Sunday, 26 July 2020 19:39

Bugliosi on the Kennedy Autopsy: Twenty shades of pride and prejudice

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Dr. Aldo Mariotto reviews Vincent Bugliosi’s chapter on President Kennedy’s autopsy in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and determines that Bugliosi is thoroughly unconvincing in his prejudicial consideration of the myriad problems with the botched examination.


Vincent Bugliosi was an eclectic man, a successful lawyer and a New York Times best-selling author. His 1612-page book, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which he personally defined as his “magnum opus,” won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book and became a benchmark for supporters of the government’s official theory of the lone assassin. When one added in the extra pages of the attached CD, the page count was upped by over a thousand.

However, despite its meticulousness and the extensive amount of material on which it is based, on close examination Bugliosi’s historical and legal reconstruction shows several limitations, the most serious being a prejudiced view of facts pervaded by a sense of superiority towards his readers and other authors.

The chapter examined here,[1] dealing with the key topic of the autopsy on President Kennedy, shows five types of limitations:

  1. Underestimated violations of the law
  2. Ideological attacks on the doctors at Parkland Hospital
  3. Overreaching defense of the pathologists at Bethesda
  4. Uncritical defense of the Warren Commission
  5. Medical superficiality

A – Underestimated violations of the law

A.1 – Legal value of family opinion

Citing the accusation of the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), directed at the autopsy pathologists who, “Failed to properly examine and section the brain, which would have irrefutably established the path of the bullet,” Bugliosi specifies that, “This was not done out of deference to the president's family, who wanted to bury the brain with the body.” However, the opinion of the family has exclusively human but no legal value and certainly must not influence the quality of the autopsy, which was so decisive in establishing the direction of the shots.

A.2 – Site of autopsy

Bugliosi writes that one of the key allegations of Warren Commission critics was that, “Kennedy’s body was unlawfully spirited away from the Dallas authorities at Parkland Hospital to be taken to Bethesda for the autopsy,” flippantly remarking that, “The only serious problem with this is that, ironically and very unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, they don't even have support for their argument from the very person whom they wanted to conduct the autopsy - Dr. Earl Rose” (the Dallas medical examiner). The author explains that Rose was appointed by the HSCA as, “One of the nine forensic pathologists to review the autopsy findings,” revealing that there was, “No question their (the autopsy surgeons’) conclusions were correct,” disagreeing only with the entrance wound originally reported to be low at the back of the head instead of, “in the cowlick area.” Rose also maintained that while the three autopsy surgeons were not inept, “More experienced forensic pathologists should have been chosen to conduct the autopsy,” asserting that, “You can't blame the autopsy surgeons for the fact that the autopsy should have been more complete.”

The Texas legislature provided that since the crime occurred in Dallas, the autopsy should be performed in Dallas County, protecting the integrity of the body from harm by relocation. More impartially, Bugliosi ought simply to admit it was a serious violation of the law, potentially diminishing the validity of the autopsy. The regulatory rationale is in fact legal and health-related. Contact between the Parkland Hospital doctors who assisted the president and those performing the autopsy would have ensured an indispensable exchange of information. Moreover, the caseload experience of Dallas County would have guaranteed more highly qualified pathologists than were present at Bethesda. Finally, Dr. Rose was commenting on the extant medical exhibits from NARA. That is qualitatively and forensically different than actually doing an autopsy on a just deceased body.

A.3 – Date of the autopsy

Bugliosi shows indifference to the absence of a date on the autopsy report. This is not a minor flaw. Basically, a certificate without a date is an invalid certificate. It seems impossible that this could happen in wealthy North America and that this should be missing from one of the most important certificates ever written. This flaw cannot be justified tout-court. Forgetfulness cannot be the first or only plausible justification to consider. It leads one to suspect that either parts of the autopsy were performed on different dates or that the report was prepared and then revised on different dates, with all the legal problems and consequences that this entails. Equally serious is the fact that the additional autopsy examination of the brain was also issued without a typed date. There is only a handwritten notation of December 6th on the document. At the very least, this is negligence on the part of the forensic pathologists, calling into question their professionalism.

B – Ideological attacks on the doctors at Parkland Hospital

Bugliosi’s autopsy chapter also includes widespread attacks on the doctors at Parkland Hospital who attempted to save President Kennedy and who, to some extent, contradict the pathologists at Bethesda and also the Warren Commission. Bugliosi refers to the Parkland Hospital doctors as, “A group of mostly young interns and residents who were not pathologists” and whose observations were “unfocused and unconcentrated.” He acknowledges only the testimonies that differ from those of the majority of Parkland Hospital doctors. Bugliosi states that the Parkland Hospital doctors were not interested in the direction of the shots. “The direction of fire wasn’t yet an issue to anyone, much less to the people in Trauma Room No. 1.” But can he know that? The doctors at Parkland Hospital would probably have been interested in the direction of the shots, not least because of the legal and medical implications. As we shall see, it is highly improbable that it was not cause for consideration and concern on the part of at least some of the doctors.

B.1 – Professionalism of the Parkland Hospital Neurosurgery Director

Bugliosi derisively calls into question the doctors who claimed to have seen part of the cerebellum exit the president’s skull, supporting the hypothesis of a low posterior skull wound. Among them, however, was Dr. William Kemp Clark, Director of Neurosurgery who, given his job profile, was most likely—unless proven otherwise—able to recognize brain tissue better than any other doctor in Trauma Room No. 1 at Parkland Hospital, or in the autopsy room at Bethesda. Bugliosi is unable to provide the contrary evidence.

B.2 – Dr. Charles Crenshaw

Bugliosi dislikes Dr. Charles Crenshaw, one of the Parkland Hospital doctors, who claimed that the back of Kennedy’s head had been blown out and that the small wound in Kennedy’s throat was an entrance wound. He simply refers to his remarks as “unbelievable” and doubts that he saw the hole in the throat, given the limited time. But any doctor can instantly recognize a hole in the human body and is knowledgeable of such medical forensic aspects. Bugliosi instead gives credibility to Dr. Perry, who claimed Crenshaw was not present in Trauma Room No. 1, a fact denied by an overwhelming number of witnesses. Moreover, Bugliosi does not speak a word of blame regarding the lie. He takes questionable positions. In 1992, George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of American Medicine Association (JAMA), informed the press that, “The recent Crenshaw book is a sad fabrication based upon unsubstantiated allegations.” Among the slanders that JAMA promulgated was that Crenshaw was not even in the emergency room when Kennedy’s body was there.

Yet, Dr Lawrence K. Altman in the NY Times (5/20/92) wrote that Crenshaw’s presence in the room was affirmed by doctors who JAMA itself had interviewed and this information was in the Warren Commission volumes. Dr. Crenshaw filed suit against JAMA and during the deposition process it was revealed that the writer of the JAMA articles, Don Breo, never interviewed Crenshaw. And further, Breo never inspected the 26 volumes of evidence that the Warren Commission published before the first article was published. Therefore, he could not have seen those references. (Trauma Room One, by Charles Crenshaw, p. 163) During that deposition process Lundberg acknowledged that 1.) He had done no research for the articles, and 2.) He knew that Breo was not going to talk to Crenshaw before publication. (Ibid, p. 165)

In 1994, JAMA paid Crenshaw compensation to the tune of $213,000, in addition to publishing a rebuttal article in JAMA by Crenshaw and Gary Shaw, co-author of the book.  Bugliosi’s hypothesis was that, even though it was in the right, JAMA paid the fine solely for reasons of convenience. This appears prejudicial and hard to sustain, in view also of the size of the penalty (equivalent of $ 370,500 today).

B.3 – Witness selection

In reference to the throat wound, which Dr. Perry calculated to be 3–5 mm, Bugliosi quoted only Dr. Carrico, who had indicated a diameter of 6–8 mm. He fails to mention the other doctors, who had all given smaller measurements. In discussing the entrance wound in the President’s head, Bugliosi quotes a Parkland Hospital doctor who reported a measurement of 6x15 mm. Again, his quotes are limited to the only doctor whose testimony supported his thesis, omitting the witness statements of all other doctors, who provided different information. For instance, as Gary Aguilar has pointed out, in pathologist Dr. Thornton Boswell’s diagram, he indicated this wound was much larger, 10 cm by 17 cm.

C – Overreaching defense of the pathologists of Bethesda (with ad hoc exceptions)

Throughout the chapter, Bugliosi strives to justify the errors committed by the pathologists of Bethesda and support their forensic professionalism. Try as he might, the inconsistency of the few available elements means he can only fail. He also carefully selects the testimonies and forgets to quote James Curtis Jenkins, who was an assistant and was in close proximity to the President’s head, but whose reconstruction of the facts did not agree with theirs.[2],[3]

C.1 – Professionalism of Dr. Humes

In support of Dr. Humes’ professionalism, Bugliosi notes that, “One of the best indicators that Humes was not out of his depth during the autopsy is a reading of his testimony…before the HSCA forensic pathology panel, when he spoke knowledgeably and confidently about all aspects of the autopsy.”

When? On September 16, 1977. Fourteen years after the most important autopsy in history and without the associated burden of responsibility, not only the forensic pathologists who performed the examination would be well informed, but so would many other doctors. Then Bugliosi points out that, besides Rose, Dr. Charles Petty also felt the autopsy surgeons had done “an elegant job” and that, “The autopsy, overall and considering all the circumstances, was well done and well reported.” He does not mention, however, that these were the only two of the nine experts on the HSCA panel to approve the work of the pathologists at Bethesda. Their opinion was expressed long after their work on the panel and one of them, Petty, had a conflict of interest in that he had worked with Bugliosi at a televised mock trial in London. Bugliosi does not mention that their new opinion was influenced by a number of mitigating circumstances, which, while humanly understandable, are not in the least either legal or professional. Accordingly, the true position of the HSCA panel, which officially expressed an extremely negative opinion of the work of the pathologists of Bethesda, does not clearly emerge. In support of Humes’ experience, Bugliosi recalls an article in JAMA dated 1992, yet this letter confirms the inexperience of the pathologist. Indeed, Humes recalled a total of only two autopsies performed on gunshot deaths at the Tripler Army Hospital, Hawaii. He had no recollection of any others. Moreover, it transpires that he did not consider himself an expert which is why he called Dr. Pierre Finck, chief of the Wound Ballistics Pathology Branch of The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, to reinforce the team of pathologists. Bugliosi supports the professional skills of Finck, who incidentally, only received his board certification in 1961. He had a fair amount of experience, but it was not comparable with that of the forensic pathologists in Dallas, who should have performed the autopsy.

C.2 – Influence of the Military

At the conspiracy trial of businessman Clay Shaw for Kennedy’s murder in New Orleans in 1969, Finck testified that during the autopsy an army general informed Humes that he was in charge. Bugliosi seeks to lighten this testimony recalling that Finck later clarified, “It doesn't mean the army general was in charge of the autopsy…” rather he was responsible for “overall supervision.” First, however, the presence of an army general at an autopsy constitutes an unacceptable working condition. Second, several military interventions during the autopsy were reported by various other sources. For example, after conferring with the military, the pathologists, particularly Humes, were reported to have become tense and to have changed attitude. Ultimately, overall supervision did somehow extend to the autopsy. Because, as Finck testified at the Shaw trial, the reason the pathologists did not dissect the back wound was because they were told not to do so. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, second edition, p. 302) Since Finck’s statement could constitute an undue intrusion into the proper conduct of the autopsy, not noting the irony, Bugliosi responds to the “conspiracy” authors of the book, Trauma Room One, with a further quote by Finck at the Shaw trial, “There were admirals, and when you are a lieutenant colonel in the Army, you just follow orders.”[4] Immediately afterwards Finck added, “At the end of the autopsy we were specifically told not to discuss the case,” referring not only to the confidentiality to be kept, but also to how the autopsy was conducted. But on no account was it incumbent on Admiral Kenney, Surgeon General of the Navy, to dictate these kinds of rules.

C.3 – Duration of the autopsy

Bugliosi states that the autopsy lasted three hours and was not therefore conducted quickly and superficially. However, Dr. M. Baden, chairman of the forensic pathology panel of the HSCA, told Bugliosi that a forensic autopsy of this type would normally “take four to five hours,” whereas “an autopsy of the president could be expected to take all day, eight hours.” Bugliosi does not comment on this, nor does he acknowledge that the autopsy was performed incorrectly.

C.4 – Location of the wounds

Bugliosi quotes Rose, one of the pathologists on the HSCA panel, who confided to him that the only mistake they made at Bethesda was to have “reported the entrance wound to the back of the head to be too low. It was in the cowlick area.” The only mistake? Yet we are talking about the bullet hole that was fatal to the President of the United States. Were it a mistake, it would be inconceivable. We are talking about a nine to ten-centimeter difference, from the bottom to the top of the skull. The attitude of absolute indifference assumed by Bugliosi does not aid comprehension of a key step in Kennedy’s assassination. The pathologists at Bethesda reported the location of the occipital hole, but Bugliosi considers this a mistake: had the hole really been where they indicated, “There would have been damage to the cerebellum.” But Kemp Clark and several doctors at Parkland Hospital claimed to have seen damaged, exposed cerebellum tissue. As mentioned above, Clark in particular, who Bugliosi treats as a novice, had specific expertise in this field, being Director of Neurosurgery. It is very strange and cause for concern that a dark spot like this should be simply bypassed.

C.5 – Examination of the clothing

“Finck asked to examine the president’s clothing to match it with the wounds and found it most unfortunate that the clothing was not available.” This is a serious loophole, caused by the transfer of the autopsy from Dallas to Bethesda. Bugliosi’s defense is superficial. He used a statement made by pathologist Dr. Boswell in 1996. In response to the question, “Would it be standard practice to have the clothing available for inspection?” Boswell replied, “Well, under normal circumstances, but these were not normal circumstances.” This explanation is unacceptable. Finck’s examination of the clothes a long time later (Bugliosi does not even mention the date) cannot have the same meaning as a contextual examination.

C.6 – Significance of the X-rays

With reference to the X-rays, Humes informed Arlen Specter of the Warren Commission, “I do not believe, sir, that the availability of the X-rays would assist in further specifying the nature of the wounds.” This scientifically baseless statement fails to elicit any reaction from Bugliosi.

C.7 – Autopsy inaccuracy

Commenting on the errors in the autopsy detected by the pathologists and lawyers of the HSCA, Bugliosi argues that few, if any, of the procedures neglected by the autopsy surgeons would have been overlooked in a standard medical legal autopsy. Yet, as we have seen, the circumstances surrounding this autopsy were anything but standard or typical. This defense has no legal significance and does nothing but accuse itself of the inaccuracies made.

C.8 – Landmark points

Bugliosi attacks the statement by the panel of HSCA pathologists that the autopsy report was incomplete and inaccurate since, “The location of the entrance wound in the upper back and the exit wound in the throat were not referenced to fixed body landmarks to permit a precise trajectory reconstruction.” Quoting parts of the autopsy report that contain measurements and reference points, he mocks the HSCA panel. Yet the findings he mentions, namely the mastoid process, the acromion and the trachea, are simply not fixed anatomical landmarks. Movements of the head or shoulder can considerably alter such measurements, even by many centimeters (i.e. to a sufficient degree to trace different trajectories). To make a simple parallelism, it is interesting to see how the landmark points of Governor Connally’s wounds are instead indicated. Dr. Robert Shaw’s description of John Connally’s wounds at the entrance and exit points of the governor, these used fixed, recognized anatomical landmarks (midline, first thoracic vertebra, nipple). Bugliosi showed no understanding of how these differed from the kinds of equivocal measurements used in Kennedy's autopsy.

C.9 – Gerald Ford’s forgery

Bugliosi calmly maintains that Humes changed the location of the entrance wound and that Gerald Ford, a member of the Warren Commission and future President of the United States, altered the autopsy findings in the final report, replacing the words, “back at a point slightly above the shoulder,” with “the back of his neck.” This is almost incredible.

D – Uncritical defense of the Warren Commission

D.1 – Failure to examine the X-rays and photographs

Regarding the authenticity of the autopsy photographs and X-rays housed at the National Archives, Bugliosi recalls that, “The 1964 Warren Commission never had to deal with this issue because the autopsy photographs and X-rays were never part of its published record.” Bugliosi fails to comment on this; it is also absurd that the Warren Commission preferred to ignore what might have been objective elements, perhaps the most objective of all.

It was bizarre for the House Select Committee to publish the “sketches produced by Ida Dox” instead of the photographs of the President’s wounds, on the grounds that the photographs were far too “gruesome.” This choice is incomprehensible, but Bugliosi welcomes it as though it were instead logical.

“The Commission’s Assistant Counsel, Arlen Specter, urged the Warren Commission to obtain the photographs and X-rays, saying it was indispensable that the staff examine them. However, Specter's request was not met.” Bugliosi remains indifferent to these dynamics. J. Lee Rankin, General Counsel to the Warren Commission, explained that otherwise, “They would have to be published.” Why? A lot of files on the Kennedy assassination were not made public. Bugliosi concludes instead that it was not important to see the photos and X-rays as they matched the location indicated by the HSCA review panel. But a posteriori, these explanations are far from satisfactory.  For the simple reasons that

  1. The pictures do not match Gerald Ford’s location of the back wound.
  2. The HSCA placed the back wound lower than the Warren Commission.
  3. The HSCA moved up the location of the rear skull wound.
  4. The HSCA mentioned a 6.5 mm fragment on the skull x rays that the Warren Commission did not address and Humes did not write about in his autopsy report.
  5. The declassified Commission executive session meetings indicate that the Commissioners did have the autopsy exhibits but did not let the staff members know this. (Gerald McKnight, Breach of Trust, p. 171)

D.2 – Earl Warren’s sensitivity

Bugliosi reports that Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States, wrote, “I saw the pictures when they came from Bethesda Naval Hospital, and they were so horrible that I could not sleep well for nights... I suggested that they could not be used by the Commission.” Bugliosi accepts this as an explanation. Moreover, Earl Warren, venerable master of the Dakland Masonic Lodge, was anything but faint hearted. For example, during World War II he advocated placing 100,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps. It is inconceivable that he went soft on the photograph of a dead man.

E – Medical Superficiality

E.1 – Forensic ballistic principles

Taking a scientific stance, Bugliosi states with certainty that, “In an entrance wound, the diameter of the wound is larger on the inside of the skull than on the outside where the bullet first hits. This physical reality has been known for centuries and has been the main basis for determining whether a wound is an entrance or exit wound.” First of all, these general considerations should be reported also with regard to the principle that entrance holes are much smaller than exit holes. But of course, general principles were not invoked with reference to the wound under John Kennedy’s Adam’s apple. In any case, the scientific literature reports exceptions to the natural law invoked by Bugliosi as well as exceptions to the general rule of entry holes being smaller than exit holes.

E.2 – Interpretation of the missile defect

The HSCA panel of forensic pathologists refer to a “semi-circular missile defect near the center of the lower margin of the tracheotomy incision. The committee said it was an exit defect.” They do not explain in any way how they can tell whether it was an exit or an entrance defect. But this does not seem to interest Bugliosi.

E.3 – President Kennedy’s brain

Addressing the enigma of the autopsy, Bugliosi asserts that, “What happened to President Kennedy’s brain has only academic value.” On the contrary, it is of paramount importance because the examination of the brain revealed the direction of the shot. In addition, there are some really robust testimonies, like the one by James Curtis Jenkins, who noticed substantial differences between the brain he saw during the autopsy and the brain described in the autopsy report. Moreover, this is also linked to the time of performance of the autopsy examination of the brain and the persons actually present. Former FBI agent, Francis O’Neill, said that the photographs he was shown by the ARRB counsel did not look like the brain he saw at the autopsy on November 22, 1963. “More than half the brain was missing,” and in the photo, “it appears to be too much.” Bugliosi mockingly suggests that, “He probably looked over someone’s shoulder in the crowded autopsy room to get a quick glimpse…” But what does Bugliosi know about what Officer O’Neill saw? Why dare him?


Despite his capacity for analysis and the propaganda surrounding his voluminous book on the assassination of President Kennedy, Bugliosi is not convincing. This article considers the key chapter on the autopsy. All elements, even the most objective, which depart from the official consideration of the Warren Commission, are given prejudicial consideration. And, above all, the dark spots—like the mystery surrounding Kennedy’s brain—remain dark.

[1] Bugliosi, Vincent Reclaiming History. Chapter: “President Kennedy’s Autopsy and the Gunshot Wounds to Kennedy and Governor Connally” New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007, pp. 382-449.

[2] Jenkins, James C. with Law, William Matson At the Cold Shoulder of History. Chicago: Trine Day LLC, 2018.

[3] Jenkins, James C. Personal communication to the Author. Dallas, The Lancer Conference, November 18, 2018.

[4] Crenshaw, Charles A. with Shaw, J. Gary et Al. Trauma Room One. New York: Paraview Press, 2001.

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 July 2020 03:08
Dr. Aldo Mariotto

Aldo Mariotto, M.D., M.B.A. was born in Venice, Italy, on September 6th, 1958. He is a physician, Medical Director of the Italian National Cancer Institute, CRO di Aviano. Since 2003, he has been an independent researcher on President Kennedy, was put on the right path by Ray Marcus, historian of the first generation, and met Robert S. McNamara, Ronald Coy Jones, Clint Hill, and many other testimonials of that time. He is an expert of the organization of the Texas trip, presented his version at The Lancer Conference in Dallas in 2018, and wrote the book “The Day before Dallas.”

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