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Proof: Kennedy Autopsy Was Botched
Single Bullet Theory Exploded

Argosy, July 1967
by Marshall Houts

April 30, 2012
Lorie Kramer

Dr. Milton Helpern, America's greatest gunshot expert, speaks out.

This is a transcription of the article in the July 1967 issue of Argosy magazine.
 To facilitate study, the referenced frames in the Zapruder film,
 and Warren Commission exhibits have been linked.

Dr. Milton Helpern, World's Greatest Expert on Gunshot Wounds, Speaks Out:

1. The Warren Commission Botched the Kennedy Autopsy
2. Warren Commission One-Bullet Theory Exploded

For the first time, a man who really knows what he's talking about analyzes the gunshots that killed the President.

FOR the past three years, whenever Dr. Milton Helpern has discussed the subject of bullet wounds in the body, he has been asked for his opinion on President Kennedy's assassination.

Those who are knowledgeable about the subject of bullet wounds listen to what he has to say with a respect that borders on reverence. As Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, he has either performed or supervised approximately 60,000 autopsies; and 10,000 of these have involved gunshot wounds in the body. The New York Times has said that "he knows more about violent death than anyone else in the world."

No one can come close to matching his vast experience with bullet wounds. Dr. Helpern's book, "Legal Medicine, Pathology and Toxicology," was cited as the standard reference work on the subject by Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Finck, one of the doctors who assisted in the autopsy on President Kennedy's body, in his testimony before the Warren Commission.

It now seems incredible that Dr. Helpern's opinion was not one of the first sought when the official investigation into the President's death was launched. It has not yet been asked for, either officially or unofficially, by anyone connected with the Warren Commission.

"The Warren Commission," Dr. Helpern says, shaking his head sadly, "was a tragedy of missed opportunities for forensic medicine. Its entire approach to the problems of the President's wounds shows a total lack of familiarity with the subject. The Warren Commission had an opportunity to settle, once and for all, a great many of the confusing doubts, but because none of its members or its legal staff had any training or knowledge in forensic medicine, those opportunities fell by the wayside. It is tragic! Really tragic!"

Almost every week, Dr. Helpern plays host to some official visitor from a foreign country whose specialty is forensic medicine, and invariably the subject of the assassination comes up.

"I am continually amazed," he says, "at the refusal of the Europeans to accept the conclusions of the Warren Commission as being fact. Millions of Europeans apparently still feel strongly that the Commission report was nothing but a whitewash of some kind to cover up a vicious conspiracy. My friends in forensic medicine who have read the report in detail - and it seems that most of them have - simply cannot believe that the examination and evaluation of the President's bullet wounds could have been handled in the manner which the report describes.

"I am talking now only about the medical evaluation of the bullet wounds themselves, nothing else. The FBI certainly did a commendable job on the other phases of the case, but the FBI had to rely entirely on the medical information furnished it by the three doctors who performed the autopsy. The FBI does not have its own experts in forensic medicine. There is no reason for them to have. The FBI undoubtedly has had more experience with firearms identification - that is, matching a particular bullet to a particular gun - than any other agency in the world; but the FBI is seldom called upon to investigate a murder. Murder is a crime which usually involves a state jurisdiction only. Bullet wounds in the body are not the FBI's long suit."

[EDITOR'S NOTE: And so is death by poisoning. In April, Dr. Helpern won a toe-to-toe confrontation with the nation's top criminal lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, when Dr. Carl A. Coppolino was convicted in Naples, Florida, of murdering his wife, Carmela. Dr. Helpern and his assistants convinced a jury that Dr. Coppolino had injected a lethal dose of succinylcholine chloride, a muscle-relaxing drug, into Carmela's left buttock. The result was death by suffocation.

Bailey's effort to counter the testimony of Dr. Helpern and his assistants with experts of his own proved futile.]

Even allowing for the vagaries of individual bullet wounds, it has been possible to formulate some general principles which permit the experienced forensic pathologist to be reasonably accurate in his calculations. Regardless of the number or position of the bullet wounds in the body in a given case, the first step is to determine whether each wound is a wound of entrance or a wound of exit.

When a bullet strikes the skin, it first produces a simple indentation, because the skin is both tough and elastic, and the tissues underneath are not rigid and resistant. This stretches the skin immediately under the nose of the bullet. The bullet, which is rotating as well as moving forward, is definitely slowed up at this point of first contact, but it then more or less bores its way through the skin and the tissues underneath, and courses on into the body. The skin is stretched by the bullet at the point at which it passes through; it then returns to its former condition, so that the size of the wound of entrance appears to be smaller than the diameter of the bullet which made it. Usually, there is only a small amount of bleeding from wounds of entrance, since tissue destruction at this point is not great. These rules apply to bullet wounds that are the result of the gun being fired at distances in excess of twenty-four inches. A different set of rules applies when the gun is held in direct contact with the skin or is fired from a distance less than twenty-four inches.

Wounds of exit, on the other hand, are usually larger than the bullet, since the bullet tends to pack tissues in front of it. These wounds are ragged, torn, and sometimes have shreds of fat or other internal tissues extruding from them. As a result, wounds of exit may bleed far more extensively than wounds of entrance. This, however, is not invariably the case.

"You always are guided by the general rules that apply to bullet wounds." Dr. Helpern says, "but you must also be on guard for the bizarre, the unusual, the once-in-a-million case, the wounds that, to the novice, seem to defy physical laws. It is not a job for the beginner or the man whose knowledge is limited to a lecture or two, or to what he has read in some article or textbook."

To fully appreciate the gravity of Dr. Helpern's observations on the medical facts of President Kennedy's death, it is necessary to go back to the historic day of Friday, November 22, 1963.

Sometime between twelve-thirty p.m., when the tragedy struck in Dallas, and the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base just outside of Washington at five-fifty-eight p.m., Mrs. Kennedy decided that the autopsy on her husband's body should be performed at the Naval Medical School in Bethesda, Maryland. She was given two choices: either the Army's Walter Reed Hospital or Bethesda. She selected the Naval Medical School because of the President's World War II service in the Navy.

Certainly, Mrs. Kennedy could not be expected to have any knowledge of forensic medicine; and in her hour and the nation's hour of shock and bereavement, she made a logical choice. The point that disturbs Dr. Helpern, however, is the fact that the choice was left to her. It was not only an unpleasant, additional personal burden which should have been spared her, but it indicates as well the total lack of understanding of the subject of forensic medicine.

"It shows," he says, "that we are still laboring under the delusion that an autopsy is a computerized, mathematical type of procedure, and that any doctor is capable of performing it, especially if he is a pathologist. If he can run a correct urinalysis, ergo this automatically qualifies him as an expert on bullet wounds in the body.

There can be no doubt but that this fallacious assumption was the real spawning ground for the contagious rash of anti-Warren Commission books that have poured out during the past three years. Their genesis can be traced directly to what was done and not done in a single operating room in the Naval Medical School in the evening hours of Friday, November 22, 1963.

The autopsy was performed by Commander James J. Humes, assisted by Commander J. Thornton Boswell and Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Finck.

In testimony before the Warren Commission, Commander Humes, director of the Naval Medical School at the Navy Medical Center at Bethesda, established himself as a qualified pathologist. He admitted, though, that his practice had been "more extensive in the field of natural disease than violence."

In short, the author says, "Humes was a 'hospital' pathologist, rather than a forensic or medico-legal pathologist."

The hospital pathologist performs his autopsies on cases where death occurs in a hospital, usually as a result of some disease and where the cause of death can be presumed. It is generally performed to confirm a diagnosis.

A forensic pathologist, on the other hand, performs autopsies usually where death is not attended by a physician. In these cases, a pathologist often follows misleading, frustrating clues. His work is much trickier, since cause of death is often crucial to subsequent legal action.

"The 'hospital' pathologist," the author says, "is as much out of his field when he attempts a medico-legal autopsy as is the chest surgeon who attempts a delicate brain operation."

The Warren Commission did not attempt to establish the expertise of Commander Boswell in gunshot wounds, the author says, because "he had absolutely none worthy of mention." Commander Boswell was chief of pathology at the Naval Medical School.

Colonel Finck, who was then chief of the Wound Ballistics Pathology branch of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, told the Warren Commission that he had personally performed about 200 autopsies for the Army in Frankfurt, Germany, while serving there from 1955 to 1958. In his current capacity, he said, he had personally reviewed 400 autopsies.

But he was vague on the number of bullet-wound cases in his 200 personally performed autopsies, except to say that there were "many." Moreover, the fact that he reviewed 400 cases did not mean that he "presided at the autopsy table and attempted a personal evaluation of whether a bullet a wound of entrance or a wound of exit."

The author says that Colonel Finck was perhaps the most qualified of the three who performed the autopsy on the President, but adds that his experience was mostly "supervisory and administrative."

The men were accomplished in their respective fields of general pathology, the author sadly concludes, but their field "was not bullet wounds in the body."

One of the key aspects of the autopsy was to determine whether the front neck wound was one of entrance or exit. If it was an entry wound, then a second assassin was indicated.

Unfortunately, this was difficult to determine, since Dr. Malcolm O. Perry had performed a tracheotomy at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas in a futile attempt to save the President's life, thus obscuring the neck wound. At no time in Dallas was the body turned over to look for a corresponding wound in the back, and therefore the front neck wound was assumed to be an entrance wound.

The difficulties encountered by the autopsy surgeons were compounded by the fact that Commander Humes first talked to Dr. Perry the morning after the autopsy, when the body was already resting in the White House. Thus they had worked under the assumption that there were only three bullet wounds - the two in the head and the one in the back of the neck, since they attributed the one in the front of the neck to the tracheotomy.

They thus assumed, in their "inexperienced efforts" to probe the neck wound, that a third bullet had been found on a stretcher at Parkland, they abandoned their search.

In testimony before the Warren Commission, Commander Humes expressed no doubt that the wound in the throat was a wound of exit - even though the only ones who saw the original wound were the doctors in Dallas. And this was before they made the tracheotomy that extended the wound.

In other testimony, both Dr. Perry and Dr. Charles S. Carrico, resident surgeon at Parkland, said they could not determine whether the wound was one of entrance or exit. "It could have been either," Dr. Carrico said.

This was the testimony that satisfied the Commission and permitted it to conclude that "the findings of the doctors who conducted the autopsy were consistent with the observations of the doctors who treated the President at Parkland Hospital."

"The tragic, tragic thing," Dr. Halpern explains in summarizing his comments on the medico-legal aspects of President Kennedy's death, "is that a relatively simple case was horribly botched up from the very beginning; and then the errors were compounded at almost every other step along the way. Here is a historic event that will be discussed and written about for the next century, and gnawing doubts will remain in many minds, no matter what is done or said to dispel them."

What were these step-by-step errors?

"I've already touched on the gravest of them all - the selection of a 'hospital' pathologist to perform a medico-legal autopsy. This stemmed from the mistaken belief that because a man can supervise a laboratory or perform a hospital autopsy to see whether a patient died from emphysema or heart disease, he is qualified to evaluate gunshot wounds to the body. It's like sending a seven-year-old boy who has taken three lessons on the violin over to the New York Philharmonic and expecting him to perform a Tchaikovsky symphony. He knows how to hold the violin and bow, but he has a long way to go before he can make music."

Does this observation apply to Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Finck?

"Colonel Finck's position throughout the entire proceeding was extremely uncomfortable. If it had not been for him, the autopsy would not have been handled as well as it was; but he was in the role of the poor bastard Army child foisted into the Navy family reunion. He was the only one of the three doctors with any experience with bullet wounds; but you have to remember that his experience was limited primarily to 'reviewing' files, pictures and records of finished cases. There's a world of difference between standing at the autopsy table and trying to decide whether a hole in the body is a wound of entrance or a wound of exit, and in reviewing another man's work at some later date in the relaxed, academic atmosphere of a private office. I know, because I've sweated out too many of these cases during the past thirty-five years. Colonel Finck is extremely able in the type of administrative work which has been assigned him over the years."

Are there any crucial steps that should have been taken that were omitted that Friday evening in the autopsy room at the Naval Medical School?

"The major problem in any gunshot case, of course, is to determine which is the wound of entry and which the wound of exit. This is basic. All the so-called critics of the Warren Commission Report would be left dangling in mid-air with their mouths gaping unless they can suggest or argue that the hole in the front of the President's throat was a wound of entrance. Deprive them of this opportunity for speculation and you pull the rug right out from under them. Give it to them - and they now have it - and they can bring in all kinds of unreliable eyewitness reports of shots coming from the bridge across the underpass, or from behind the screen of trees in Dealey Plaza, and puffs of blue smoke that remained suspended in the air with police officers scrambling up the bank to investigate these illusory puffs of smoke. Smoke from gunshots just doesn't behave like that."

Specifically, how could a positive determination have been made at the time of the autopsy that the throat wound was a wound of exit or a wound of entrance?

"In a great many cases, the only safe way to reach a conclusive decision is to compare the size and characteristics of each wound on the end of the wound track. It's easy for textbook writers and their readers to assert pontifically that the wound of exit is always larger than the wound of entrance, and the wound of exit is ragged whereas the wound of entry is smooth, so that you have no difficulty in taking a gross, eyeball look and saying, 'this is the entry wound' or 'that is the exit wound.'  This isn't true at all. The difference between the entry wound and the exit wound is frequently a lot more subtle than that.  Many of the wounds require careful and painstaking study before you can reach a decision."

But wasn't the throat wound gone at the time of the autopsy?  In one place, the Warren Commission Report states: "At that time they [the autopsy surgeons] did not know that there had been a bullet hole in the front of the President's neck when he arrived at Parkland Hospital because the tracheotomy incision had completely eliminated that evidence."  At another point, the report says: "...since the exit wound was obliterated by the tracheotomy."

"No, you see, the staff members who wrote that portion of the report simply did not understand their medical procedures; and they did not know enough to seek medical guidance.  Here's what the autopsy protocol says about this throat wound; ' was extended as a tracheotomy incision and thus its character is distorted at the time of autopsy.'  The key word here is extended.  That bullet wound was not 'eliminated' or 'obliterated' at all.  What Dr. Perry did was to take his scalpel and cut a clean slit away from the wound.  He didn't excise it or cut away any huge amount of tissue, as the report writer would have you believe."

What about the description in the autopsy protocol that "its character is distorted"?

"Certainly, its character is distorted in the sense that the original wound was extended in length by Dr. Perry's scalpel; but this throat wound could still have been evaluated.  Its edges should have been carefully put back together and restored to their original relationships as nearly as possible.  It should have then been studied and finally photographed.  By comparing this throat wound with the wound in the back of the neck, there should have been no room for doubt as to which wound was of entry and which of exit.  This would automatically establish the course of the bullet, whether from front to back, or back to front."

Why wasn't this procedure followed?

"I can't crawl into the minds of the surgeons and answer for them.  I can only offer my own speculative opinion.  In the first place, their lack of experience deprived them of the knowledge of what should have been done.  Secondly, it appears from every facet of the evidence now available that at the time they finished their autopsy and closed the body so that it could be prepared for burial, they labored under the illusion that the hole in the back of the neck was both a wound of entrance and a wound of exit.  They thought the throat wound was nothing more than a surgical wound, so there was no need to pay it any special attention."

Are there any other procedures followed by the autopsy surgeons that have furnished ammunition to the critics of the Warren Commission Report?

"Unfortunately, there are.  The phrasceology in the formal autopsy protocol itself implies or suggests that the doctors still harbored doubts and uncertainties at the time it was written.  In speaking of the neck wounds, the protocol describes them as 'presumably of entry' and 'presumably of exit.'  It says: 'As far as can be ascertained, this missile struck no bony structure in its path through the body.'  Well, that just doesn't read like the work of men in confident command of their ship.

Neck bullet nicked President's tie in passing.

"On the other side of the coin, the writers of the Warren Commission Report went to the opposite extreme when they tried to force unanimity of opinion on all the doctors at Parkland Hospital in support of the autopsy surgeons that the throat wound had to be a wound of exit.  When you put too much tension on the evidence, by pulling and tugging on it, in an effort to mold it to the shape of a preconceived conclusion, you leave yourself pretty vulnerable."

What about Commander Humes burning his original notes of his draft of the autopsy protocol?

"It's extremely unfortunate that he did; but I interpret this only as further evidence of his lack of experience in medico-legal situations.  I can't believe that there's anything sinister about it as some of the critics would have you believe.  Commander Humes simply did not appreciate that this was not just another hospital autopsy and that every note or memorandum should be saved for later scrutiny."

Some of the critics of the Warren Commission Report have attempted to bolster their attacks by alleging that Commander Boswell's drawing (a portion of Commission Exhibit 397) shows the bullet wound in the back of the neck as being down about the level of the shoulder blades.  Is this significant?

"It's significant in that it demonstrates the total ignorance of the critics in the matter of autopsy procedures.  We don't need to spend any time on trivia like this; but for information, this is simply part of the work sheet.  It contains two purely schematic drawings of the human figure, one front and one rear, in what is known as the 'anatomic position.'  The doctor doing the autopsy uses them as a shorthand way of making notes on what he observes during his external examination of the body.  Commander Boswell sketched in a number of observations, including the surgical scars, the old scar from the President's back operation and the bullet holes.  No one ever pretends that these markings are drawn to scale.  To take the time to do this would defeat the entire purpose of this shorthand way of making notes.  The written material in the autopsy protocol is what matters."

Some critics have alleged some sort of duplicity because an FBI report dated December 9, 1963, and another one dated January 13, 1964, apparently contain information which is not consistent with the formal autopsy protocol.

"This is more trivia and underbrush.  What difference does it make what these two FBI reports said?  The controlling factor insofar as the medico-legal phase of the investigation is concerned is the autopsy protocol itself.  There was undoubtedly conversation going on in the autopsy room. The FBI agent there probably heard the doctors agonizing over their inability to find the bullet.  He observed them trying to probe the neck wound.  He heard their speculations that the hole in the back of the neck was both a wound of entrance and a wound of exit.  To me, all that these particular FBI reports show is exactly what we have mentioned before : at the time the autopsy was finished, the doctors thought they were dealing with only three bullet holes, two in the head and one in the back of the neck."

Where did the Warren Commission, as distinguished from the autopsy surgeons, fail to clarify the medical issues of the President's death?

"It failed tragically because it did not have sufficient knowledge in the field of forensic medicine to even appreciate the need to call in an expert with experience in bullet wounds in the body.  This lack of knowledge is evident in the official report itself.  For example, it contains thousands of exhibits in eleven volumes.  They include all sorts of meaningless pictures of Marina Oswald.  Oswald's mother, Oswald as a young boy.  Jack Ruby's employees or girl friends in varying states of attire, and nine X-rays of Governor Connally's body.

"The X-rays of President Kennedy's body, however, were not considered significant enough to the entire investigation to be filed as exhibits to the report.  The same holds true of the black and white and the color pictures of the bullet wounds.  These were never seen by the Commission members, its staff, or even the autopsy surgeons before the report was finalized.  The Commission members, its staff, or even the autopsy surgeons before the report was finalized.  The Commission said it would not 'press' for the X-rays and photographs because these would merely 'corroborate' the findings of the doctors, and that considerations of 'good taste' precluded these from being included.

"Well, you see, there was nothing that offended 'good taste' in the nine X-rays of Governor Connally's body [Commission Exhibit 691]; so this great curtain of secrecy that was pulled down on the X-rays and pictures of the President's body added more explosive fuel to the fire of doubt.  There have been intimations that these X-rays and pictures had gone the way of Commander Humes' notes; and it was only after considerable public pressure built up that the pictures and X-rays were turned over to the National Archives by the Kennedy family in November of 1966; but they are still shrouded by this great curtain of secrecy.  Secrecy is the natural culture medium for suspicion."

View back of President Kennedy's coat showing bullet hole (see insert)

Why didn't the examination by the Navy doctors of the X-rays and pictures in November of 1966, still the doubts of the critics?

"Let's come back to our analogy of the seven-year-old violin player.  We sit him down in front of an electronic microscope and ask him what he sees on a slide.  He says: 'I don't see anything.'  We then jump to the conclusion that there is nothing there because an inexperienced eye can't see anything there."

What might these X-rays show to an experienced observer that could have been completely overlooked by the nonexpert expert?

"Who knows? Probably absolutely nothing.  I don't like to engage in rank, blind speculation; so I can only explain how I would approach them.  My first interest would be to see whether there could be another bullet or fragment of bullet in the body which has not been accounted for. 

"Remember that the Warren Commission concluded that the preponderance of the evidence indicated that three shots altogether were fired.  Only one relatively intact bullet and the fragments of a second bullet were found.  This leaves a missing third bullet.  I definitely do not agree with the Commission's conclusion that only two bullets cause all the wounds suffered by President Kennedy and Governor Connally; but we'll pass that for the moment.

"Since the X-rays of the President's body were not filed as exhibits, we must rely entirely upon the observations of the Navy doctors that they skillfully eliminated the possibility that a third bullet, or a fragment of some bullet, did not enter the body and somehow meander down to come to rest in some illogical remote spot.  Apparently, the doctors did not feel confident enough to rely on the X-rays during the autopsy when they went probing, for the bullet that was found on the stretcher in Parkland Hospital.  They have now been quoted publicly as saying that they did have the X-rays available to them that night.  Bullets do have a funny habit of showing up in the most astounding places in the body.

"I would also look for trace flecks of metal that might indicate another head wound.  This possibility is extremely remote; but it still exists.  Often, quite often, wounds of entrance in the head are completely overlooked because they are covered naturally by the hair.  The wound may barely bleed at all.  If you don't take a comb and go over the entire scalp, inch by inch, separating the hair carefully and meticulously, it's easy to miss a head wound entirely.  There is no evidence that this type of examination was made."

Holes in President's bloodstained shirt show where bullet presumably came out.

Would the X-rays help establish whether the two wounds in the neck area were wounds of entrance or of exit?

"No, I would not expect them to be of help on this question."

What about the black and white and the color photographs?

"These could be of considerable interest and value.  A lot would depend on their quality and how they were exposed.  Hopefully, they could shed considerable light on the neck wounds.  I would, of course, be interested in what the pictures of the rear neck wound would show; but I would be particularly interested in seeing whether the pictures of the throat wound are good enough to permit it to be evaluated and possibly reconstructed."

Where else can the Warren Commission be faulted for what it did or failed to do?

"Again, it committed a grievous error of omission by failing to call in someone who knew something about bullet wounds in the body.  This led them into the final trap of buying Assistant Counsel Arlen Specter's theory that the same bullet which passed through the President's neck was the bullet that also wounded Governor Connally, shattering his fifth rib, fracturing a bone in the wrist and finally coming to rest in his thigh.  Now, this bizarre path is perfectly possible. When you are working with bullet wounds, you must begin with the premise that anything is possible; but Mr. Specter and the Commission overlooked one important ingredient.

"The original, pristine weight of this bullet before it was fired was approximately 160 to 161 grains.  The weight of the bullet recovered on the stretcher in Parkland Hospital (Commission Exhibit 399) was reported by the Commission as 158.6 grains.  This bullet wasn't distorted in any way.  I cannot accept the premise that this bullet thrashed around in all that bony tissue and lost only 1.4 to 2.4 grains of its original weight.  I cannot believe, either, that this bullet is going to emerge miraculously unscathed, without any deformity, and with its lands and grooves intact."

Bullet recovered from stretcher in hospital was undistorted and lost no lead.

Does this shed any light on the other of the shots?

"In my opinion, this was the first bullet that was fired.  It passed through the President's neck, exited from the throat wound. and was stopped by his clothing. I've seen this exact thing happen hundreds of times.  Remember that, next to bone, the skin offers greater resistance to a bullet in its course through the body than any other tissue.  The energy of the bullet is sometimes spent so that it can't quite get out through the final layer of skin, and it comes to rest just beneath the outside layer of skin.  If it does get through the skin, it may not have enough energy to penetrate even an undershirt or a light cotton blouse.  It has exhausted itself and more or less plops to a stop."

What about the Commission's conclusion that this bullet was found on Governor Connally's stretcher in Parkland Hospital?

"It's based on tortured evidence, or inconclusive evidence, to say the least.  No one will ever know for sure which stretcher this bullet came from.  In my opinion, the probabilities are that it fell out of the President's clothing while the doctors were administering to him in the hospital.  For the sake of argument, however, let's assume that it was found on the Governor's stretcher.  This still does not rule out the premise that it was the first bullet that passed through the President's neck.  That spent bullet could just as easily have taken an erratic jump out of the President's clothing and lodged in Governor Connally's clothing.  These things happen with bullets.  Sometimes they get through the final layer of skin and hop limply about at all arcs of the circle and at all angles to the wound of exit."

Do you agree with Governor Connally that he was struck by the second bullet?

"Yes, I definitely do.  His testimony is most persuasive.  I just can't buy this theory that this beautifully preserved first bullet which passed through the President's neck also got tangled up with the Governor's rib and wrist bones.  In my opinion, the second bullet, which wounded Governor Connally, is the one that is missing."

And the third?

"The third one quite obviously is the one that caused the President's massive head wound, and his death.  Also, either a fragment from this bullet, or a piece of skull, caused the cracking of the windshield and the dent in the windshield chrome on the interior of the limousine, provided these marks on the car were not already present at the time the shooting began."

Assistant Counsel Arlen Specter's creation of the theory that a "single bullet" passed through the area of the President's neck and went on to inflict all of Governor Connally's wounds was necessitated, so he thought, by the Zapruder movie.  This "one-bullet" theory is perhaps the most amateurish conclusion in the entire Warren Commission Report, and regrettably, it permits the brand of "doubtful" to cloud the genuine, bona fide Commission findings.

Abraham Zapruder is now undoubtedly the most famous amateur movie photographer in all history.  As he stood in Dealey Plaza aiming his home movie camera in an easterly direction, he caught and recorded the Presidential motorcade as it proceeded north on Houston Street, to make its turn west on Elm Street.  This innocent, famous home movie ended up by leading Mr. Specter and the Warren Commission into an unfortunate trap.

Even those who have purported to study the work of the Commission in considered hindsight are still mesmerized by the beguiling and misleading power of the Zapruder movie.  For example, in its November 25, 1966 issue, "Life" magazine innocently perpetuates the error.  Its article reads: "Of all the witnesses to the tragedy, the only unimpeachable one is the 8-mm movie camera of Abraham Zapruder, which recorded the assassination in sequence.  Film passed through the camera at 18.3 frames a second, a little more than a twentieth of a second (.055 seconds) for each frame.  By studying individual frames, one can see what happened at every instant and measure precisely the interval between events."

The error that trapped the Warren Commission as well as "Life" magazine is that there is nothing at all precisely measured by the Zapruder film.

The nearest thing to a precise, objective event which the film records is at Frame 313, which shows the President's skull exploding as a result of the bullet that passed through his head.  Every other item purportedly measured by the Zapruder film is imprecise because it must be evaluated and speculated upon through factors and calculations which involve unknown quantities.

One of the most common pitfalls in any investigation is the 'timetable trap."  The investigator becomes mesmerized by either a clock or a calendar and ends up with a conclusion that two and two are five, or that some Florida oranges are red because Washington Delicious apples are also red.  This is exactly what happened to Mr. Specter who, unfortunately, was able to sell his erroneous theory to the Commission.

Tests showed Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano rifle required 2.3 seconds between shots.

Some time after the investigation into the President's death began, the FBI staged a mock re-enactment of the assassination, which was geared to and scripted by the Zapruder movie.  An FBI agent was stationed in the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository Building with a camera geared to the telescope lens of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found at this same window minutes after the assassination.  An effort was made to synchronize the Zapruder movie with what the assassin presumably saw from his point of vantage at the sixth-floor window as the Presidential caravan moved along its historic route.

It had previously been determined that the Zapruder camera ran at the speed of 18.3 pictures or frames per second.  The timing of certain events, therefore, could be calculated by allowing 1/18.3 seconds for the action depicted from one frame to the next.  Other tests had also determined that this Mannlicher-Carcano rifle required a minimum of 2.3 seconds between each shot fired.

Each frame of the Zapruder film was given a number, Number 1 beginning where the motorcycles leading the motorcade came into view on Houston Street, Combining the FBI re-enactment with the Zapruder movie, it was concluded that the assassin had a clear view of the President from his sixth-floor window as the limousine moved up Houston Street, and for an additional one hundred feet as the Presidential car proceeded west on Elm Street.  At a point denoted as Frame 166 on the Zapruder film, the assassin's view of the President became obstructed by the foliage of a large oak tree.*

*One of the most incredible statements of the entire report appears on page 97: "On May 24, 1964, agents of the FBI and Secret Service conducted a series of tests to determine as precisely as possible what happened on November 22, 1963.... The agents ascertained that the foliage of an oak tree that came between the gunman and his target along the motorcade route on Elm Street was approximately the same as on the day of the assassination."  The report does not say how this was "ascertained."

The President's back reappeared into view through the telescopic lens on the rifle for a fleeting instant at Frame 186.  This momentary view was permitted by an opening in the leaves of the tree; but they closed to again obscure the view of the President's back through the telescopic sight until the car emerged from behind the tree at Frame 210.

The Commission implies that one of the difficulties in interpreting the Zapruder film is that the President's car begins to disappear behind a road sign reading "Stemmons Freeway Right Lane" at approximately Frame 193.  At Frame 206, the President's hand is still raised as he disappears behind the street sign.  He reappears in the film at Frame 225.  As a matter of fact, it is really not essential to the evidential value of the film whether the President was or was not out of sight for some 30 to 32 frames.

There are those who viewed the Zapruder movie who thought that the President looked as if he was hit through the neck when he reappeared from behind the street sign at Frame 234.  "Life" summarizes the subjective factor of interpretation by saying: "Specter sees Connally wincing in Frame 230.  'Life' photo interpreters think he looks unharmed, as does Connally himself."

Still, Mr. Specter labored under the illusion that the Zapruder movie gave him a stop-watch precision measurement of events that took place , not in the Presidential limousine, but in the Texas School Book Depository Building over one hundred feet back up Elm Street.

Mr. Specter did not believe that he could solve of orienting the Zapruder movie to the minimum time required to fire two shots from the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle without adopting the "one-bullet" theory.  The 2.3 seconds required to fire two shots from the rifle worked out to 42.09 frames of the Zapruder movie.  Even assuming that the President had been hit in the neck while he was behind the street sign at, say, Frame 210, it would not be possible for a second shot to be fired until Frame 252.09.

This presented a difficult impasse, provided the "timetable" supplied by the Zapruder movie was correct.  Mr. Specter assumed that this "timetable" was accurate and then adopted the "one-bullet" theory to get around its limitations.  Otherwise, he was faced with the awkward admission that two guns were used instead of one.

His better procedure would have been to carefully analyze his "timetable" in an effort to understand exactly what he was working with.  By beginning with Frame 313 - the only objective point of reference in the entire film where the picture of the President's exploding skull was recorded - we can set up a reverse timetable by working backward (See box below):


What does this reverse timetable prove?  It proves exactly the same thing as the forward timetable of the Zapruder film - which is exactly nothing.  Nothing is proved because we do not know when the President and Governor Connally were struck by the first and second bullets.  There is absolutely nothing in the frames of the movie to give us any precise measurement.  In the first place, we are in a quandary of  uncertainty as to when the President and the Governor "reacted" to their respective wounds.  It has already been clearly established that different observers of the Zapruder film have reached different opinions as to when these "reactions" took place.  We are dealing with subjective evaluation, which completely kicks out the concept of any precise "timetable."

The next great error that was committed in attempting to use the Zapruder film as a "timetable" was the assumption that the President and the Governor would have some visible reaction to their wounds at almost the exact instant that the wounds were sustained.  There is absolutely nothing in medicine to indicate that this assumption is correct.  As a matter of fact, what is known about reaction time generally indicates that the assumption may not be correct at all.

It must readily be admitted that the reaction time of any person to a bullet wound is a purely speculative entity.  No one has yet conducted a series of experiments so that a set of rules governing reaction time to bullet wounds can be formulated.

Studies have been made of certain other types of reaction time in the field of automobile-accident reconstruction where elaborate tests have been given to drivers under controlled conditions.  It has been established that between the time the driver perceives a dangerous event and the time that he applies his brakes or begins other evasive action, an average reaction period of two-thirds to three-quarters of a second elapses.  In some individuals, this reaction time is well over one full second.  There is always some "drag" or reaction time involved between the stimulus and the reaction to stimulus. This is true, even though this type of stimulus is something that the driver has been conditioned to expect and which he must anticipate by the nature of the testing situation.

No one knows whether there is an analogy between driver reaction time and bullet-wound reaction time.  It can be argued plausibly that driver reaction time involves a conscious thinking process, whereas the reaction of the body to a bullet is more nearly analogous to an autonomic, reflex type of action.  There are, however, hundreds of reported cases in which the person shot apparently does not realize that he has been shot for a period of several minutes.  He may continue to perform a number of complex, highly co-ordinated functions for a substantial period of time before collapsing to lose consciousness or to die.

Furthermore, Governor Connally's reaction time to his wounds may have been hit at Frame 230 of the Zapruder film.  He may have "reacted" immediately, so that his "reaction" can still be observed by viewers of the movie.  this does not mean at all that the President could not have been shot through the neck before Frame 166 when his back disappeared behind the leaves of the oak tree, or at Frame 186 when his back reappeared momentarily, and his observable reactions appear on the movie after Frame 225 when the President emerges from behind the road sign.

There is absolutely nothing in the "open-end" Zapruder movie "timetable" to rule out the possibility or even the probability that the President was shot through the neck before Frame 166.  The error in using the Zapruder film was in the assumption that the President would have to "react" instantaneously to the neck wound in such a manner that his reaction could be observed in the movie. The Zapruder film is not really a "timetable" after all, because it can help establish the "location" of only one "station" along the "railroad."  It does not help us pinpoint the other two important stations, nor does it tell us when the train got there.  We can use the Zapruder "timetable" to conclude that the train got to one station probably no later than Frame 225.  It reached the second station no later than Frame 234.  We cannot tell from the Zapruder film what the train was doing before these two locations, or even where our floating stations one and two are located.

It was not necessary for Mr. Specter to devise, nor for the Commission to buy, the "one-bullet" theory to eliminate the necessity of adopting the embarrassing premise that two rifles were used to do the shooting instead of one.

Dr. Helpern's theory of three separate bullets causing three separate wounds, two in the President's body and one in Governor Connally, is not at all inconsistent with the Zapruder movie when the movie is properly interpreted as being nothing more than an open-end, one-station timetable where the separate elements of time, distance and location have been confused.

What about the "wound ballistics experiments" conducted at the Edgewood Arsenal?

"Well," Dr. Helpern responds, shaking his head in disbelief, "the mere fact that they felt constrained to perform these tests in the first place shows a total lack of knowledge on the subject of bullet wounds in the body.  They went down there and tried to rig up dummies that would simulate the President's head and neck area.  They took human skulls, filled them with gelatin and covered them with goatskin and hair.  They rigged up a dummy with gelatin and animal meat to simulate the neck area of his body.  Then they got a goat to simulate Governor Connally's body.  They took the rifle found in the Texas School Book Depository Building and began firing into these dummies.  All they proved was that they proved absolutely nothing.  One of the experts was utterly surprised that a bullet could cause the massive wound in the President's head.  His surprise alone indicates his limited experience.

"We have all kinds of cases in our files that show what bullets can and have done in the human body.  So does everyone else who is active in the field of forensic medicine.  For example, Dr. LeMoyne Snyder has a case that almost duplicates the President's head wounds in every respect.  It arose out of a bank holdup in Michigan.  A dentist who had his office on the second floor of a building directly across the street from the bank went to the window to see what the trouble was.  He saw one of the bandits running down the street, with people yelling after him.  The dentist was quite a deer hunter and kept a rifle in his office.  He reached for his rifle, raised the window and hit the bandit in the back of the head with a single shot.  By that time, the bandit was just about the same distance away as the Presidential limousine was from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository Building when the first shot struck.  The head wounds this bank bandit sustained were almost identical in every respect to those of President Kennedy.

"Nevertheless, the Commission chose to rely on the synthetic tests at the Edgewood Arsenal to support its conclusion that a single bullet probably caused the wound through the President's neck and all of Governor Connally's wounds.  This was done even though one of the three experts, Dr. Light, testified that the anatomical findings alone were insufficient for him to formulate a firm opinion on whether the same bullet did or did not pass through the President's neck wound first before inflicting all the wounds on Governor Connally."

Is there anything in the overall picture to cast serious doubt on the principal conclusions by the Commission?

"Of course, I haven't seen the pictures and the X-rays of the President, but on the basis of the evidence that has been made public, the Commission reached the correct opinion that all three bullets were fired by one rifleman from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository Building.  The unfortunate autopsy and other procedures have merely opened the door and invited the critics to enjoy a Roman holiday at the expense of the dignity and prestige of the country as a whole."

"The fact that a rigorous cross-examination of the three autopsy surgeons would have ripped their testimony to shreds does not necessary mean that their conclusions were totally wrong in its opinion that all the shots came from the Depository building.  What it means is that the Commission members themselves set the stage for the aura of doubt and suspicion that has enveloped their work.

"The Commission of course, was an unusual creature.  It was itself a synthetic entity.  It was extra-judicial, extra-executive and extra-legislative.  It was supposed to be a public forum of the courtroom because the normal forum of the courtroom was wiped out when Jack Ruby killed Oswald.  If Oswald had lived, all the evidence about the President's death could have been aired in the courtroom and all the witnesses would have been open to cross-examination.  In its procedures, the Commission failed to supply anything that would fill the disastrous void left when the right or motive to cross-examine the witnesses was wiped out.  They did not provide for the essential Devil's Advocate."

"The biblical saying that 'a man is judged by his work' may be appropriate.  The Commission's work opened the door and invited the critics to flood in."

Is there anything specifically Dr. Helpern would like to see done at this point?

"It may well be too late to do anything, since the primary evidence is gone.  There is a possibility, however, that the X-rays and photographs of the President's wounds might contain some clarifying information.  I would certainly feel more comfortable about the Warren Commission's findings if a group of experienced men, who have had a great deal of practical work in bullet-wound cases, could take a look at these X-rays and pictures.  I have in mind men like Dr. LeMoyne Snyder, author of 'Homicide Investigation,'  Dr. Russell Fisher, the medical examiner for the State of Maryland, Dr. Frank Cleveland in Cincinnati, and Dr. Richard Myers in Los Angeles.  These men are all members of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.  These pictures and X-rays might, and I emphasize might, settle the questions raised by the critics once and for all.

"The tragic thing is that a greatly loved President was not given the same type of expert medical attention and medical respect in death that he received in life.  When he was having back problems, he properly consulted the leading experts in the field of orthopedic surgery; but, you see, in death, the task of evaluating his bullet wounds was not given to experienced experts in this field.  It was still the old saw that an autopsy is an autopsy is an autopsy, and anyone can do it, particularly as long as he is a pathologist."

What about the portions of the autopsy protocol that have not been released to the public?

"There, I think." Dr. Helpern answers, "are personal matters that should be left entirely to the family, although I do think that the public is entitled to the most expert and definitive determination possible on the bullet wounds that caused death.

"I know it has been argued that, since the question of whether the President did or did not have Addison's disease was injected as an issue into the 1960 Presidential campaign, the public is entitled to know if any findings at the autopsy tended to substantiate this allegation.

"Some of my collegues also argue that if the autopsy findings did show a deterioration of the adrenal glands, which would be evidence of Addison's disease, it is a missed opportunity for showing the progress of medicine in general to fail to disclose it.  A person suffering from Addison's disease can now be placed on medication so that the disease can be controlled in much the same manner that diabetes  is controlled by insulin.  This, of course, was not true a generation ago.  These fellows continue that it would dramatically show medicine's progress if a man with Addison's disease could be treated so successfully that he could function well enough to perform the duties demanded by the office of President of the United States.

"I still go along with the feeling that any disclosure in the autopsy findings over and above the bullet wounds which produced the President's death must be considered a private matter for the family to do with as they personally desire."

Costella Combined Edit Frames

Zapruder film frames referenced located here

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Lies about the Kennedy and Forrestal Deaths

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This one's for John Barbour, with love.

The Garrison Tapes

Lorie Kramer

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