A BASIC INTRODUCTION TO THE JFK ASSASSINATION
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, at right around 12:31 P.M, as he rode in an open limousine in a motorcade. President Kennedy was accompanied by his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy. Texas governor John Connally and his wife were seated in front of the Kennedys, with the governor sitting in front of the president. Two Secret Service agents were in the limousine's front seat. Soon after Kennedy's limousine turned from Houston Street onto Elm Street in Dealey Plaza, witnesses began hearing shots ring out. Less than a second after Kennedy's limousine passed beneath the oak tree on the northwest end of Elm Street, Kennedy appeared to clutch or reach toward his throat or upper chest with both hands. Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, seated to his left, quickly turned to see what was going on with her husband. Governor Connally showed clear signs of having been struck by a bullet about half a second after Kennedy began to bring his hands up toward the area of his throat. Several seconds after the first shot was heard, witnesses saw the president's head explode as a result of gunfire. The limousine then sped off toward Parkland Hospital. Doctors at the hospital labored mightily to try to save Kennedy's life, but to no avail. He had obviously been virtually dead on arrival. Kennedy's Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson (also known as LBJ), took the oath of office a short time later that afternoon, and America had a new president.
Although several men were arrested in and near Dealey Plaza and in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in the aftermath of the shooting, the Dallas Police Department (DPD) eventually turned all of them loose. The police quickly focused their attention on a man who was arrested in a movie theater a few miles from Dealey Plaza about two hours after the assassination. The man's name was Lee Harvey Oswald. He was arrested on the suspicion that he had killed a policeman named J. D. Tippit about 35-45 minutes after the assassination in a suburb of Dallas just a few miles from Dealey Plaza. The police learned that Oswald worked in the same building from which many witnesses said shots were fired and in which the police found a rifle and some spent bullet shells by one of the windows facing the plaza. Oswald never made it to trial because he was gunned down in the DPD's basement by a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby two days after the assassination on November 24.
The Warren Commission
On November 29, 1963, just one week after the shooting, President Johnson appointed a special commission to investigate the assassination. Known as the Warren Commission (WC), it submitted a final report to LBJ on September 24, 1964, less than a year after it was formed. The commission pretty much supported the conclusions of the FBI's report, but with some important exceptions. The commission concluded the following:
* Oswald, acting alone, shot Kennedy.
* There was no conspiracy. Oswald had no confederates, before, during, or after the assassination.
* Oswald fired three shots. One of these shots missed the entire limousine. No other shots were fired.
* The same bullet that struck Kennedy in the back exited his throat and went on to strike Governor Connally in the back, tore through his chest, hit his right wrist, and ended up embedded in his left thigh. This conclusion would quickly come to be known as the single-bullet theory. The bullet that the commission claimed performed the above scenario is officially known as Commission Exhibit 399, which is usually abbreviated as CE 399.
* Oswald used a 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, which is bolt-action weapon.
* Oswald killed Officer J. D. Tippit.
* Jack Ruby's killing of Oswald was a spontaneous act caused by Ruby's professed desire to spare Jackie Kennedy the ordeal of an Oswald trial.
* Ruby had no significant ties to the Mafia and did not kill Oswald to silence him on behalf of a conspiracy.
* Ruby most likely gained access to the police department's basement by walking down the Main Street ramp.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations
The U.S. House of Representatives voted to establish the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in September 1976, and the committee functioned until January 1979. The committee issued its report in 1979. The HSCA reached several conclusions that were sharply at odds with the WC's conclusions. Among other things, the select committee concluded the following:
* Kennedy was probably killed as a result of a conspiracy.
* Four shots, not three, were fired during the assassination.
* One shot was fired from the grassy knoll. The shot from knoll missed both Kennedy and the limousine.
* Impulses caused by four gunshots were recorded on a police dictabelt recording that was made by a patrolman's mike that was stuck in the "on" position as his motorcycle rode near and through Dealey Plaza during and after the shooting. The committee's acoustical scientists concluded that an analysis of the recording revealed, to a degree of certainty of 95 percent or better, that one of the shots could be traced back to the grassy knoll.
* Jack Ruby had significant ties to organized crime.
* Ruby probably did not enter the DPD basement via the Main Street ramp, and might have gained access to the basement by help from someone on the police force.
* Ruby lied to the WC about the number and nature of his trips to Cuba prior to the assassination.
* In the months leading up to the assassination, Ruby made long-distance phone calls to organized crime contacts, and some of these phone calls did not appear to have a viable innocent explanation.
* Ruby's killing of Oswald was not a spontaneous act but had the appearance of a hit designed to silence Oswald.
* The WC failed to adequately investigate the possibility of conspiracy.
* The FBI and CIA were deficient in supplying the commission with information in their possession that related to the assassination.
* The security arrangements for the Dallas motorcade may have been uniquely insecure.
* The pathologists who performed Kennedy's autopsy failed to perform a proper medical-legal autopsy.
* Analysis of the photographic evidence revealed that Kennedy was hit by a bullet as the limousine passed beneath the oak tree. Even though this shot came at a time when a gunman's view of Kennedy from the Depository's sixth-floor window would have been obscured by the oak tree, the committee concluded the shot came from that window.
In addition, the HSCA endorsed the WC's conclusion that Kennedy and Connally were struck by the same non-fatal bullet, and that Oswald fired that shot and the head shot. The committee also agreed with the commission's finding that Oswald killed Tippit.
As for the conspiracy itself, the committee hinted in its report that elements of the Mafia might have been involved. The committee's chief counsel, G. Robert Blakey, later teamed with Richard Billings and wrote the book Fatal Hour: The Assassination of President Kennedy by Organized Crime, which was based mostly on the committee's research. Blakey and Billings argued that Mafia boss Carlos Marcello was involved in the assassination conspiracy.
Two Basic Views
There are two basic views about the assassination. One view is that one gunman, acting alone, killed Kennedy, and that the gunman had no accomplices. The other view is that more than one gunman fired at Kennedy, and that those gunmen were part of a conspiracy. Most researchers who argue there was a conspiracy believe the following:
* The shooting of President Kennedy was beyond the capability of any one man to perform, and therefore there must have been more than one gunman. They point out that no rifleman in any of the assassination simulations has scored two hits in three shots in 6-9 seconds against a moving target from a 60-foot elevation on the first attempt, which is what Oswald allegedly did. They also note that nearly everyone who saw Oswald fire a rifle said he was a rather poor shot.
* Much of the evidence against Oswald was planted.
* At least one shot was fired from in front of Kennedy's limousine, most likely from the grassy knoll. Conspiracy theorists point out that dozens of witnesses in Dealey Plaza believed gunfire came from the grassy knoll, and that several witnesses saw puffs of smoke rising from the spot from which the gunfire seemed to be coming. They also note that some rifles do emit visible smoke, and that the HSCA firearms panel confirmed this in its report. They further note that several witnesses smelled the scent of gunpowder on or near the knoll right after the shooting.
* There was a large wound in the right-rear area of Kennedy's skull, indicating a shot from the front. Dozens of witnesses reported seeing this wound, including doctors, nurses, and federal agents. They argue that the autopsy photos of JFK's head, which don't show a large right-rear defect, were either taken after the large defect was covered over cosmetically or that the photos were altered to make it appear the back of the head was undamaged.
* The Zapruder film seems to show reactions to more than just three shots.
* The single-bullet theory is impossible. Critics of the lone-gunman theory note that no bullet in any of the assassination-related wound ballistics tests has emerged with as little damage as CE 399, the alleged "magic bullet," after doing the same amount of damage that CE 399 supposedly did. They also point to studies that have found that there was no path from Kennedy's back wound to his throat wound that did not require smashing through the spine.
* Oswald was being impersonated, and his impersonators left a trail of false evidence that was to be used against Oswald later. Conspiracy theorists note that the recently released transcript of a phone call between then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson shows that Hoover informed Johnson that someone had been impersonating Oswald at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City.
* There was a rather large-scale cover-up of the facts about the assassination, in an attempt to lead the public to believe there was only one gunman and no conspiracy.
Before we can discuss the shooting in any detail, we must first briefly discuss the Zapruder film, because researchers analyze the shooting by referring to frames of this film. Abraham Zapruder was standing on the concrete pergola on the grassy knoll. He captured the assassination on film. That film is known as the Zapruder film. Researchers have assigned a number to each frame of the film. Instead of continually repeating the word "frame" to refer to a particular frame, researchers will often use the capital letter "Z" and then the frame number. For example, they'll refer to frame 155 as Z155. When the film is played, each frame lasts right around 1/18th of a second.
After the limousine turned onto Elm Street from Houston Street, it passed beneath the TSBD. A gunman in the building's sixth-floor window would have had a clear shot at Kennedy from at least Z140 through Z165. The FBI and the Secret Service determined that from Z166 to Z209, the view would have been obscured by the intervening oak tree, except for a split-second break in the tree's foliage at Z186, which would have lasted only 1/18th/second. From Z210 until the car drove beneath the triple underpass at the south end of Dealey Plaza a sixth-floor gunman would have had a clear shot at Kennedy. A gunman in a lower window on the east side of the Dal -Tex Building would have had a clear shot at Kennedy the whole time the limousine was on Elm Street.
As for the distances involved, at Z166 the limousine was about 140 feet from the sixth-floor widow. At Z210, the limousine was about 177 feet from the window. And at Z313 the limousine was about 266 feet from the window. At Z295 the limousine was less than 120 feet from the firing position on the grassy knoll that was pinpointed by several Dealey Plaza witnesses and by the acoustical analysis.
Most researchers agree the Zapruder film shows the first shot was fired before Z166 and that the shooting ended at Z313. Traditionally Z312-313 has been identified as the moment a bullet strikes Kennedy in the head. From Z313-320 we see an explosion of blood and brain matter from the right-frontal region of Kennedy's head, and we Kennedy's upper body move violently backward and to the left. The Zapruder film doesn't show Kennedy from Z207-224 because Zapruder's view was blocked by a road sign in front of him on Elm Street.
Beyond these basic areas of general agreement, researchers differ markedly on what the Zapruder film shows as far as reactions to gunfire between frames 140 and 313. Lone-gunman theorists opine that only three episodes of reaction to gunfire are apparent in the film. Multiple-gunmen theorists argue that as many as six or seven episodes of reaction to gunfire are readily apparent in the film.
Nearly all students of the case agree that the WC believed its alleged lone gunman didn't fire until Z210, that the second shot of his supposed three shots missed, and the therefore he fired all his shots in 5.6 seconds. In other words, the WC favored the view that its supposed lone gunman scored two hits out of three shots in 5.6 seconds. Over the years many sources favorable to the lone-gunman theory have referred to this scenario as "the Warren Commission's scenario" or "the Warren Commission's version of the shooting."
The WC did not categorically say the second shot missed. It left open the possibility that the first shot missed, and that therefore a sixth-floor gunman would have had over 8 seconds to fire, instead of just 5.6 seconds. However, it is clear from the commission's report that the commission favored the view that the second shot missed and that therefore the alleged lone gunman's supposed three shots all came within 5.6 seconds. Also, the commission stated it was improbable that the sixth-floor gunman would have missed both Kennedy and the huge limousine with his first and closest shot. Further, the commission viewed as unlikely the idea that its single assassin would have fired while the limousine was obscured by the oak tree. And, the commission opined that it was "probable that the President was not shot before frame 210."
The House Select Committee on Assassinations reached some very different conclusions about the shooting. The HSCA concluded four shots were fired and it pinpointed specific time frames when it believed each shot was fired. The committee concluded the first was fired at Z157-161, the second shot at Z187-191, the third shot at Z295-296, and the fourth shot at Z312. The committee's photo experts studied the Zapruder film and concluded Kennedy was hit at about Z190 and that he begins to visibly react before he temporarily disappears from Zapruder's view as the limousine drives behind the road sign, i.e., that he starts to react before Z207. They further concluded the film shows Governor Connally and a young girl on the sidewalk reacting to the sound of gunfire beginning at about Z160.
How long would a lone gunman in the sixth-floor window have had to fire three shots? That would have depended on when he fired his first shot. If he had fired his first shot at around Z145-150, he would have had right about 9 seconds. If he had fired his first shot at around Z157-160, he would have had about 8.5 seconds. If he had fired his first shot at Z210, he would have had 5.6 seconds. Thus, a lone gunman, if he fired in the Z140s, would have had a total of about 9 seconds to shoot.
Lone-gunman theorists cite this fact in order to show that their alleged single assassin would have had ample time to score two hits in three shots. However, there are some problems with including a pre-Z166 shot in any lone-gunman shooting scenario. Nearly all researchers agree there was a shot fired sometime between Z140 and Z160. But it's now virtually certain that this shot missed both Kennedy and the entire huge limousine, which was over 20 feet long and more than 6 feet wide. So, if we assume a lone gunman in the Depository's sixth-floor window fired this shot, we'd have to believe he missed a 120-square-foot target from less than 140 away and from 60 feet up with his first and closest shot. Even the WC considered the first-shot-miss scenario to be an "improbability." I quote from the WC's report:
On the other hand, the greatest cause for doubt that the first shot missed is the improbability that the same marksman who twice hit a moving target would be so inaccurate on the first and closest of his shots as to miss completely, not only the target, but the large automobile.
A few researchers argue that a sixth-floor gunman could have tracked and hit Kennedy even while the limousine passed beneath the oak tree, and that there was a reasonably clear view at about Z186 for perhaps three to four frames. There are some problems with this argument. To begin with, two to four frames of the Zapruder film would have only been a fraction of a second. Two to four frames only amounts to 1/9th/second to 1/5th/second, well under half a second. The human eye requires about 1/6th/second just to register and react to data. Footage from the Dealey Plaza reenactments that were held in December 1963 and in May 1964 show that, to varying degrees, foliage would have obscured, and in some cases blocked, a sixth-floor gunman's view from Z166-210, with the exception of no more than four frames. Also, why would a sixth-floor gunman have risked having a bullet deflect off one of the tree limbs, when he was about to have a clear shot a second or two later? The WC reached much the same conclusion:
. . . it is unlikely that the assassin would deliberately have shot at him with a view obstructed by the oak tree when he was about to have a clear opportunity. It is also doubtful that even the most proficient marksman would have hit him through the oak tree.
It is often overlooked that the lone-gunman shooting scenario requires that one of the posited three shots would have had to completely miss both Kennedy and the huge limousine. It seems hard to imagine how even a mediocre marksman could have completely missed a target as large as Kennedy's limousine from 60 feet up and from no more than 266 feet away, whether he used the Carcano's four-power scope or its iron sights.
WC defenders point out that the HSCA's shooting scenario would have us believe that the supposed grassy knoll gunman missed the whole limousine from less than 120 feet away and from only a slight elevation. However, if a grassy knoll gunman had missed Kennedy's head by just a fraction of an inch, the bullet would have missed the limousine as well.
1. The Warren Commission Report, September 24, 1964, Barnes and Noble Edition, p. 111.
2. WCR, p. 98; see also pp. 105, 111.
3. Appendix to Hearings Before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, March 1979, vol. 6, pp. 15-18. Hereafter cited as HSCA, e.g., 6 HSCA 15-18.
4. WCR, p. 111.
5. See, for example, CE 875.
6. WCR, pp. 98, 105.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College in Albany, New York, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. He is also a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas. He has earned instructor certification from both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. He is the author of the book Compelling Evidence: A New Look at the Assassination of President Kennedy (Grand Prairie, TX: JFK-Lancer Productions and Publications, 1996). His articles on the assassination have appeared in several journals that deal with the subject. In addition, he is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient texts.
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