Tuesday, 20 December 2022 21:51

David Lifton Has Passed On

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David S. Lifton, author of Best Evidence and a lifelong researcher into the assassination of JFK, has died. Jim DiEugenio has this remembrance.

David Lifton passed away in Las Vegas at a hospice center on December 6, 2022. There was no official notice until a sister of his penned an obituary for the New York Times. He was 83.

Lifton was born in New York and attended college at Cornell. At the time of JFK’s death, he was in a graduate program at UCLA. His major was engineering physics. He is known in the John Kennedy critical community for a long early essay on the JFK assassination, two books on the subject, and his belief that the Zapruder film had been altered.

The long essay was printed in Ramparts magazine in June of 1966 and was called “The Case for Three Assassins”. Co-authored with David Welsh, it was a lengthy—22 pages of text—and profusely annotated essay on the medical and ballistics evidence in the assassination that indicated a hit team had taken Kennedy’s life in Dealey Plaza.

The first book, published in 1968, was Document Addendum to the Warren Report. That volume is a compendium of important documents that were not printed by the Warren Commission. It contains the famous Liebeler Memorandum. This was named after Warren Commission lawyer Wesley Liebeler and it contains his Devil’s Advocate criticisms of an early draft of the Warren Report. This volume was limited in audience appeal since it was aimed at the critical community, but it was a valuable work.

The above two contributions were made when Lifton was—more or less-considered as one of the first generation critics of the Kennedy case. In his book Best Evidence he owes his initial interest in the assassination to a trio of first generation critics, namely Mark Lane , Vince Salandria and Ray Marcus. (pp. 3-11).

One can say the same about his approach during his confrontation with former CIA Director Allen Dulles. This meeting occurred in late 1965 on the UCLA campus. Dulles had been retired by President Kennedy from the Agency and was now taking a guest lecture spot at the college. Lifton termed it as being a Regents Scholar. As he explained, “He was paid a princely sum for giving a few speeches and meeting students, informally, in a coffee-klatch atmosphere.” (Best Evidence, p. 33) As Lifton noted, Dulles’ appointment to the Warren Commission by Lyndon Johnson was his first return to any kind of public service.

Lifton first asked for a personal audience with the veteran spymaster. Dulles turned this request down but said he would be glad to answer his questions in front of a small audience. So Lifton joined a gathering of about 50 people in the Sierra Lounge of Hedrick Hall, a UCLA dormitory. Lifton brought a couple of volumes of the Warren Commission with him. This debate is described in Best Evidence on pages 34-37. But since John Kelin sent the author a copy of Lifton’s memorandum on the meeting, we will use that as a reference for this rather memorable confrontation.

Lifton started off by challenging Dulles on the direction of the shots, with still frames he had enlarged from the Commission volumes of the Zapruder film. Dulles simply denied this evidence. When Lifton said there was smoke atop the Grassy Knoll, Dulles said, “Now what are you saying, that someone was smoking up there?” Lifton then quoted Harold Feldman who listed many witnesses hearing shots from two directions. When Dulles asked about Feldman Lifton said he wrote for The Nation. Dulles had a huge belly laugh and said, “The Nation, The Nation.” Dulles also shrugged off the testimony of Governor John Connally, by saying, ”Its utterly ridiculous! A man can’t tell in a situation like that which bullet hit him.” Dulles then said there was not an iota of evidence of a frontal shot. Lifton then argued that eye and ear witness testimony coupled with the Zapruder film indicated there was. Dulles insisted he could not see a thing in the blow up presentation. After Dulles left, many students huddled around Lifton to look at the pictures. This went on for two hours. The graduate student felt he had won the debate.

But about this time, 1965-67, Lifton began to change his approach to the JFK case. In Best Evidence, he denotes the cause of this as being a phrase in the FBI report on the autopsy; a report made by agents Jim Sibert and Frank ONeill:. The phrase went like this: “…it was also apparent that a tracheotomy had been performed as well as surgery of the head area, namely in the top of the skull.” (Best Evidence, p. 172)

In his book Lifton describes this phrase as being a defining moment in his research on the case. He says, “I was exhilarated, terrified. I wanted to vomit.” He then described himself as follows, “I arose on Sunday morning convinced I had discovered the darkest secret of the crime of the century.” (Best Evidence, p. 181) It was this feeling that now moved him out of the camp of Commission critics and into what he would later call a radical reconstruction of the Kennedy case. He came to call this “pre-autopsy surgery” He phrased it like this in Best Evidence:

If someone had altered the head, the configuration of the wounds at Dallas was not the same as at Bethesda. The head was thrust backward by the impact of a bullet from the front, yet the autopsy performed at Bethesda showed an impact from behind. Someone had altered the head! (ibid, p. 172)

He then concluded that, “Somewhere between Dallas and Bethesda the President’s body had been altered.” Lifton also used this to explain why there were no bullets in the body. (Best Evidence, p. 175) In his arguments with Commission lawyer Wesley Liebeler—a professor at UCLA at the time—he would ask Lifton: if there were other assassins, where are the other bullets? This would portend to be a reply to that query.

From here, Lifton went on to assemble his whole complex theorem of the crime, based upon an alteration of Kennedy’s body somewhere between Dallas and the Bethesda morgue. And he now used this to explain in his view, “…how many different officials and investigative agencies…could be foiled.” In his concept,

The secret removal of bullets before the body reached the autopsy room would have severed the ballistic connection between the shooting and the gun of other assassins—before the investigation began. The entire investigative apparatus of the U. S. government could have been misled. (ibid)

As noted above, Best Evidence was backed by a large publishing house and was guided by a front rank agent, Peter Shepherd. It became a Book of the Month Club selection, and a national best seller. But it also created a rather large controversy both in the MSM—Dan Rather obviously did not buy it—but people like Sylvia Meagher and Harold Weisberg also disapproved. This is not the place to outline this rather rigorous debate, but just to note it.

The book was quite long, and it went through more than one reprint by different publishers. Lifton also issued a video production based on his research for that book--Best Evidence: The Research Video--and that also sold well.

In his research for Best Evidence, Lifton stumbled across another nebulous and controversial area. This was the provenance and possible alteration of the Zapruder film. On page 555 of the Carroll and Graf version of Best Evidence, Lifton begins a very long on-page footnote in which he describes how he became interested in the subject. That note goes on for three pages. In brief he states that when he saw a very good copy of the film, he noted that he did not see a posterior skull cavity as was described by the Dallas doctors in the Parkland ER. He also discovered evidence that the film had been in the custody of the CIA. Finally, he notes that the doctors in Dallas did not see an exit wound in the upper right side of JFK’s head above and to the right of his ear. Yet, this was supposed to be the exit for the rear shot as depicted in the film.

At the time of his death, Lifton had been working for a very long time—decades actually-- on a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. That book was entitled Final Charade. This was to be part of a trilogy of Best Evidence, Final Charade and a volume on the Zapruder film. In the anthology The Great Zapruder Film Hoax, Lifton submitted an essay called “Pig on a Leash” about his theories of Z film alteration.

We should all hope that the manuscript of Final Charade will eventually be published. Lifton spent so many years on it, so much money, and so much effort, that it needs to be printed. Only then can it be judged as part of the Lifton canon.

Last modified on Monday, 06 February 2023 03:38
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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