Josiah Thompson, a philosophy-professor-turned-private-investigator and author of Six Seconds in Dallas, said his report about the provenance of the bullet that was supposedly removed from Connally's stretcher was a parable of the entire case.
"You pull any single thread, any single fact," he said, "and you're soon besieged with a tangle of subsidiary questions."
He had attempted to learn just where the bullet, labeled Commission Exhibit 399, had been over the years and who had examined it. The stories from those who had handled it, however, including nurses, contradicted the possibility of ever learning its actual chain of custody—or whether CE 399 was indeed the bullet that had gone through Kennedy and into Connally. (This was later contradicted by another speaker who claimed that ballistics tests indicated that the bullet found on the stretcher was fired from Oswald's rifle.)
Donald Thomas, an acoustic evidence specialist, said that the three-shot scenario did not add up. He presented evidence from sonar calculations and recordings from police motorcycle officers that in fact five separate shots had been fired. He said that committees who have studied this have known about the five separate gunshot noises recorded on the tape, but that they had dismissed one as a "false positive," based on the fact that a single gun could not have fired two shots in such fast succession.
Thomas found this conclusion to be illogical, since it could just as easily be evidence to support two shooters involved. In 1977, forensic pathologist Michael Baden, who supported the findings of the Warren Commission, was put in charge of the forensic pathology investigation for the Congressional Select Committee on Assassinations. He recruited eight other esteemed medical examiners. They found a "forensic disaster."
Baden contended that if the autopsy procedure had been done correctly, the many conspiracy theories would never have gotten off the ground. Yet as it turned out, Commander James Humes, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, had never worked on a gunshot wound.
He'd also been instructed not to perform a complete autopsy, but only to find the bullet, which was believed to be still lodged in the body. In his subsequent reports, his medical descriptions were nonexistent as he referred interested parties to the photos, which were unclear. Humes didn't even turn Kennedy over to look at the wound in the back of his neck, or call the hospital in Dallas to learn that a tracheotomy had been performed, which went through the exit wound in the throat. He erroneously assumed the bullet had fallen out the same hole it had entered.
He also failed to shave the head wound to see it clearly, and photographed it through hair.
After only two hours, he prepared the body for embalming and then burned his notes, recreating them later from memory. Baden's team looked at crime scene and autopsy photographs, Kennedy's clothing, autopsy reports, and X-rays.
It soon was clear that the examining pathologists had not known the difference between an exit and entrance wound. The team, with one exception, concluded that two bullets had struck Kennedy, and one of them had pierced him and wounded Connally.
The dissenting voice on this team was Dr. Wecht, the coroner of Allegheny County, who raised the alarm that something was amiss. He found that the "single-bullet theory" did not add up in terms of trajectory, weight and condition when found.
"The trajectory," he said in a newspaper interview, "is a roller-coaster ride of vertical and horizontal movements and gyrations that obviously bullets in flight do not make. The bullet's weight was just over 1.5% less than a store-bought bullet, despite fragments having been left in Governor Connally's chest, right wrist, and left thigh."
He also found the pristine and unmarked condition of the bullet to be highly unlikely after having made impact through skin, muscle, and bone. And he believed that the president's head movement, as shown in the Zapruder film, was incompatible with a shot coming from behind. He thought the president had been struck twice in a synchronized fashion, from the rear and the right front side.
Indeed, in a 1972 story in The New York Times, Wecht had already raised the alarm about the missing brain and several missing X-rays and photos from the National Archives. "You put all these things together," he says, "and you can better appreciate why there is so much continuing controversy today." He believes that we will learn the truth one day, but perhaps not in his lifetime.
Senator Arlen Specter was also present to describe his part in the investigation after Kennedy died. He was junior counsel to the Warren Commission in 1964 and it was he who authored the "single bullet" theory. He spoke about interrogating Jack Ruby and offered insight into the man's unstable character, but he did not acknowledge a direct challenge from Mark Lane, one of the early conspiracy theorists with his Rush to Judgment, who alleged that Specter had mishandled a witness and tried to blackmail her into changing her story.
Several authors who resist the conspiracy theories have offered the analysis that those who seek a dramatic and wide-reaching scenario simply cannot accept that a nobody like Oswald could take out a man of such international stature. Yet such a remark ignores the credibility and work of many of the scientists and scholars.
All the way from Ireland, Anthony Summers, author of Not in Your Lifetime, pleaded, "Don't shrug off inconvenient facts with bland generalities or dismiss scholars as lunatics."
Most of the people invited to speak have devoted years to the assassination and deserve respect at least for the important questions they have raised.
One could only leave this conference aware that much remains to be done, many of the facts are still unclear, and there seems to be no good reason why the government refuses to disclose all of the documents.