Monday, 08 May 2023 08:46

Case Closed 30 Years On: Even Worse - Part 4/5: The Acoustics and the Autopsy

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Part 4 of 5 of British researcher Martin Hay's review of Gerald Posner's 1993 book Case Closed.

The Acoustics in Dealey Plaza

Although these eyewitness accounts point us in the right direction, the most important piece of evidence establishing the presence of a gunman on the grassy knoll—aside from the autopsy materials, which we will come to shortly—is the Dallas police dicatbelt recording. This was a recording of police radio communications that first came to light during the HSCA investigation and compelled the committee to conclude that there was “a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy.” (HSCA Report, p. 3) The HSCA had tasked the top acoustic scientists in the United States with analyzing the recording to see if a police motorcycle officer whose microphone was believed to have become stuck in the “on” position while travelling as part of the motorcade through Dealey Plaza, had inadvertently picked up the sounds of gunfire. After discovering several suspect impulses on the tape, the experts conducted test firings in the plaza, shooting rifle bullets into sandbags from both the Texas School Book Depository and the grassy knoll, and recording each one at a series of microphones placed along Houston and Elm streets. Comparing the test shots to the suspect impulses on the dictabelt recording, the experts found that five of the impulses showed the precise echo patterns of rifle shots fired in the specific environs of Dealey Plaza. (HSCA Vol. 8, p.101) One of them, the fourth in sequence, matched a shot fired from the grassy knoll. (Ibid, p. 10)

Posner’s attempt to shoot down this evidence is, like most other attempted critiques of the acoustics, laughably inept. He starts by saying that “there are no sounds of gunfire, or even what could be remotely construed as popping sounds, on the dictabelt recordings.” (p. 239) Whilst this is essentially true it is also the very reason that experts were utilised by the committee in the first place. If the sounds of gunfire were immediately obvious on the recording, we would not need acoustic scientists to tell us how many there were. Nonetheless, it is not technically correct to say, as Posner does, that the suspect impulses are “inaudible.” (Ibid) It is more accurate to say that they are mixed in with other white noises, making them indiscernible to the human ear. As the HSCA experts stated, “To the ear, these sounds resemble static, not gunshots.” (HSCA Vol. 8, p.11) This is an unfortunate by-product of the equipment used by the Dallas police to record its voice communications, which was low fidelity even by 1963 standards, and by a feature of the motorcycle microphones known as “automatic gain control” which decreased the amplitude of loud noises.

The conclusions of the HSCA’s experts were reliant on a police motorcycle with a stuck microphone having been approximately 141 feet behind the Presidential limousine at the time of the grassy knoll shot. When the committee’s photographic consultant Robert Groden searched all available footage of the motorcade, he found that there was no film or photograph that showed the acoustically required position for the motorcycle during the shooting. However, he found that one officer’s positions before and after the assassination were such that he could have been where the microphone was predicted to have been. When that officer, H.B. McClain, was called to testify for the HSCA, he identified himself in the relevant pictures and confirmed that the microphone on his bike did indeed have a history of becoming stuck in the “on” position. (HSCA Vol. 5 p.628, 637)

Unfortunately, shortly after he appeared before the committee, McClain began to distance himself from the acoustics evidence by making statements that contradicted his sworn testimony. For example, although he told the HSCA that he had followed the motorcade from Houston Street onto Elm and said that he did know whether his microphone had been switched to channel one or two, (Ibid p. 630), he later claimed to have stopped his motorcycle on Houston Street and insisted that he could not possibly have been tuned to channel one, which was the channel on which the shots were recorded. (Don Thomas, Hear No Evil, p. 669) Posner, of course, uses McClain’s latter-day claims to insist that the dictabelt recording is not consistent with his actions. But the reality is that it is McClain’s revised story that is not consistent with the evidence.

Posner writes that “the dictabelt recording reveals the engine on the cycle in question idling” when McClain “was speeding toward Parkland…” (p. 241) In fact, the sound of the motorcycle “idling” occurs at the same time a series of photographs show that McClain travelled slowly on Elm Street until motorcycle officer Jimmy Courson, who had been riding several car lengths behind him, caught up with McClain and the pair then sped off to Parkland together. Therefore, the motorcycle noise on the recording is entirely consistent with McClain’s actions. Furthermore, Courson recalled that he was making the turn from Houston onto Elm when he saw Jackie Kennedy climbing onto the trunk of the limousine to grab a piece of her husband’s skull. (Thomas, p. 683) If Courson’s recollection is correct then there is no question that McClain was further down Elm Street and, therefore, could not possibly have stopped on Houston as he later claimed he did.

Suggesting that the motorcycle with the open microphone was really at the Trade Mart and not in Dealey Plaza, Posner notes that the dictabelt recording contains “the single toll of a bell, which was nowhere near Dealey Plaza.” (p. 241) In point of fact, a recording made in Dealey Plaza by KXAS TV-News in 1964 captured the sound of a carillon bell, demonstrating that such a sound was audible in the plaza. But even if this was not the case, the HSCA reported that “the radio system used by the Dallas Police Department permitted more than one transmitter to operate at the same time, and this frequently occurred.” (HSCA Report, p. 78) Therefore a separate microphone could have picked up the sound of the bell from elsewhere and deposited it on the recording at the same time McClain’s bike was transmitting from Dealey Plaza. Posner also cites the lack of identifiable crowd noise as evidence that the motorcycle was not in the plaza. Yet this was likely another by-product of the microphone’s automatic gain control function.

Having tried and failed to establish that McClain’s bike was not in the acoustically required position, Posner alleges that the putative gunshots on the dictabelt recording appear “one minute after the actual assassination.” (p. 241) This, of course, was the conclusion of the Ramsey Panel, a panel of scientists commissioned by the Justice Department a few months after the publication of the HSCA report. The Ad Hoc Committee on Ballistic Acoustics, as it was formally known, acted under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences and issued a report in 1982 concluding that the impulses identified by the HSCA’s experts were not, in fact, gunshots. The panel’s conclusion was based not on any meaningful analysis of its own but on the discovery of a 25-year-old musician from Ohio named Steve Barber. To understand Barber’s discovery, it is important to understand that on the day of the assassination, the Dallas police had used two radio channels that were recorded on antiquated equipment. Channel One, which was for routine police communications, was recorded on a Dictaphone belt recorder. Channel Two, which was reserved on November 22 for the president’s motorcycle escort, used a Gray Audograph disc recorder. Both were eccentric pieces of equipment that used a stylus cutting an acoustical groove into a soft vinyl surface to make recordings.

As Posner explains it, Barber had “purchased an adult magazine, Gallery, which included a plastic insert recording of the dictabelt evidence.” After repeated listening, “Barber heard the barely audible words ‘Hold everything secure…’ That matched with ‘Hold everything secure until the homicide and other investigators can get there…’―words spoken by Sheriff Bill Decker…on police Channel Two. The Decker transmission had crossed over to Channel One. But Decker spoke those words nearly one minute after the assassination, when he was instructing his officers what to do at Dealey Plaza.” (Ibid) When Barber brought this discovery to the attention of the Ramsey Panel, which was on a mission to shoot down the acoustics, the panel seized it with both hands. The Decker broadcast that Barber had found was, according to the Ramsey Panel, an instance of “crosstalk,” a phenomenon that occurred when an open police microphone came close enough to another police radio receiver to pick up and record its transmission. The only way the Decker broadcast could have been deposited on the Channel One recording, the panel claimed, was if the police motorcycle with the stuck microphone had been close enough to another police radio at the time the broadcast was made to pick it up. Therefore, the suspect impulses identified by the HSCA experts could not be the gunshots that killed Kennedy because they occurred one minute after the assassination. Although the Ramsey Panel’s report was still being touted as the “last word” on the acoustics evidence when Case Closed was first published in 1993, that position is untenable today.

The debate over the dictabelt was reignited in 2001 by a paper published in the British forensic journal Science & Justice. Its author, US federal government scientist Donald Thomas PhD, pointed out that the Ramsey Panel had overlooked a second instance of crosstalk, the “Bellah broadcast,” and that synchronizing the transmissions using this second broadcast placed the suspect impulses “at the exact instant that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” [Thomas.pdf (] Dr Thomas also suggested that “the barely audible fragment of Decker’s broadcast could be an overdub; the result of the recording needle jumping backward in its track.” This overdub supposition was confirmed in 2021 with the publication of Josiah Thompson’s sublime work, Last Second in Dallas. Thompson had reached out to the HSCA’s lead acoustic scientist, James Barger, who had in turn put Thompson in contact with a veteran engineer and inventor name Richard Mullen. What Mullen did was to examine the various background hum frequencies on both the Channel One and Channel Two recordings.

Antique analogue recorders like the Dictaphone and Audograph produced a 60-Hz background hum, and since both machines could be played back at varying speeds, if they were played back to a tape recorder using anything other than the exact, original recording speed, this would generate a unique hum frequency which would remain on all subsequent copies. Furthermore, a tape recording made from this second-generation copy would contain a secondary hum frequency that would, in turn, appear on all future copies. Analyzing the background frequencies on both Dallas police channel recordings, Mullen found two different secondary hums on Channel Two that were of the precise same frequency as those found on Channel One, demonstrating that the tapes came from a second generation Audograph disc and proving that the Decker “crosstalk” was overdubbed onto Channel One. (Thompson, Last Second in Dallas, p. 346) And with that confirmation, the Ramsey Panel conclusion was entirely debunked.

Posner finishes off his attack on the acoustics evidence with an obviously phoney tale about a WFAA radio reporter named Travis Linn who, he says, heard a recording of the assassination that no one else heard. As we might expect, the alleged recording―which obviously contained only three shots―could not be produced because it had conveniently been accidently erased almost immediately before anyone else could listen to it. (p. 243-245) Posner wastes two pages on this fabricated nonsense yet can find no space anywhere in his book to present a discussion of the evidence that convinced the acoustic scientists that they had a genuine recording of the gunshots that killed Kennedy. Let us do that now.

As previously noted, when the dictabelt was brought to the attention of the HSCA in 1978, it sought out the top acoustics experts in the country to undertake an analysis. The Acoustical Society of America recommended the Cambridge, Massachusetts firm of Bolt, Baranek and Newman (BBN), headed by Dr. James Barger. It is fair to say that Dr. Barger is a giant in his field. After earning his PhD from Harvard University, he went on to pioneer some of the world’s most sophisticated acoustical and telecommunications technologies. Barger is recognised as an expert in sonar and underwater noise detection and has patents on numerous inventions related to the detection of shooter locations. Barger’s team at BBN designed and built the Boomerang anti-sniper defense system that enables the U.S. military to precisely locate a sniper’s position. For the HSCA, his work focused on comparing the unique and complex pattern of echoes produced by a test shot reflecting and refracting off the buildings in Dealey Plaza with the suspect impulses he had identified on the police recording. When his analysis revealed that not only were there more than the three shots Oswald was alleged to have fired from the Book Depository, but that one appeared to have been fired from the grassy knoll, the HSCA contracted a second team of experts to perform a more refined analysis of the alleged knoll shot.

The team of Queens College Professor Mark Weiss and his associate Ernest Aschkenasy also came recommended by the Acoustical Society of America. A few years earlier, Weiss had been called upon to examine the Watergate tapes, and his determination that they had been tampered with led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Weiss and Aschkenasy began by reviewing and confirming the work of BBN and then utilised what Weiss called “fundamental principles in acoustics” to further analyse the impulse BBN had matched to a test shot fired from the knoll. Taking into consideration every variable that they could think of from air temperature and humidity to the distortion of the microphone and the position of the motorcycle’s windshield, Weiss and Aschkenasy concluded that “with a probability of 95% or better, there was indeed a shot fired from the grassy knoll.” (HSCA Vol. 5, p.556) Aschkenasy testified to the committee that “the numbers could not be refuted…[they] just came back again and again the same way, pointing only in one direction as to what these findings were.” (Ibid, p. 593) Weiss added that:

if somebody were to tell me that the motorcycle was not at Dealey Plaza―and he was in fact somewhere else and he was transmitting from another location―my response to him at that time was that I would ask to be told where that location is, and once told where it is, I would go there, and one thing I would expect to find is a replica of Dealey Plaza at that location. That is the only way it can come out. (Ibid, p. 592)

The certainty of the acoustic scientists in their conclusions was not determined solely by the precise matching of the echo patterns. In fact, there was a secondary aspect to BBN’s analysis that added an extra level of confidence. While it is theoretically possible that some unknown, unidentifiable source created five static clusters that just so happened to coincide with the very moment that Kennedy was killed and coincidentally mimicked the precise echo patterns of gunshots fired from two separate locations in the specific acoustic environment of Dealey Plaza, the order in the acoustic data renders this unlikely notion virtually null and void.

As previously noted, BBN’s onsite testing involved placing 36 microphones along the Presidential parade route on Houston and Elm Streets, recording test shots from the Depository and the knoll at each of those microphones, and then comparing them to the suspect impulses on the dictabelt recording. Dr Barger understood that if the five sounds on the police tape were not, in fact, gunfire recorded by a motorcycle traveling as part of the motorcade, then any matches he achieved would be false positives that were as likely to occur at the first microphone as the last and could have fallen in any one of 125 different random sequences. But the matches did not fall in a random order, they fell in the only correct 1-2-3-4-5 order for a microphone travelling north on Houston Street and West on Elm Street [see below].

dealey plaza

Furthermore, the spacing of the matching microphones was a remarkable fit with the times between the suspect impulses on the dicatbelt.The first impulse matched to a test shot recorded on a microphone on Houston Street near the intersection with Elm; the second to a microphone 18 ft north on Houston; the third to a microphone at the intersection; the fourth to a microphone on Elm; and the fifth to the next microphone to the west. The very same pattern was evident on the police tape.The first three impulses were clustered together, falling approximately 1.7 and 1.1 seconds apart. This was followed by a space of 4.8 seconds before the final two impulses arrived very close together, just 0.7 seconds apart.

dealey plaza

As if the above was not compelling enough, BBN found that the distance from the first matching microphone to the last was 143 feet and the time between the first and last suspect impulse on the tape was 8.3 seconds. For McClain’s bike to have travelled 143 feet in 8.3 seconds, it would have needed to have been moving at a relatively slow pace of 11.7 mph. As it turned out, this fit almost precisely with the speed of the Presidential limousine as determined by the FBI from its analysis of the Zapruder film. During the assassination, the Bureau found, the limousine had been travelling at an average speed of 11.3 mph. (Warren Report, p. 49) In every conceivable way, then, the data validated the hypothesis that the dictabelt recording had indeed captured the sounds of gunfire recorded by a police motorcycle heading north on Houston Street and west on Elm as part of the Presidential motorcade.

For a scientist, the concordance of his results with other evidence is of prime importance. In that regard, the final confirmation of the validity of the acoustics evidence comes from its remarkable synchronization with the Zapruder film. Although interpretation of the events shown in Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm home movie contains a degree of subjectivity, most observers would agree that JFK was likely first hit from behind when partially or entirely hidden by the Stemmons Freeway sign between frames 204 and 224, and that Governor Connally was probably struck from the rear shortly before his right shoulder is seen to drop dramatically at frame 238. Correlation between the dictabelt and the film can only be approximate due to the estimated real-time characteristics of the recording and the average running time of the film, but when the grassy knoll shot on the dictabelt is synchronized with the vivid explosion of Kennedy’s head at frame 313, the preceding two shots―both fired from behind―fall at or very close to frames 205 and 224. It is worth noting here that Posner himself argues, based on what he claims is the flipping up of Connally’s jacket lapel as the result of a bullet’s passage, that the Zapruder film establishes frame 224 as the moment he was struck. (p. 329-330) If Posner is correct then it means that the exact same 4.8 second gap between a shot from the rear and a shot from the front occurs on both the audio and visual evidence.

There is a very good reason why authors like Posner and, indeed, virtually all other critics of the HSCA’s acoustic evidence do not disclose any of the above. And that is because it is almost impossible for anyone, no matter how impressive their credentials, to refute. Any suggestion that the precise matching of echoes, the remarkable order in the data, and the near-perfect concordance with the Zapruder film is all mere coincidence is, in my view, not worthy of serious consideration. As NASA scientist G. Paul Chambers has pointed out, the odds against it are astronomical. “Syncing the final head shot from the grassy knoll to frame 312…” Chambers explains,

The probability of finding the shot that hit Connally to within five frames…is about one in a hundred….Matching up the first shot to the frames before Kennedy reaches the Stemmons Freeway s sign and the second shot to a strike of Kennedy behind the sign is another one chance in a hundred times for a one in ten thousand chance for an accidental match.

Furthermore, multiplying all this by the probability of all shot origins falling in the correct order is another one chance in sixteen, “yielding a one-in-sixteen-million chance that the acoustic analysis could match up the timing and shot sequence in the Zapruder film by chance.” Going even further and multiplying the probability of both the order in the data and the synchronization of the audio and film being random together, “it is readily established that there is only one chance in eleven billion that both correlations could occur as the result of random noise.” (Chambers, Head Shot, pgs. 142-143)

Posner on JFK’s Autopsy

In cases of violent death, a thorough post-mortem examination of the victim is almost always crucial to figuring out precisely what happened. Yet, in many ways, President Kennedy’s autopsy raised more questions than it answered. This was the result of his body having been illegally removed from Dallas and taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland where the autopsy was conducted under strict military control by two underqualified and inexperienced hospital pathologists.Neither Commander James J. Humes nor Colonel J. Thornton Boswell was an expert in gunshots wounds. And although they were joined over an hour into the autopsy by a third prosector, Army Colonel Pierre Finck, he too had never conducted an autopsy on a victim of gunshot wounds. To make matters worse, Jackie Kennedy was sitting upstairs in a seventeenth-floor suite with the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, refusing to leave the hospital without his body. Furthermore, the autopsy room was crowded with hospital administrators, orderlies, technicians, photographers, military brass, and agents of the FBI and Secret Service, some of whom, according to Dr. Boswell, “…were in such a high emotional state that they were running around like chickens with their heads off…” (Boswell ARRB deposition, p 101-102) Dr. Humes would later concede that the scene in the morgue was “somewhat like trying to do delicate neurosurgery in a three-ring circus.” (Journal of the American Medical Association, May 27, 1992) And as if the pressure the above conditions placed on the autopsy surgeons during their examination was not enough to ensure mistakes would be made, Humes was then forced to write his report without further access to body or to the autopsy photographs and x-rays.

The result of all this was an autopsy report that included blatant guesswork, as well as conclusions that were contradicted by the very evidence on which it was ostensibly based. For example, the report describes the wound in JFK’s throat as “presumably of exit.” Yet, as Posner admits, the doctors did not know about or personally observe this wound because it had been obscured by a tracheotomy performed during attempts to save Kennedy’s life at Parkland Hospital. At the close of the autopsy, Humes, Boswell and Finck were of the belief that a bullet had entered the back at a downward angle of 45 to 60 degrees and worked its way back out during external cardiac massage. It was not until after the body had been taken out of the morgue that Dr. Humes placed a phone call to Dr. Malcom Perry in Dallas and discovered that there had been a small, neat wound in the throat. At that point, Dr. Humes hastily revised his conclusion to account for the wound he had missed, now suggesting that the bullet which entered the back had, in fact, exited the throat. But this idea was flatly contradicted by attempts to physically probe the back wound during the autopsy which had led Dr. Finck to state, “There are no lanes for an outlet of this entry in this man’s shoulder.” (WC Vol. 2, p.93) The inability to probe the wound more than a finger’s length is precisely what led the doctors to conclude that the bullet had worked its way back out.

What other conclusions Dr. Humes may have revised we will likely never know because, as he testified to the Warren Commission, on the morning of November 24, 1963, he took the first draft of his report, and the notes on which it was based, and burned them in the fireplace of his recreation room. (WC Vol. 2 p.373) As unbelievable as this action was, Posner attempts to excuse it by stating that Humes “had gotten the President’s blood on his autopsy notes” and feared “the bloodstained notes might become part of a future public display.” (p. 308n) He does not, however, attempt to explain how this excuse applies to the first draft of the report which was written in Humes’s home and, therefore, could not have had Kennedy’s blood on it. Dr. Humes himself also failed to provide a reason for his action when he was questioned years later by the Assassination Records Review Board.

Unsurprisingly, Humes’s revised report and the post-mortem examination itself have been roundly criticised. Posner quotes world-renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht as calling it one of the “worst and most botched autopsies ever―the autopsy work was a piece of crap.” (p. 303) However, Posner tries to mitigate this by suggesting that “subsequent panels of leading forensic specialists” have “found faults with the autopsy” but also “confirmed its findings, and held that JFK was struck only by two bullets from behind.” (p. 304) He also states that the autopsy photographs and x-rays “provide proof positive of the President’s wounds” and “support the conclusion that the President was shot by two bullets from the rear…” (p. 302) All of which is utter nonsense.

To begin with, it should come as little surprise that panels that were convened by the government reached government-friendly conclusions. As Don Thomas has written, “science is a social process and…scientific conclusions are in fact, social constructs. The consequences of the results, as much if not more than the empirical evidence itself, will often steer the scientist to one conclusion over the other.” (Thomas, p. 8) Indeed, the consequences of going against officially sanctioned conclusions related to the Kennedy assassination have undoubtedly weighed heavily upon those tasked with reviewing the facts years later. For example, when the results of the acoustical analysis showed that more than three shots were fired, Dr. Barger admitted to HSCA Chief Counsel Robert Blakey that he “felt sick to his stomach.” (Thompson, Last Second in Dallas, p. 152) In fact, Barger was so disturbed by the significance of what he had found that he would initially only attach a confidence level of 50% to his own findings. It was not until Weiss and Aschkensay confirmed the validity of his results that Dr. Barger was willing to admit to the strength of the evidence. That said, the fact that subsequent official reviews of the JFK autopsy evidence all supported the official story probably had less to do with historical significance than with financial interest, peer pressure, and the widespread influence that a certain forensic pathologist had amongst his colleagues.

In 1967, when Attorney General Ramsey Clark got his hands on the galley proofs to Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas, he was mightily disturbed by the serious questions it raised about the nature of Kennedy’s wounds. So much so that he turned to Baltimore’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr Russell Fisher, and told him that he wanted Fisher to chair a panel that would, in Fisher’s own words, “refute some of the junk that was in [Thompson’s] book.” (Gary Aguilar and Kathy Cunningham, How Five Investigations into JFK’s Medical Evidence Got It Wrong, Part III) It should be obvious that an expert being told what he is expected to refute is not being tasked with making an honest and objective assessment. For that reason, Fisher’s mission was corrupt from the get-go.

In the singularly original and meticulously researched 2022 book JFK: Medical Betrayal, British physiologist Russell Kent points out that Dr Fisher was a well-known figure in Washington circles who could be relied upon to “tell the Government’s version of the truth because he was financed by them.” (Kent, p. 73) The same was true of Fisher’s colleagues on the Clark Panel, two of whom worked at John Hopkins University which “was then and is now a research university that constantly seeks funding.” (Ibid) For these medical professionals, biting the hand that feeds would obviously not have been considered a sensible course of action. And for Fisher, as Kent reveals, it was not just his “reliance on Government money that made him the perfect choice to hold the line on the JFK assassination…his motives for maintaining the status quo went deeper still. He was friends with Humes and Boswell.” (Ibid) Little wonder, then, that Fisher’s report, though containing some important revisions, did not stray from Humes’s central conclusion that JFK was hit solely by two bullets fired from above and behind.

The ramifications of Fisher’s rubber-stamping of the official story would be felt on the subsequent reviews of the medical evidence. Because, as Kent details, not only was Fisher considered to be a giant in his field―and his co-edited book Medicolegal Investigation of Death often called the bible of forensic pathology―but he had mentored and/or maintained close relationships with almost every expert who followed him. “A close look at the HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel,” writes Kent, “reveals a tangled web of subservience to Fisher. Seven of the nine doctors had either worked with or published with Fisher.” (Ibid, p. 264) Even the HSCA panel’s lone dissenting member, Dr Wecht, worked under Fisher in the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s Office, and his testimony to the committee suggests he well understood the loyalty his fellow panel members felt towards Dr Fisher, as well as to each other. Asked why he thought his colleagues had taken a position in support of the lone gunman theory Dr Wecht responded, “There are some things involving some present and former professional relationships and things between some of them, and some people who have served on previous panels.” (HSCA Vol. 1, p.354) Years later he added that “many of these same people had a long-standing involvement with the federal government—many had received federal grants for research and appointments to various influential government boards. To be highly critical of a government action could end that friendly relationship with Uncle Sam.” (Wecht, Cause of Death, p. 43-44)

Should one decide that none of the above considerations are important and choose to have faith in the ability of the government’s carefully selected experts to rise above all personal considerations, one is nonetheless stuck with the reality that by the time these reviews of the autopsy record took place, important materials had been removed from the archive, never to be seen again. An undeniably relevant point that Posner fails to reveal in Case Closed is that key photographs, X-rays, tissue slides, and even the President’s brain have all mysteriously disappeared and are no longer available for examination. Additionally, the photographs that remain were described by the HSCA forensic pathology panel as “generally of rather poor photographic quality…Some, particularly closeups, were taken in such a manner that it is nearly impossible to anatomically orient the direction of view…In many, scalar references are entirely lacking, or when present, were positioned in such a manner to make it difficult or impossible to obtain accurate measurements of critical features (such as the wound in the upper back) from anatomical landmarks.” (HSCA Vol. 7 p.46)

The X-rays have proven to be similarly flawed and open to interpretation. For example, the Clark Panel believed the X-rays of Kennedy’s neck showed bullet fragments “just to the right of the cervical spine immediately above the apex of the right lung…” (Clark Panel Report, p. 13) A consulting radiologist for the HSCA, however, believed these to be “screen artifacts.” (HSCA Vol. 7 p.225) The Clark Panel found “no evidence of fracture…of any of the cervical and thoracic vertebrae,” (Clark Panel report, p. 13) whereas another of the HSCA’s consultants saw “an undisplaced fracture” of the transverse process of the first thoracic vertebra (T1). (HSCA Vol. 7, p.219) On the other hand, an expert for the ARRB thought there might be a break in the transverse process of T2, (Kent, p. 239) while Posner quotes Dr John Lattimer as saying he saw injury to the transverse process of the sixth cervical vertebra, with “small splinters of bone at the point of trauma.” (p. 328) What these varying and mutually exclusive opinions do is highlight the deficiencies of the existing medical record. They also fly in the face of Posner’s assertion that the autopsy photographs and x-rays “provide proof positive of the President’s wounds…”

This is not to suggest that there is nothing meaningful to be drawn from the existing autopsy record. On the contrary, it can be confidently stated that the evidence as it stands does not support the conclusions of the autopsy surgeons, the Clark and HSCA panels, or indeed Gerald Posner. Simply put, the medical evidence cannot be honestly and accurately reconciled with a lone gunman firing from above and behind.

Let us start by looking at what Posner erroneously refers to as “the neck wound” but was, in reality, a wound to the upper back. This wound was described in the autopsy report as being “14cm below the tip of the right mastoid process” which is the small, boney bump behind the ear.

dealey plaza

But as these photos show, depending on the position of the head, 14cm below the mastoid process can be close to the base of the neck or considerably further down the back.

The HSCA criticized the autopsy doctors for this very reason, stating that the mastoid process is a moveable point and “should not have been used.” (HSCA Vol. 7 p.17) They concluded that the bullet had entered at the approximate level of T1 based largely on the previously noted belief that the X-rays showed a fracture of the transverse process. And yet, not only is there much debate amongst the experts about the location, and even the very existence, of any such fracture but there is also reason to believe that the bullet entered even lower. The official death certificate signed by Kennedy's personal physician, Dr. George Burkley―who was present at the autopsy―statesthat the wound of "the posterior back" was situated "at about the level of the third thoracic vertebra." This lower position is seemingly corroborated by the holes in Kennedy's shirt and coat which are approximately 5 ½ inches below the collar. That said, Burkely’s language, “about the level of,” is admittedly imprecise and the exact relationship of Kennedy’s clothing to his body at the time he was shot is unclear. Nonetheless, whether the wound was as high as T1 or as low as T3, it is clear from the autopsy face sheet, the photographs, and the holes in the clothing that it was in the back, not the neck.

dealey plaza

In describing the wound as being “at the base of the President’s neck,” Posner is following the Warren Commission’s lead and attempting to create the impression that the back wound was higher than the hole in the throat so that readers will believe a bullet fired from the sixth-floor window could have struck JFK and followed a downward trajectory out of the throat. But it is abundantly clear from the evidence that the back wound trajectory was the lower of the two. And as the HSCA forensic pathology panel made clear, this means that a downward trajectory through Kennedy was only possible if he was leaning markedly forward at the instant he was struck, which is something he is not seen to do in the Zapruder film.

A further problem for Posner is that exit wounds tend to be larger and more ragged than entrance wounds. Clearly understanding this general principle, he tries to create the impression that the appearance of Kennedy’s wounds was consistent with a back-to-front trajectory by writing that the hole in the front of Kennedy’s neck was 5mm to 8mm (p. 306) and that the one in his back was “even smaller…” (p. 305) But the back wound was described in the autopsy report as a “7 x 4 millimeter oval wound” and the throat wound was initially described by Dr Perry as approximately 3 to 5mm. (17H29) Furthermore, Perry confirmed in his testimony that the hole was “roughly spherical to oval in shape, not a punched-out wound, actually, nor was it particularly ragged. It was rather clean cut.” (6H9) This description does not comport well with the exit wounds created by Oswald’s rifle during tests performed on behalf of the Warren Commission. When the alleged murder weapon was fired from 180 feet―the approximate distance of the Book Depository to Kennedy’s back at Zapruder frame 224―exit holes measured 10 to 15mm, as much as five times the size of Kennedy’s throat wound. (5H77, 17H846)

To explain away the small size and remarkably neat appearance of the anterior wound, Posner cites experiments conducted by John Lattimer who found that exit wounds “remained small and tight if the bullet exited near the collar band of the shirt, where the buttoned collar and the knotted tie firmly pushed the neck muscles together.” (p. 306) He then asserts, supposedly based on an interview of Parkland’s Dr Charles Carrico, that “[Kennedy’s] neck wound was right at the collar band and tie knot.” (Ibid) What Posner is describing is what is usually referred to by experts as a “shored” exit wound. But suggesting this as an explanation for the appearance of JFK’s throat hole has two major problems: Firstly, and despite what Dr Carrico allegedly told Posner, the damage to JFK’s shirt is below the collar and the area where the shoring pressures would have been greatest. And secondly, shored exit wounds tend to have a large abrasion ring surrounding their margins. Yet not one doctor at Parkland Hospital saw any such bruising around JFK’s throat wound nor is one visible in the autopsy photos.

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Of course, the fact that the throat wound did not have the typical appearance of an exit wound does not prove it was not one. Forensic pathologists do not determine entrance from exit based solely on size and shape. Nonetheless, there is clear reason for doubting such a conclusion, especially when the wound’s small, neat appearance is considered alongside the shallow probing of the back wound at autopsy.

Bethesda autopsy technician James Curtis Jenkins recalled from observing the postmortem that the back wound was “very shallow…it didn’t enter the peritoneal (chest) cavity.” He remembered that the doctors had extensively probed the wound with a metal probe, “approximately eight inches long”, and that it was only able to go in at a “…fairly drastic downward angle so as not to enter the cavity.” (ARRB MD65) Jenkins's colleague Paul O'Connor said much the same thing, stating that “it did not seem” to him “that the doctors ever considered the possibility that the bullet had exited through the front of the neck.” (ARRB MD64) O’Connor told author William Law that “…we also realized [during the autopsy] that this bullet―that hit him in the back―is what we called in the military a ‘short shot,’ which means that the powder in the bullet was defective so it didn’t have the power to push the projectile―the bullet―clear through the body. If it had been a full shot at the angle he was shot, it would have come out through his heart and through his sternum.” (William Matson Law, In the Eye of History, p. 41)

Many critics believe, based on the above, that the wound in the throat was an entrance for a bullet fired from the front. But this would appear to be an equally if not less likely prospect than its having been an exit for a bullet fired from the rear. Not only because there was no bullet found in the body and no corresponding exit wound in the back, but also because no one at Bethesda recalled seeing any damage to the spine which there would almost certainly have had to have been had a missile entered Kennedy's throat near the midline.

President Kennedy’s Head Wounds

Posner does all he can to hide it, but similar uncertainties exist about the nature of President Kennedy’s head wounds. He claims that “The evidence of the head wound was a textbook example of entrance and exit for a bullet” and describes a small entrance in the rear of the skull accompanied by a “nearly six-inch hole on the right side” which he presumes was a wound of exit. (p. 307) He then spends several pages arguing that the Parkland doctors were “mistaken” in their belief that they saw a “gaping wound in the rear of JFK’s head,” a position he is forced to take because, in Posner’s own words, if the Parkland physicians had been correct in their observations, “this not only contradicted the findings of the autopsy team but was evidence that the President was probably shot from the front, with a large exit hole in the rear of the head.” Thus, Posner reveals that he has no meaningful understanding of wound ballistics.

Over the last six decades, far too many words have been wasted arguing about the location of the large hole in Kennedy’s skull by those like Posner who mistakenly believe it was a wound of exit and, therefore, that its position tells us something about the direction in which the bullet was travelling. It was not and it does not. Larry Sturdivan, a ballistics expert whom Posner himself quotes, has explained that the question of “whether the explosion was more to the side or back is completely irrelevant.” This, he says, is because "the center of the blown-out area of the president's skull was at the midpoint of the trajectory; not at the exit point." (Sturdivan, The JFK Myths, p. 171) Indeed, the explosion of skull, blood, and brain matter seen so vividly in frame 313 of the Zapruder film, and the massive hole it left in the right side of Kennedy’s skull, was the result of a temporary cavity that was created not by the exiting of a missile but by the hydraulic pressure its passage applied to the inside of the cranium which caused it to burst open. As Sturdivan explains, a "similar explosion would have taken place" whichever direction the bullet was travelling. (Ibid, p. 171) This characteristic is sometimes referred to as cavitation.

Many critics of the official story will know Sturdivan as a vocal defender of the lone nut theory and, for that reason, may feel inclined to dismiss his writings on the assassination. But the phenomenon to which he is referring here is one that is firmly established in the forensic literature. In fact, Sturdivan himself is able to demonstrate it in his book using stills from films made at the Biophysics laboratory at Edgewood Arsenal in 1964. There, rifle bullets were fired into numerous rehydrated skulls filled with brain simulant and these experiments were filmed using a high-speed camera. Describing a typical example Sturdivan writes, “The bullet entered the back of the skull and exited in a small spray at the front in the space of one frame of the high-speed movie. Only after the bullet was far down-range did the internal pressure generated by its passage split open the skull and relieve the pressure inside by spewing the contents through the cracks.” (Ibid)

The proper way to assess the direction of travel of the bullet or bullets that struck the skull is through identification and careful examination of both the point of entrance and the point of exit. This, however, was not done by JFK’s autopsy surgeons. Dr. Humes told the Warren Commission that he and his colleagues had found a through-and-through hole, low down in the back of the skull, which exhibited the “coning effect” that established it as a wound of entrance. (WC Vol. 2 p.352) They did not, however, find the point of exit. As Humes told the Warren Commission, “…careful examination of the margins of the large bone defect at that point…failed to disclose a portion of the skull bearing again a wound of―a point of impact on the skull of this fragment of the missile, remembering, of course, that this area was devoid of any scalp or skull at this present time. We did not have the bone.” (Ibid, 353) Nonetheless, Dr Humes said that X-rays of the skull revealed multiple bullet fragments “traversing a line” from the wound he found in the rear to a point “just above the right eye.” This, then, laid out the alleged path of the bullet [see diagrams below, prepared at Dr. Humes’s direction].

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Unfortunately for Dr Humes, his characterization of the head wound is contradicted by the very evidence on which it is supposedly based. When the Clark Panel reviewed the autopsy materials in 1968, it encountered a serious problem. The bullet fragments that Humes had spoken of were, in fact, located in the very top of the skull. As the panel no doubt understood, a bullet entering low down in the occipital bone―where Humes said the entry wound was―could not have left a trail of fragments along a path it never took in the top of the head and, therefore, the evidence indicated the skull had been struck by two separate missiles. Undeterred, the Clark Panel found a creative solution to this conundrum and simply moved the entrance wound four inches up the back of the head to bring it closer to, although still not in line with, the trail of metallic debris. A decade later, the HSCA forensic panel, in deference to Russell Fisher, accepted this revised location over the strenuous objections of the autopsy surgeons who, not unreasonably, believed that the first-hand observations of the physicians who had the actual body in front of them should take precedence over those of individuals looking at photos and X-rays years later.

Posner deals with this issue by ignoring their objections and writing in a footnote that Humes and Boswell had “misplaced” the entry wound “by four inches” because they had not had access to the photographs and X-rays “when making their autopsy report…” (p. 308n) But this argument ignores the fact that numerous other witnesses at the autopsy, including Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman, FBI Agent Francis O'Neil, and Bethesda photographer John Stringer, all recalled that the wound was low down on the back of the head, not high up in the “cowlick” area where the Clark and HSCA experts claimed it was. In fact, not a single witness recalled seeing an entrance wound in the top of the head.

Several months after the initial publication of Case Closed, Posner told the House Committee on Government Operations that he had interviewed Humes and Boswell and that both now agreed they had been mistaken about the location of the entrance wound. When asked if he would be willing to hand over any notes or tape recordings of his interviews, Posner responded, “I would be happy, Mr Chairman, to ask Drs. Humes and Boswell if they would agree for their notes to be released to the National Archives.” (ARRB Report, p. 134) No such notes were ever rendered. Assassination researcher Dr. Gary Aguilar, who knew full well that both autopsy surgeons had vociferously objected to the revising of the wound’s location by the Clark and HSCA panels, then contacted Humes and Boswell to see if Posner’s declaration before Congress was accurate. But not only did they both deny telling Posner they had changed their minds, Boswell denied ever having spoken to Posner in the first place. Dr. Aguilar gave copies of his tape-recorded conversations with Humes and Boswell to the ARRB who then contacted Posner asking, once again, for substantiation of his allegation. As the Review Board later reported, it “never received a response to a second letter of request for the notes.” (Ibid)

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Last modified on Thursday, 11 May 2023 12:03
Martin Hay

Martin Hay is a writer and musician living near London. He has been a keen student of the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King for over 15 years and, as well as contributing popular articles to CTKA, maintains his own well-regarded blog, The Mysteries of Dealey Plaza.

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