The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 marks a watershed in American history. Had JFK not been killed, the Vietnam war and the "war on poverty" might have never happened as we know them, and his assassination is often thought to mark the beginning of the end of public trust in government. Yet the cause of his death is still highly controversial. According to the Warren Commission, JFK was shot by a lone gunman, but according to the later House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), he was the victim of a Mafia conspiracy.
Hundreds of books have been written on the JFK assassination, and all but a few have argued that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy involving high government officials. Those that reject a conspiracy altogether are so rare that they tend to get more attention. In that category, Case Closed by Gerald Posner [Posner] has received unprecedented publicity and high praise. Posner presents perhaps the most convincing case yet in support of the non-conspiracy version of the JFK assassination. But how convincing is it? Has Posner finally closed this extraordinary case? To answer this question, it is useful to first review a few basic facts.
The officially planned and published motorcade route through Dealey Plaza did not include the street where the assassination actually occurred. The route was changed at the last minute to go directly past the Texas School Book Depository, where the apparent sniper's nest was found. The sharp turn almost directly below the sniper's window on the sixth floor required the motorcade to slow down below the minimum speed required by Secret Service security regulations for an open vehicle carrying the President.
The famous Zapruder film shows Kennedy's head moving slightly forward, then snapping violently back and to the left at the instant of the head shot. It also shows Jackie Kennedy climbing back on the rear of the car to retrieve a fragment from her husband's skull, which she still had in her hand a few minutes later at Parkland Hospital. Over fifty witnesses, including virtually all in the immediate vicinity of the so-called "grassy knoll" in Dealey Plaza, have said that a shot or shots came from behind the foliage-covered wooden fence on the knoll, to Kennedy's right front. Photos and films show two policemen with guns drawn, along with many bystanders, running toward the fence immediately after the shooting in an obvious attempt to apprehend the shooter.
The doctors who treated Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas held a press conference shortly afterward in which they stated plainly and repeatedly that Kennedy's head and neck wounds were the result of shots from the front. Virtually all of them have maintained since then that Kennedy had a small bullet wound in his throat about a half centimeter in diameter that appeared to be an entrance wound, and that a large hole in the lower rear (occipital) portion of his skull, slightly to the right of center, was blasted out in what appeared to be an exit wound.
An intense argument erupted at Parkland Hospital between the Dallas County Medical Examiner, who insisted that the autopsy be done in Texas, and federal agents, who wanted the autopsy to be done in the Washington, DC area. In prevailing, the federal agents blatantly violated the law, because Texas state law required the autopsy to be done in Texas, and no federal law superseded the state law -- not even for the President of the United States. The armed federal agents were so concerned about the autopsy location that they used the persuasive power of their firearms to overrule the Justice of the Peace, who had ruled against them.
The conclusion of the autopsy was that Kennedy was hit from the rear only. However, the autopsy has been widely and heavily criticized by forensic experts, including many who accept its conclusions. It was performed by military pathologists with virtually no forensic experience. The chief pathologist destroyed his original autopsy notes, and even the copy he made has disappeared. Routine procedures such as tracing bullet paths through the body and sectioning the brain were not performed. Such procedures would have determined the direction of the shots, which should have been the primary objective of the autopsy. The pathologists claimed that they were unaware of the neck wound until after the autopsy because an emergency tracheotomy had been performed directly over it at Parkland Hospital. The brain itself, which was supposed to have been preserved and sectioned, has mysteriously disappeared. Several of the doctors who treated Kennedy at Parkland Hospital have publicly disputed the autopsy conclusions.
The official suspect was Lee Harvey Oswald, but of course he never had his day in court. Oswald joined the U.S. Marines at age seventeen and became a radar operator with at least a secret clearance at Atsugi Air Base in Japan, a known CIA operations center, where the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was based. Although Oswald openly and regularly espoused Communism as a marine at the height of the cold war, the Marines did not seem to care. One day Oswald defected to the Soviet Union, boldly announcing his intention to divulge everything he knew to the Soviets. He stayed for a couple of years and got married, then he came back home with his wife. He was welcomed back hospitably by the U.S. government, which even paid his travel expenses back. He was never prosecuted for treason. After his arrest for the Kennedy assassination, he was questioned intensively for many hours without legal representation, despite his pleas for such. Supposedly, no notes or recordings of the interviews were kept. A couple of days after his arrest, Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby on national television.
Jack Ruby was a tough night club operator with strong ties to both organized crime and the Dallas police force. It was said that he would not let a cop be charged for a drink in his club, and he was well known by many of them. When Oswald was moved from the Dallas police headquarters to the county jail, Ruby somehow penetrated a secure area of the building and shot Oswald, who died a short time later. Ruby had arrived at the building about five minutes before Oswald was to be escorted out, despite the fact that the move had been delayed by nearly an hour from the officially scheduled time. After the incident, Ruby repeatedly requested to be taken to Washington, DC so that he could safely expose the grand conspiracy that he claimed to be a part of, but his request was denied. He died of cancer about three years later.
The Warren Commission concluded that a single bullet had penetrated both Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally, who was sitting in front of Kennedy in the same car. This "single-bullet theory" was necessary to support the conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin, because Oswald couldn't have fired two shots fast enough to cause those wounds, plus he supposedly fired only three shots, and the other two were accounted for. The bullet that supposedly caused those wounds was found on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital in virtually pristine condition.
Non-conspiracy believers have always accused conspiracy believers of believing far-fetched stories. Yet they themselves would apparently have us believe that nature conspired to fool the naive with a bizarre series of deceptive coincidences. Thus, Posner argues with an almost arrogant confidence that the Warren Commission got it right in finding that Oswald was a lone gunman firing from the rear. His analysis is a fascinating case of fitting facts to a theory rather than vice-versa.
The Zapruder film was deceptive, we are essentially told. Kennedy's head snapped back and to the left at the instant of the head shot, but not because he was hit from his right front, as a naive observer might think. No, he was hit from the rear, and a combination of the "jet effect" and a neuromuscular spasm made his head move by coincidence in the direction seemingly consistent with a shot from the grassy knoll, where so many of the witnesses thought the shots had come from.
The "jet effect" is the idea that the bullet and ejected matter carried away to the front more momentum than the bullet itself had carried in from the rear, causing the head to jerk back toward the the gun at the rear. Though counterintuitive, the basic concept is physically possible. In this case, however, it is difficult to square with the fact that Jackie Kennedy reached back for a piece of skull on the trunk lid of the car (which she still had in her hand at Parkland Hospital), and the fact that many eyewitnesses reported that matter flew to the left rear. In fact, a policemen who was on a motorcycle immediately to Kennedy's left rear at the instant of the head shot had the front of his windshield splattered so hard that he thought he had been hit.
As for the witnesses, Posner attempts to discredit them one by one. Some changed their original story years later, he claims, and some are just after notoriety or money. Nobody doubts that some witnesses may be unreliable, but could nearly all of those in the immediate vicinity of the grassy knoll -- over fifty witnesses -- be wrong? Many insisted emphatically that they not only heard shots from the grassy knoll, but that they saw and smelled gunsmoke there. A deaf man on an adjacent overpass claimed to have seen the shooters pack their rifles and flee from behind the fence on the grassy knoll, and he maintained his account for at least thirty years after the event. Furthermore, if nobody really saw or heard any gunshots from the grassy knoll, why did a couple of policemen and many bystanders run in that direction in an obvious attempt to apprehend the gunmen?
Interestingly, some of the witnesses said that men with what appeared to be official identification had cleared bystanders out from the area behind the fence on the grassy knoll just before the motorcade came by. However, no government agency had personnel officially assigned to that area at that time. Also, three supposed "tramps" were found in a train in the yard behind the fence shortly after the shooting. They were marched down to the police station, questioned, and released. The whole episode was captured on films and photos but, amazingly, all official records of the incident have disappeared.
According to the Warren Commission, Oswald fired only three shots, and Posner claims that a majority of the witnesses heard only three shots. Whether that is true or not, a large number did claim to hear more than three shots. If some of the shots were fired nearly simultaneously from different directions, as many believe, more than three shots could easily have been perceived as three, but that possibility apparently never occurred to Posner. Never mind that the HSCA found, by expert analysis of a police dictabelt recording of the shooting, that at least four shots were indeed fired.
By carefully mapping the acoustic impulse response of Dealey Plaza and comparing it with the dictabelt recording, the experts determined (with 95% confidence) that more than three shots were fired and that at least one of them came from the grassy knoll area. The timing of the shots matched well with the Zapruder film. This startling revelation came just as the HSCA was winding down in the late seventies and essentially forced the government to concede that a conspiracy had occurred. Rather than continue to pursue the matter, however, the HSCA simply blamed the Mafia and immediately dropped the case.
The National Academy of Sciences later set up a panel to review the acoustic data. The panel eventually rejected the earlier conclusion that more than three shots had been fired. However, the head of that panel, a Nobel laureate physicist, had made public statements before the review even began that showed extreme prejudice against the four-shot conclusion.
When copies of the dictabelt recording were later distributed to the public, someone found a previously undetected voice in the background (in a section of the tape that had apparently not been analyzed in detail). The voice was of a policeman directing the search for the assassins, which obviously couldn't have happened until well after the shots were fired. This discovery was widely taken to mean that the supposed shots could not have been shots at all, a notion that Posner concurred with. However, it seems unlikely that random noise could match both the acoustic signature of Dealey Plaza and the timing of the Zapruder film well enough to fool experts. It could be that the crude dictabelt recording device simply slipped or recorded over the shots without completely erasing them. In any event, the notion that the entire case rests on the acoustic data is ridiculous.
As for the Parkland doctors such as McLelland and Crenshaw [Crenshaw], who dispute the autopsy conclusions, they are simply crackpots or publicity seekers, according to Posner. After all, some of the other doctors who publicly disagree with them, such as Perry, said so. Never mind that Perry, who publicly accepts the autopsy conclusions, had originally stated three times on national television that the shots appeared to have come from the front. Posner lectures elsewhere in the book about why the earliest recollections of a witness are usually the most reliable, but in this case he conveniently puts more credence in Perry's statements after he became aware of the autopsy conclusions than before.
Did it not occur to Posner that Perry may be afraid or reluctant to contradict the autopsy conclusions? That possibility should be glaringly obvious to any objective researcher, who would immediately dismiss as useless the statements made by the doctors under great pressure after being told of the autopsy conclusions. In fact, official transcripts show that the Warren Commission had to nearly "pull teeth" to get several of the Parkland Doctors to concede that the shots could have come from the rear. Needless to say, that is not the best way to find the truth.
Posner swallows the single-bullet theory whole, of course. According to this theory, a single bullet went through Kennedy's back, came out his throat, then went through Governor Connally's chest and wrist, breaking dense bones, and finally ended up lodged in his thigh. If a single bullet did not do all that, a second shooter would be implicated because Oswald couldn't have fired two shots that quickly with the crude rifle he supposedly used, and his other two supposed shots were accounted for anyway.
The bullet that supposedly did all that damage was conveniently found on a stretcher in Parkland hospital in nearly pristine condition. Even if that is possible, anyone who knows anything about ballistics knows that it is very unlikely -- another one of those strange occurrences that seem to permeate this case. Furthermore, Connally himself insisted until his death many years later that he was not hit by the same bullet that hit Kennedy in the neck. Additional serious problems with trajectory and timing are too involved to discuss here, but since the magic bullet can defy common sense, should we be surprised that it can also defy the laws of physics?
The autopsy itself has been heavily criticized -- but not by Posner, who is apparently unwilling to question anything that supports his case. It was not done in Texas as it should have been, by law. And the reason for not having the autopsy done at Parkland is unclear, because the doctors assigned were junior military pathologists with virtually no forensic experience. They literally got their initial forensic training on the President of the United States, and they did not do very well. They either forgot or were ordered not to trace the path of the bullets through the body and brain, which would have settled the controversy about the direction of the shots in short order. Their request for access to Kennedy's clothes was denied. They claimed to be unaware of the neck wound until after the autopsy because an emergency tracheotomy had been performed directly over it at Parkland Hospital. The brain, which was supposed to have been preserved and sectioned, has mysteriously disappeared. In short, the autopsy was a travesty by nearly all accounts. This has all been pointed out, along with other glaring deficiencies and discrepancies, by Cyril Wecht, M.D., J.D., a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences [Wecht]. If that does not constitute grounds for suspicion of a coverup, what would?
It gets worse, if that is possible. Robert B. Livingston, MD, claims to have had a telephone conversation with James J. Humes, one of the autopsy physicians, shortly before the autopsy, in which he discussed the neck wound with Humes. But Humes later claimed to be unaware of of the neck wound until after the autopsy, and he used that as his excuse for not tracing the bullet path through the neck wound. Livingston also claims that the autopsy photographs of the brain cannot possibly be of Kennedy's brain. Livingston's claims, though sensational, cannot be simply dismissed. He was the scientific director of the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness at the time of the JFK assassination, and he also founded the first Department of Neurosciences in the world at the University of California in San Diego. In addition, he had extensive experience with gunshot wounds during World War II.
The day before Oswald was shot on national television by Jack Ruby, a press conference was held in the Dallas Police Headquarters in which someone stated erroneously that Oswald was a member of the "Free Cuba Committee." An unidentified man in the background corrected the error, stating that Oswald was actually a member of the "Fair Play for Cuba Committee." The incident seemed insignificant, and nobody cared or paid much attention at the time, but it turned out to be monumentally important. The man who corrected the name of the organization was none other than...Jack Ruby. The incident was broadcast for all to see on national television.
According to the Warren Report and Gerald Posner, Jack Ruby had absolutely nothing to do with the assassination prior to the day he shot Oswald. What, then, was he doing in the Dallas Police Headquarters the day before he shot Oswald? Even if all the other mountains of evidence in this case are dismissed, this single incident blows the lone gunman theory apart and proves the existence of a conspiracy. Perhaps someday you will have the opportunity to see the film of the incident for yourself. If so, pay close attention. The mystery man was Jack Ruby.
Finally, Posner points out that many people are biased in favor of the idea of a conspiracy. No great revelation there. The reason he gives for such a bias, however, is rather silly: reluctance to believe that a lone lunatic could single-handedly stop a great president. More likely, the bias is simply political. Posner neglected to mention, of course, that many other people are biased the opposite way for other political reasons. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out, but apparently it takes more than Posner has to offer.
Given the national embarrassment and civil unrest that an exposed conspiracy could have caused, not to mention the difficulty of tracking down the conspirators, it is obvious that the Warren Commission preferred to find a lone gunman. Did that fact never occur to Posner in his deep ruminations? At least no one can accuse him of trying very hard to hide his own bias.
The bias in Posner's book is obvious by now, but the book is worse than just biased. The following demonstrates that it is fundamentally dishonest.
A few years ago the American Bar Association commissioned Failure Analysis Associates of Menlo Park, California to put on a mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. The trial was intended more as a technology demonstration project than as a search for the truth, but it was taken very seriously nevertheless. Prosecution and defense teams were formed and highly qualified experts were brought in to testify. Sophisticated computer models were developed. The trial was televised on Court TV.
What Posner has done is essentially to put into book form the prosecution case in that mock trial. Roger McCarthy, the CEO of Failure Analysis, has expressed outrage over what he calls "fundamental misrepresentation" by Posner, who mentioned Failure Analysis, but who never bothered to explain the mock-trial project, and who leaves the unsuspecting reader with the distinct impression that he himself had commissioned or directed the work. In reality, Posner had nothing to do with the project. McCarthy even filed an affidavit to that effect.
More importantly, Posner never mentioned that he had borrowed exclusively from the prosecution side of the mock trial and completely ignored the defense side. That would be inexcusable even if Oswald had been convicted, but the ultimate irony is that the mock trial resulted in a hung jury (no deliberations took place), seven to five in favor of acquittal of Oswald! The very title of Posner's book therefore constitutes a bald-faced lie.
It may come as a surprise to many that Oswald was nearly acquitted in his mock trial. After all, the mass media has for decades depicted this as an open and shut case, with Oswald's inevitable conviction a mere formality. Those vigilant watchdogs of civil rights apparently forgot that evidence can be tampered with or concocted outright, and much of it probably was in this case. Yet even if Oswald had been convicted, the existence of a conspiracy would not have been rejected. The media distortion on this issue is so profound that it seems to transcend political and ideological boundaries. In fact, this case is of great interest if for no other reason than what it tells us about the mass media.
What makes Posner's book so interesting is not so much what is written in it as what has been written and said about it. This phony book has been swallowed whole by most of the mass media. It has received more positive media coverage than perhaps all of the honest books on the JFK assassination, combined. It has been widely regarded as the final word on the subject. Full page editorials in major newspapers have smugly said, "See, we told you so," before launching into half-baked psycho-babble about why we want to believe in a conspiracy. One popular weekly news magazine devoted an astounding twenty eight pages to the book, with hardly a whisper of criticism.
Could television networks, newspapers, and popular magazines really be that naive, or is something else going on? Have journalists become so lazy they do not do even their most basic homework anymore? Or could it be that the media is manipulated in some way by the government? That same mass media can be counted on to dub anyone who suspects government involvement in the assassination a paranoid lunatic, but how can any reasonable person who knows the basic facts not be suspicious?
The media distortion on this issue often comes in the form of plain lies. For example, although the Zapruder film was not shown to the public until 1975, Dan Rather watched it and described it on the air on the day after the assassination. When Kennedy was hit in the head, Rather said that his head went forward. Although Kennedy's head did move slightly forward at first, it then snapped violently back and to the left, but Rather said nothing about that. In other words, Dan Rather apparently lied on national television about the motion of Kennedy's head at impact. Why would he do that?
For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination, the PBS series Nova aired an hour-long program called "Who Killed President Kennedy," narrated by Walter Cronkite. On the surface, the show was more balanced and fair than anything done by the commercial networks. The notion of a conspiracy was treated as a respectable hypothesis, though hardly an inescapable conclusion. The unsuspecting viewer had no way of knowing what kind of insidious skullduggery was going on.
For example, in one segment of the Nova program, several of the doctors who had seen Kennedy's wounds at Parkland Hospital were allowed to view secret autopsy X-rays and photographs at the National Archives. They were then asked if any of it was inconsistent with what they had seen in Dallas. Their negative response seemed to squelch any notion of tampered medical evidence. However, Robert Groden [Groden] later interviewed those same doctors, along with some of the autopsy technicians, and found that they had serious problems with some of the official illustrations that were released to the public.
For example, one illustration shows the entire back of Kennedy's head completely intact, whereas the Parkland doctors had virtually all described a major defect in the lower rear (occipital) area. Groden even recorded the doctors on videotape explaining that the illustration had to be phony. Yet, amazingly, Nova somehow managed to miss that angle. Could the Nova staff really be that incompetent?
The third annual ASK conference, a major conference on the JFK assassination, was held near Dealey Plaza in Dallas from November 18-21, 1993. Dr. David Mantik, M.D., Ph.D. (physics) of the Peter A. Lake, M.D., Center in Rancho Mirage, California, proved conclusively by optical densitometry analysis that the JFK autopsy X-rays at the National Archives are phony composites. He also showed that a bullet could not have possibly traversed Kennedy's neck, as the Warren Commission said it did, without also causing major damage to the cervical spine, which it did not. Mantik also found a clear trace of fragments from a second bullet to the brain. As if that weren't enough, he also found an obvious metal object in the skull X-ray that matched the 6.5 mm bullet Oswald supposedly used, but which the autopsy pathologists swore under oath to be unaware of. Mantik's five and seven year old children had no trouble finding the bullet fragment, yet three pathologists supposedly didn't notice it in the X-rays! It was obviously added later to the X-ray in a pathetic attempt to frame Oswald. Mantik's results, along with many other remarkable revelations, are presented in [Fetzer].
Many other researchers have also shown that the Warren Report is a travesty and that the Report of the HSCA is not much better. Yet dozens of top experts in several fields have received less combined coverage than lawyer and media wonderboy Gerald Posner.
When the Warren Commission found that JFK was killed by a lone lunatic, they were conveniently spared the potential major embarrassment of contrary evidence at his trial. When the absurdity of the lone-gunman theory became abundantly clear, the HSCA reluctantly conceded that a conspiracy had occurred, but they blamed it on the Mafia and made absolutely no attempt to track down the conspirators. But could the Mafia dictate the autopsy location and tamper with autopsy illustrations and X-rays?
In the meantime, a covert anti-Castro alliance between the CIA and the Mafia has become public knowledge, as has an elite CIA assassination squad that had its sights mainly on Castro. It is possible that Kennedy himself was unaware of either. The Mafia despised Kennedy because his brother Robert Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general, was vigorously trying to shut them down. And both the Cuban refugees and the CIA widely considered Kennedy a traitor for not ordering air support at the Bay of Pigs. At the same time, Kennedy felt duped by the CIA because they apparently told the refugees that he would order the air support, but they did not bother to check with him. Kennedy publicly threatened to shut down the CIA completely. Given all that, the notion that the CIA assassination squad and the Mafia would not turn its wrath on Kennedy seems almost naive.
Yet the mass media still snubs or ridicules anyone who believes that government officials were involved in a conspiracy to kill JFK. Now they have a new messiah, a hitherto unknown lawyer named Posner, to misrepresent mock trials and boldly lead us back to the glory days of the Warren Commission. The notion that Posner is now the top expert on the Kennedy assassination, or even one of the top fifty, should be an insult to the intelligence of the American people.
Then there are those skeptics who think that conspiracies are too fragile to hold together and that anyone who thinks otherwise is na´ve or paranoid. They apparently didn't notice how many potential witnesses were dying mysteriously. And if anyone knew about a conspiracy, Jack Ruby must have, but he tried in vain for years to tell his story, only to be labeled a crank. How many others like him did we never hear about? The notion that a conspiracy will fall apart the minute one person opens his mouth is absurd. Yet, ironically, those who believe it call others na´ve.
Ironically, the bizarre nature of the assassination plot may have actually helped the conspirators to get away with it. It was just too unbelievable for the skeptics, who did not think such an outrageous crime could be achieved or would even be attempted. When David Lifton [Lifton] wrote about the bizarre shell game that was played with the body and the two coffins at Bethesda, for example, he was regarded by the skeptics as an eccentric at best. But while the skeptics were busy explaining why conspiracies are so fragile, they failed to notice how sloppy the JFK assassination actually was. Were it not for their role in keeping the pressure off of government investigators, the crime might have been solved long ago and their notions about conspiracies corroborated.
Many of the other arguments against a conspiracy are also ridiculous. The point was once made in an essay in a major news weekly, for example, that the government is not competent enough to pull off a complicated conspiracy. The author ridiculed conspiracy believers for believing that a government bureaucracy could pull off the JFK assassination. He is obviously very confused, though, if he thinks that anyone believes it was a bureaucracy that pulled off the assassination. There is no standard form for having the president killed!
This article has of course barely scratched the surface of this infamous episode in American history. The historical importance of the JFK assassination is underrated and its bizarre and intricate plot dwarfs that of almost any work of fiction. The old adage that "truth is stranger than fiction" couldn't apply more than it does in this case. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the whole story, though, is that many Americans don't seem to understand the significance of a coup d'etat from within their own government. It was none other than Thomas Jefferson who said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what never will be."