The State of the Evidence, The Evidence of the State

by Edward Jay Epstein

Evidence, by its very nature, can be controverted. If it could not be, it would not be evidence but an act of faith. Any document can be a forgery, any witness can give false testimony, and any object can be either fabricated or misidentified. Nevertheless, some evidence is better than other evidence. And when the best evidence is examined, tested and placed in the proper context, it provides the best way we have to establish the facts.

In the case of the assassination of President Kennedy, the central facts have been investigated and re-investigated for nearly three decades. The evidence-testers have included the FBI, the Treasury Department, the Warren Commission, the Rockefeller Commission, the House Select Committee on Assassination, the Department of Justice, independent coroners and forensic experts, and assassination researchers. Consider, for example, the much disputed autopsy findings of President Kennedy. Although the autopsy examination itself was badly handled by the Navy, and insufficiently probed by the Warren Commission, many of the problems were resolved the re-examination of the X-rays and photographs of the President's body by the panel of nine independent pathologists (including one Warren Commission critic) appointed by the House Select Committee. These findings, not those in the Warren Commission (or my criticisms of the original process in Inquest) constitute the best evidence.

Since as imperfect as the process has been, it has resulted in filling in much of the reality of what happened on November 22nd, 1963. I believe that the seven following questions now can be answered-- or at least narrowed down to finite possibilities.

1. Where did the bullets come from that hit President Kennedy and Governor Connally?

The best available evidence on the nature of the discernible wounds inflicted on Kennedy is, first, the photographs and X-Rays of the President taken during the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital and, second, the fibers of the President's clothing.

Although the photographs and X-Rays were not examined by the Warren Commission or its staff, leading to considerable doubt as to the validity of the Commission's conclusions, they were subsequently examined ,first, by a panel of three pathologists and a radiologist appointed by Attorney General Ramsey Clark in 1981, and then more thoroughly in 1976 by the nine man panel appointed by the House Select Committee. The members of this latter panel had between them experience in performing over 100,000 autopsies. The House Select Committee, moreover, established the authenticity of these photographs by having forensic dentists compare them with Kennedy's pre-mortem dental records and medical X-rays.

All these pathologists agreed, without any dissent, that all the detectable wounds in the photographs and X-rays of President Kennedy had been caused by bullets fired from behind and above him, confirming the conclusions of the doctors who had performed the autopsy itself as well as those of the FBI and the Warren Commission. They also agreed unanimously from a reconstruction of the medical evidence that Governor Connally's multiple wounds had been caused by a bullet fired from the same direction.

The path of the first bullet to hit the President was further established by the President's shirt and jacket fibers. The FBI analysis, as well as the re-analysis, showed that they were pushed inward, not outward, by the projectile which could only have happened if the President was shot from behind.

The path of the bullet that hit Governor Connally was also confirmed by Governor Connally's testimony that he was certain he was hit from behind.

The panel also unanimously concluded from the X-Rays that the fatal bullet had entered the rear of the President's head near the cowlick area and exited from the right front. None of the nine pathologist, including Warren Commission critic Dr. Cyril Wecht, were able to find any medical evidence that this massive wound was caused by a bullet fired from in front or side of the President's car. To be sure, a frame-by-frame analysis of the film of the assassination made by Abraham Zapruder shows President Kennedy's head at the time of impact moving backwards, not forward as might be expected. But this is not the evidence it seems to be because, depending on the neurological reactions to such a wound, the head can snap in any direction after being shot. Wound ballistic experts demonstrated this counterintuitive point to the House Select Committee through a filmed experiment that clearly showed that, when hit with a rifle bullet from the rear, the head could move either backward or forward. So there is not necessarily a relationship between the direction that the head moves and the direction from which the bullet strikes the head.

By tracing the trajectory of the bullets from the path of the wounds, an analyst from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration was able to plot all three shots to their source the upper floors of the southeast face of the Texas Book Depository. This was the same building that five witnesses --Howard Brennan, Amos Lee Euins, Carolyn Walther, Arnold Rowland and Barbara Rowland-- claimed to have seen a rifle protruding from a South-eastern window at about the time of the assassination (Brennan told police he actually saw the rifle being fired and reloaded before the suspect was apprehended).

While it is possible that numerous other shots may have been fired from other locations and directions and missed their target, we know from the best evidence, the autopsy photographs, that the shots that caused all the discernible wounds came from the a high window on the south eastern side of the Texas Book Depository.

2. Did the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found by police on the sixth floor of the Texas Depository fire these shots?

The best evidence for identifying the assassination weapon is the two bullet fragments found in the President's car and the nearly whole bullet found in a stretcher in Parkland Hospital in Dallas. In 1964, FBI experts ballistically matched this bullet and fragments to the rifle barrel of the Mannlicher-Carcano by microscopically comparing of the markings in the barrel with those found on the bullet and fragments. A firearms panel of independent experts appointed by the House Select Committee re-examined this evidence in 1977 and re-confirmed that the bullet and fragments had come from that Mannlicher Carcano rifle.

In addition, the House Select Committee employed a very advanced form of neutron activation analysis to match the recovered bullet and fragments to the ammunition used in the Mannlicher Carcano. In this technique, traces from the ballistic evidence are bombarded by neutrons in a nuclear reactor so that the precise composition of elements-- antimony, silver, and copper-- can be measured by their emissions on a gamma-ray spectrometer to an accuracy of one-billionth of a gram. The composition of traces from the bullet and fragments were thus compared to that of the unfired bullet found in the chamber of the Mannlicher-Carcano and found to exactly match. This analysis convincingly showed that all the ballistic material that was recovered, and could be tested, came from two bullets, and both bullets identically matched in their composition the ammunition for the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.

Although questions can be raised about the general accuracy of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found in the depository, there can be no doubt that the particular weapon can be fired with deadly accuracy at a target 100 yards away-- the distance from the depository to the President's car. After the assassination three different FBI agents fired this exact rifle and scored bull's-eyes two out of three times.