Kennedy assassination (Forensic Science)
On November 22, 1963, a presidential motorcade set out from Dallas’s Love Field. Inside the lead limousine, an open vehicle, were Texas governor John Connally, and his wife, Nellie, seated on jump seats. Directly behind them was President John F. Kennedy, seated to the right of his wife, Jacqueline. The motorcade headed toward the Texas Trade Mart, where the president was scheduled to speak at 12:30 p.m. As Kennedy’s car approached Dealey Plaza, cheering crowds strained to see the president and those accompanying him. The motorcade, traveling at eleven miles per hour, was about five minutes from its destination. It turned down Elm Street. To the left was Dealey Plaza, and across Elm Street to the right was the Texas School Book Depository, a seven-story brick building. People inside the building lined the windows to view the spectacle below. Crowds filled the grassy knoll beside the Depository.
Three shots—according to most witnesses—were suddenly heard. The president clutched his throat, and his head jerked backward. Jacqueline Kennedy jumped onto the trunk of the limousine, apparently to retrieve a large portion of the president’s skull that had been blown off. The motorcade sped to nearby Parkland Hospital, where valiant attempts were made to revive Kennedy, whose brain was shattered. He was officially declared dead at 1:00 p.m.
The first priority of the law-enforcement authorities was to determine who shot the...
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Application of Forensic Science (Forensic Science)
Investigators determined that Oswald had purchased the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that killed Kennedy on March 12, 1963, from a Los Angeles mail-order company; six weeks earlier, he had bought from the same company the .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver that was used to kill Tippit. Both purchases were made in the name of A. Hidell, and both were shipped to a post office box rented in Oswald’s name. Handwriting analyses confirmed that the orders submitted in the name of A. Hidell were in Oswald’s handwriting.
Questions soon arose concerning whether Oswald acted alone in killing the president or whether he (and possibly Jack Ruby) was part of a conspiracy, perhaps related to organized crime or even to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Forensic psychologists examined possible motivations for Kennedy’s assassination, focusing on political considerations related to such dissident factions as the Mafia, enclaves of Cuban refugees, and others who might wish Kennedy dead.
President Lyndon B. Johnson established a seven-member commission to investigate the assassination. The commission, headed by Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States, studied the forensic evidence on the trajectories of the bullets fired in the assassination and declared that they had entered Kennedy’s body from the back. In its formal report, the Warren Commission conjectured that one of the bullets had ripped through...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Fuhrman, Mark. A Simple Act of Murder: November 22, 1963. New York: William Morrow, 2006. Revives many conspiracy theories that have circulated since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Holland, Max, ed. The Kennedy Assassination Tapes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Reproduces many of Lyndon B. Johnson’s recorded conversations with eminent people following the Kennedy assassination. The dialogues shed light on Johnson’s relationships with members of the Kennedy family, particularly Jacqueline, and demonstrate his animus toward Robert F. Kennedy.
Kurtz, Michael L. The JFK Assassination Debates: Lone Gunman Versus Conspiracy. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2006. Wide-ranging consideration of the Kennedy assassination presents cases for both the lone gunman theory and the conspiracy theory. Includes an excellent chapter on the organized crime connection.
Lane, Mark. Rush to Judgment: A Critique of the Warren Commission’s Inquiry into the Murders of John F. Kennedy, Officer J. D. Tippit, and Lee Harvey Oswald. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Casts considerable doubt on the validity of the Warren Commission Report. Notes the failure of authorities to secure the murder scene sufficiently immediately after the assassination and cites the suppression of forensic evidence, including the loss of certain key pieces, such as bullet, bone, and tissue...
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Kennedy Assassination (World of Forensic Science)
On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was shot and killed while riding in the back seat of a limousine in a motorcade passing through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The shooting occurred at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, just after the president's limousine made a 120-degree left-hand turn off of Houston Street onto Elm Street in front of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Also injured was Texas governor John B. Connally, who was riding in the limousine's front seat directly in front of the president.
The shooting took place over a period of six to nine seconds. Only after the driver of the limousine, Secret Service agent Bill Greer, turned and saw what proved to be the fatal wound to the president's head did he speed up to exit the plaza and head to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the president was pronounced dead in Trauma Room #1 at 1:00 p.m. Just an hour later, after a fifteen-minute argument involving Secret Service agents who were cursing and brandishing their weapons, the agents removed the president's body, in violation of state law because no forensic examination had been conducted. They took the body to Love Field, where it was placed on Air Force One, the president's plane, and flown to Washington, D.C. There, an autopsy was conducted at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Eighty minutes after the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee at the Texas Schoolbook Depository, was arrested for shooting a police officer. That evening he was charged with the murder of the president, but he was never tried for the crime because just two days later, while in police custody, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby. On November 29, a week after the assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson formed a commission headed by Earl Warren, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to investigate the assassination. In September 1964, the Warren Commission issued its report, concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, was the assassin. The commission further concluded that Oswald fired three shots from a window on the sixth floor of the book depository, where three shell casings and the rifle were found; that one shot likely missed the motorcade; that the first shot to hit Kennedy likely hit him in the upper back and exited near the front of his neck, then caused Governor Connally's injuries; and that the second shot to hit the president struck him in the head. All three shots, the commission concluded, came from the same location, above and behind the president.
In the decades following the assassination, the forensic evidence was examined and reexamined by numerous experts, many of whom disputed the Warren Commission findings. They raised troubling questions, many of them focusing on the "grassy knoll," a small sloping hill in front of and slightly to the right (west and north) of the president. Numerous witnesses claim to have heard at least one shot come from the grassy knoll, and photographs taken by people in Dealey Plaza that day give some credence to the claim that another gunman was positioned behind a picket fence on the knoll. These claims appear to have been substantiated by the report of the 19769 House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), which relied on acoustical evidence to conclude that indeed a shot came from the grassy knoll, that Oswald did not act alone, and that he was likely part of a larger conspiracy, although the reach and extent of that conspiracy remain the subject of passionate debate.
A major focus for forensic examiners was the number, sequence, timing, and direction of the fatal shots. Connally sustained his injuries virtually simultaneously with Kennedy having been struck in the neck, raising the question of whether one or two bullets, and hence one or two shooters, caused the injuries to the two men. Standing at the center of the Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald was the lone gunman is the so-called single bullet theory, a theory generally credited to commission member Arlen Specter, later a U.S. Senator. According to the commission, a single 6.5 mm Western Case Cartridge Company bullet, Warren Commission Exhibit 399, caused all of the nonfatal wounds both to Kennedy and, an instant later, to Connally. The single bullet theory was crucial to the commission's conclusion because it precluded the existence of another shooter. Oswald was using a bolt-action rifle, so it would have been impossible for him to fire two shots virtually simultaneously. Two bullets would have meant two gunmen.
The bullet in question was found in Parkland Hospital Trauma Room #2 on a stretcher on which Governor Connally had lain, although even this detail has been disputed. The path the bullet followed was complex, leading critics of the Warren Commission to refer to it not as the single bullet, but as the magic bullet. The commission concluded that it traveled downward at a net angle of 25 degrees and entered the president's back 2 inches (50 mm) to the right of his spine and 5.75 inches (146 mm) below his collar line, leaving a small (4x7 mm) reddish-brown to black abrasion on his collar that suggested that the bullet was traveling slightly upward when it entered his body. It then slightly fractured the sixth cervical vertebra; passed through his neck, shedding fragments; passed through his throat; and exited his body at the bottom edge of the Adam's apple. The bullet then continued on its course, entering Connally's back just below and behind his right armpit. It destroyed a portion of his right fifth rib, exited his body below his right nipple, then entered the outside of his right wrist, possibly striking his cufflink, which was never recovered. It broke his right radius wrist bone, leaving behind metal fragments, then exited the inner side of the wrist, entered the front side of his left thigh, and buried itself 2 inches (50 mm) in his thigh muscle, leaving behind a tiny (1.5 mm) fragment in his thigh bone. This bullet, which had passed through several layers of clothing and flesh and struck two bones, was found in nearly pristine condition, having lost only about 1.5 percent of its weight, after having apparently backed itself out of Connally's thigh.
In ballistics tests conducted with the same type of bullet, the only bullet that survived in a condition similar to the bullet in evidence was one fired into a tube of cotton. These tests, combined with the zigzagging course that the bullet would have had to follow, have led some forensics experts to dispute the single bullet theory, though many others note that a bullet can behave in strange ways when it hits its target and rapidly decelerates. Further, some forensic pathologists assert that the official medical record, both at Parkland and at Bethesda, is a record of inconsistencies, in large part because it was based on testimony not from forensic pathologists with experience examining gunshot wounds, but by emergency room physicians at Parkland and general pathologists at Bethesda. They note, for example, that at least three times the emergency room doctors referred to the wound in Kennedy's neck as an entrance wound rather than an exit wound. Numerous other details
Forensic pathologists have also focused on the second, fatal bullet to the president's head. Their primary purpose was to determine the direction of the bullet and the angle at which it entered the president's head. Normally, a forensic pathologist relies on the beveling of bone, similar to the appearance of glass when a BB has passed through it, to confirm the direction of a bullet when it passes through bone. During the president's autopsy, pathologists had to reconstruct skull fragments, at least one of which is missing, to show that the beveling of the bone establishes that the bullet entered from above and behind, consistent with the conclusion at which the Warren Commission ultimately arrived.
One difficulty that forensics experts faced was reconciling this conclusion with the movement of the president's head and body captured on the so-called Zapruder film, a 26.6-second, 486-frame, 8 mm film shot by amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder from Elm Street as the shots were fired. A frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder film suggests that when the president was struck by the first bullet, he was sitting
A sizable majority of Americans accept the crux of the Warren Commission's findings and regard inconsistencies as inevitable human error. Debate about these and other details suggest the monumental difficulty of establishing a clear, accurate, consistent forensic record of a crime that took place in front of hundreds of witnesses.
SEE ALSO Autopsy; Ballistics; Bullet track.