Sunday, 24 April 2022 21:48

The JFK Assassination Dissected by Cyril Wecht and Dawna Kaufmann

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Martin Hay assesses The JFK Assassination Dissected by Dr. Cyril Wecht and Dawna Kaufmann and considers it a mostly worthwhile first or second book for anyone developing an interest in the subject, but has little new or revelatory to offer those of us who have been around for a while.

Alongside Mark Lane, Josiah Thompson, and Jim Garrison, Dr. Cyril Wecht’s face long ago made its way onto my own personal Mount Rushmore of JFK assassination experts. A world-renowned forensic pathologist, lawyer, author, and founder of the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, his credentials and intellect are not open to question. Perhaps more importantly, his courage and integrity are beyond reproach. In opposition to most of his colleagues in medicine, Dr. Wecht has never been afraid to take a stand against official pronouncements when he knows them to be wrong. As such, he has been one of the most prominent and outspoken critics of the US government’s lone nut solution to the Kennedy assassination for more than fifty years. And never being one to follow the herd, Dr. Wecht has been just as outspoken when his fellow Warren Commission critics have gone off the deep end with their pet theories.

My own contact with Dr. Wecht has been sadly limited. However, in 2015, after ballistics expert Lucien Haag published a piece titled “Death of the Shooter on the Grassy Knoll” in the pages of the AFTE Journal, I was among a small group of assassination buffs who offered Dr. Wecht and his colleague Dr. Gary Aguilar some ideas on how to respond. In a detailed email, I shared my thoughts on what could be discerned from a comparison of JFK’s post-mortem skull X-rays and the X-ray of a test skull that had been shot with the very rifle and ammunition Lee Harvey Oswald is alleged to have used. A few hours later, Dr. Wecht responded, “Thank you very much for your perceptive comments and observations…I appreciate your keen analysis and incisive critique…Your points will be helpful to us as we prepare our response to these WCR sycophants.” (Private email, Aug 13, 2015) To say the least, I was humbled and delighted by his kind words. I was equally as happy to see a comparison of the same two X-rays appear in Wecht and Aguilar’s published response.

It perhaps goes without saying, therefore, that I was excited to learn that Dr. Wecht had published―with co-author Dawna Kaufmann―his first full length book on the Kennedy case. And my enthusiasm was stoked by the title of the book, The JFK Assassination Dissected, which appeared to me to suggest that the famous pathologist would be giving readers the benefit of his professional skills by offering an in-depth analysis of the forensic evidence in the case. As it turns out, however, that is not the type of book this is.

Written as a kind of memoir, The JFK Assassination Dissected functions largely as an overview of the last fifty-eight years from Dr. Wecht’s perspective. The first third or so of the book functions largely as an introduction to the basic facts of the case. And as I read these early chapters, it occurred to me that I have long lamented the lack of a decent introductory book on the case, one that does not offer or promote long-discredited theories or erroneous conclusions. The JFK Assassination Dissected could almost fill that void, but for a few important caveats. Firstly, the book does not cite any of its sources, a must for any scholarly work. Secondly, it contains some important errors of fact, the most baffling of which is the claim, “According to the Warren Commission, as of September 1962, [Lee Harvey] Oswald began receiving a $200 stipend as FBI informant number S172.” And finally, the authors appear to accept some important elements of the official portrait of Oswald, despite how strongly much of it has been contested.

For example, Wecht and Kaufmann matter-of-factly repeat the Warren Commission’s claim that in the spring of 1963 Oswald attempted to assassinate retired Army Major General Edwin Walker. The authors write of how Oswald allegedly stalked the “ultra-conservative” Walker, “taking photos of the general’s residence.” Then, on April 10, 1963, “…crouched behind a fence at the rear of the house where he could see Walker sitting at his desk. Oswald then fired one shot, at a distance of less than 100 feet away. The bullet hit the wooden frame of the window, and small fragments hit the general’s arm and caused bleeding.” (p. 89)

The above has long been a favourite story of Warren Commission loyalists, because of what it supposedly says about Oswald. For instance, lone nut zealot Mel Ayton called the Walker incident “the most compelling pre-assassination evidence for Oswald’s propensity to meticulously plan and carry out an act of political assassination, alone and unaided.” (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, p. 149) And yet there have always been profound reasons for questioning Oswald’s participation in the whole affair. To begin with, Oswald never made it onto the Dallas police department’s list of suspects during the several months it investigated the shooting. Furthermore, eyewitness evidence suggested that at least two people were involved. Walter Kirk Coleman, a neighbour of General Walker, told police that he saw two men leaving the scene in two separate cars, one of whom stopped to put something on the back floorboard of his car, while the other climbed into a green or blue Ford and “took off a hurry.” (WC Vol. 24 p. 41) Neither man, according to Coleman, resembled Oswald and, in fact, Oswald did not have a car or even held a driver’s license.

To be fair to Wecht and Kaufmann, the authors do mention the fact that two men were seen leaving the scene. What they do not divulge, however, is that the bullet that was recovered from Walker’s home was identified at the time as being a 30.06 steel-jacketed round. (Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact, p. 288 and WC Vol. 24 p. 40) It was not until the Warren Commission began looking into the incident that the bullet suddenly became a 6.5 mm copper-jacket, like the ones fired by Oswald’s rifle. This magical transformation of composition and calibre was a little too rich for Walker. When the retired Army general―who had held the real bullet in his hand on the night it was dug out of his wall―saw the Commission’s bullet on television he immediately started a campaign to have the government “withdraw the substituted bullet.” (Gerald McKnight, Breach of Trust, p. 52) Unsurprisingly, he was ignored.

Another basic tenet of the official Oswald legend that Wecht and Kaufmann repeat without objection is the claim that the violent-tempered ex-Marine was in the habit of beating his wife, Marina. Yet, as I have written before, there is good reason to suspect that the reality of this issue is more complex than Commission apologists would have us believe. Testimony offered to the Commission suggested that Marina had taken pleasure in tormenting and embarrassing her husband in front of friends and Lee was himself observed covered in scratches inflicted by his wife. (HSCA Vol. 12, p.129) Marina even admitted in her own testimony that she would hit and throw objects at Lee. “I’m not a quiet woman myself,” she confessed. (WC Vol. 5 p. 598) It seems to me that whilst there is little doubt the Oswald marriage was often a violent one, in all likelihood neither party was entirely blameless.

I was initially confused as to why Wecht and Kaufmann appeared so willing to accept the mainstream view of Oswald, but the answer came in a later chapter of the book which details a lunch Dr. Wecht had with Marina in November 1992. Writing of Marina’s “bravery” and being “in awe” of her ability to “separate fact from conjecture.” (p. 266) It seemed obvious that Dr. Wecht was quite taken by Oswald’s widow as she told him many of the same tales she had been recounting for nearly three decades by that time. It is important to note at this point that claims such as those concerning Oswald’s allegedly violent temper or his attempting to kill General Walker are reliant almost entirely on Marina’s word. In fact, as Mark Lane once noted, “The [Warren Commission’s] case against Lee Harvey Oswald was comprised essentially of evidence from two sources: Dallas police officers and Marina Oswald.” (Lane, Rush to Judgment, p. 307) In other words, in order to buy into the official story, it is essential to rely on Marina.

It may well be that Dr. Wecht’s instincts are correct and he is right to believe her. On the other hand, Marina has proven, to be kind, a rather unreliable witness. In fact, over the years she has given so many conflicting stories that when the House Select Committee on Assassinations conducted its own ill-fated probe into the assassination in the late 1970s, the staff compiled a report totalling more than thirty pages titled “Marina Oswald Porter’s Statements of a Contradictory Nature.” Shortly after her husband’s own death at the hands of Jack Ruby, Marina told authorities that he had been a good husband who loved to help out with his children and she could think of no acts of violence he had committed. Later, her description changed to one of a selfish, vicious wife-beater who forced himself on her sexually and was, as she told Dr. Wecht, a “lousy father.” (p. 260)

It might be argued that the evolution of Marina’s story was a result of her overcoming a sense of embarrassment or loyalty to her dead husband. Yet it cannot be ignored that the negative stories about Lee first began to emerge during the two-month period that Marina was held at the Inn of Six Flags in Arlington, Texas, and repeatedly interrogated by the Secret Service and FBI under threat of deportation. (WC Vol. 1 pp. 79; 410) Nor can it be ignored that, as Mark Lane pointed out, “In the course of Marina’s variegated testimony, she became richer.” (Lane, ibid) Indeed, soon after the assassination, she received hundreds of thousands of dollars in public donations and story advances, prompting her to hire a business manager. And the more the money rolled in, the more she painted herself as a helpless victim to a monstrous husband.

These days, as Wecht and Kaufmann explain, Marina says she believes there was a conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, that Oswald was telling the truth when he labelled himself a “patsy,” and that both her and her deceased husband were lied to by the U.S. government. (p. 262) On the other hand, she continues to insist that the horrendous portrait she helped paint of Oswald is an accurate one and has not admitted to telling any lies of her own. Maybe that is because the essential facts of the story she eventually settled on are, despite numerous contradictions, sadly true. Or perhaps Marina is sticking to her guns simply because she has become accustomed to playing the victim. Either way, I do believe the authors would have been better served had they conveyed her account with a little more caution.

Still, I cannot help but respect Dr. Wecht’s ability to state what he believes to be true regardless of what popular opinion may be. Although most students of the assassination take it as a given that Marina is not to be trusted, Dr. Wecht is, as usual, forging his own path. And it must be said, whatever his personal beliefs, Wecht usually takes care not to go beyond the bounds of the evidence. Thus, it is no surprise to me that he remains open minded on many issues, including the question of precisely what role Oswald played in the assassination.


Generally speaking, JFK assassination researchers fall into two camps: those who believe Oswald was totally innocent and played no part in the assassination and those who say he acted entirely alone. Dr. Wecht, however, appears to occupy the far less crowded middle ground. In a chapter dealing with Oswald’s arrest and the murder of police officer J.D. Tippit, he refuses to offer an opinion on Oswald’s guilt, writing that “Lee Harvey Oswald was the person arrested. I won’t argue whether he was the person who shot Officer J.D. Tippit.” (p. 53) Although Oswald’s innocence in the Tippit murder is taken for granted by a great number of assassination researchers today, Dr. Wecht’s is a wholly reasonable position. He notes that the official narrative has “many holes” that “might have been patched had Oswald been allowed to offer a defense,” (p. 53) and details several pertinent questions raised by critics. Yet, he does not say that the oft-repeated inconsistencies in the case against Oswald prove his innocence any more than the state’s evidence proves his guilt.

Another element of the official story that Wecht and Kaufmann repeat without objection is the notion that Ruth Paine was nothing more than a friendly, do-gooding Quaker woman who took Marina in because she “wanted to improve her Russian-language skills” (p. 65) She also helped Oswald get a job at the Texas School Book Depository out of the goodness of her heart, yet such a belief is more than questionable today. In his highly regarded 2008 book JFK and the Unspeakable, author Jim Douglass detailed a number of curious connections between Ruth Paine, her husband Michael, and US intelligence agencies. For example, Michael’s stepfather was Arthur Young, the inventor of the Bell Helicopter and Michael himself worked as an engineer for Bell, a job that carried a security clearance of which he claimed not to know the details. Furthermore, his mother was Ruth Forbes Paine Young who was a lifelong friend of OSS spy Mary Bancroft, the mistress of CIA director Allen Dulles. As Douglass summarized, “By heritage Michael Paine was well connected in the military-industrial complex.” (Douglass, p. 169)

Ruth Hyde Paine’s own familial connections are equally, if not more, interesting. Douglass points out that right after Ruth helped the Warren Commission to hang the assassination solely on Oswald, her insurance executive father, William Avery Hyde, received a three-year government contract from the Agency for International Development (AID), an organisation whose field offices were, as former Ohio governor and AID director John Gilligan later admitted, “infiltrated from top to bottom with CIA people.” (Ibid, 170) The end-of-tour report William Avery Hyde made of his time in Lima, Peru, may have been addressed to the State Department, but it was passed along to the CIA. As Douglass suggests, it may well be that Hyde used his insurance expertise as a “cover for gathering information on people [in Latin America] the CIA was watching carefully in the ferment of the sixties.” (Ibid)

If her father’s CIA connections are less than certain, the same cannot be said of Ruth Paine’s younger sister Sylvia Hyde Hoke who, by 1963, was enjoying her eighth year as an employee of the Agency. Yet incredibly enough, five years later when Ruth was questioned in front of a grand jury in New Orleans, she admitted to knowing that her sister had a “government job,” but claimed not to know for which agency she worked. Nonetheless, when the same grand jury questioned Marina Oswald about why she had cut ties with Ruth shortly after the assassination, Marina explained, “I was advised by the Secret Service not to be connected with her.” Why? Because, according to Marina, the Secret Service had told her that Ruth “was sympathising with the CIA…she had friends over there and it would be bad for me if people find out a connection between me and Ruth and CIA.” (Ibid, 173)

Intriguingly enough, Marina received a similar admonition from her husband’s eldest brother, Robert, who had become immediately suspicious of the Paines after meeting them for the first time at Dallas police headquarters on November 22, 1963. Later that evening, Robert wrote in his diary “I still do not know why or how, but Mr. and Mrs. Paine are somehow involved in this affair.” (WC Vol. 1, p. 346) Shortly thereafter, as he told the Warren Commission, Robert advised Marina to “sever all connections with Mr. and Mrs. Paine…I recommended that she did not talk to Mrs. Paine at all nor answer her letters…” (Ibid, pp. 420–21)

Robert’s instincts aside, the central question remains: did Ruth and Michael Paine’s intelligence connections have any bearing on their relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald? A definitive answer to that question remains elusive. However, a possible clue can be found in volume 19 of the Warren Commission hearings and exhibits in the form of a report written by Dallas deputy sheriff Buddy Walthers. The report in question describes numerous items that were found in the Paine garage on the day of the assassination. Among them, according to Walthers, was “a set of metal file cabinets that appeared to be the names and activities of Cuban sympathizers.” (WC Vol. 19 p. 520) The obvious question raised by Walthers’ report is just why Ruth and Michael Paine would be in possession of file cabinets filled with the “names and activities of Cuban sympathizers,” if they were not involved in some form of intelligence gathering? Can there be any other explanation? And is it really nothing more than coincidence that Oswald’s main preoccupation appears to have switched from Soviet communism to Castro’s Cuba around the same time he became acquainted with the Paines? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, it remains puzzling to me that almost none of the above appears in The JFK Assassination Dissected and that the authors unhesitatingly portray the Paine/Oswald relationship in much the same manner it was described in the Warren Report.

On a more positive note, Dr. Wecht remains the vociferous critic of the commission’s single bullet theory that he has always been, describing it unreservedly as “a hoax.” (p. 130) The SBT is, of course, integral to the official story, for without it there simply could not have been a lone gunman. Many of the arguments Dr. Wecht makes against the theory―the impossible trajectory, the near-pristine condition of the bullet etc.―will likely be familiar to even new students of the assassination today. However, there is one point Dr. Wecht has been making for decades that, it seems to me, gets routinely overlooked.

In October 1966, at the invitation of soon-to-be “cherished friend” Josiah Thompson, Dr. Wecht travelled to New York for his first ever viewing of the complete Zapruder film. Although, as he writes, he had already come to “seriously discount” the SBT by that time, “seeing the Zapruder film underlined its fantasy.” Not only did the film clearly show Governor John Connally react to being shot considerably later than President Kennedy, it also showed that approximately one second after a bullet had supposedly shattered his wrist and severed the radial nerve, Connally “sat there with absolutely no evidence of pain on his face and his hand firmly gripping his hat.” (p. 157) The unlikelihood of such a scenario, of Connally still holding onto his Stetson hat long after the nerves that permit such action have been severed, further underscores the impossibility of the SBT. It also lends credence to the proposition forwarded by Josiah Thompson in his most recent book, Last Second in Dallas, that Connally’s wrist was injured around five seconds after frame 230, at approximately frame 327, when it was in the ideal position to be struck by a large fragment from a bullet that exited the side of Kennedy’s head.

This type of observation is clearly right in Dr. Wecht’s wheelhouse as a forensic scientist. As previously noted, it is this very expertise that I believe serves as the selling point for his new book. And, to be sure, there is plenty of discussion about the medical evidence to be found in the pages of The JFK Assassination Dissected. For example, the authors describe President Kennedy’s wounds as they were observed at Parkland Hospital and give a detailed account of the procedures performed there in an ill-fated effort to save his life. Later in the book, Dr. Wecht is highly critical of Kennedy’s autopsy doctors and their report. He notes that lead pathologist Dr. James J. Humes was not a board-certified forensic pathologist and “had never performed an autopsy on a gunshot victim before.” (p. 68) Furthermore, quoting the autopsy report’s conclusion that the “projectiles [that struck Kennedy] were fired from a point behind and somewhat above the level of the deceased,” Dr. Wecht argues that “this one sentence is a direct contradiction of the medical evidence and numerous witness statements.” (p. 125) Yet, he does not take the opportunity to expand on this point or to ensure that readers understand the contradiction.

This highlights precisely why the book fell short of my expectations. Although the authors hint at the many mysteries and contradictions that unfortunately exist in the medical record, Dr. Wecht does not attempt to provide a detailed analysis of the materials or to fully explain what reasonable conclusions can be drawn from them.


Back in 2016, in the previously mentioned article for the peer reviewed AFTE Journal, Drs. Wecht and Aguilar utilized the Zapruder film and the post-mortem X-rays of JFK’s skull to make the case for a head shot from the grassy knoll. Wecht and Aguilar noted the presence of a trail of bullet fragments in the very top of the skull, explaining that this fragment trail alone “almost completely eliminates the official theory JFK was struck from above and behind with a single bullet that entered his skull low, through the occipital bone…” They further concluded that the explosion of skull, blood, and brain seen in frame 313 of the Zapruder film―and the rearward snap of his head―was most likely the result of a shot, “fired from the right front, striking tangentially near the top right portion of the President’s skull, with a portion of the bullet being deflected upward and to the left rear of the limousine…a second head shot…[fired] from behind circa Z–327 is a tantalising possibility, for it would explain why the President’s head rolled swiftly forward after that frame…”

Sadly, nothing like the above appears in The JFK Assassination Dissected. The X-rays are not provided, let alone annotated. And the only mention I could find of the fragment trail is found in Dr. Wecht’s account of a conversation with former Justice Department attorney John Orr of which he writes, “We discussed how the snow-flaking pattern seen in the X-rays of Kennedy’s skull suggests an expanding soft or hollow-point bullet that pulverizes its target, rather than a military bullet that is what Oswald was said to have used.” (p. 282) Whilst this observation is undoubtedly correct, it is puzzling to me that this is as much as Dr. Wecht has to say on the subject. There seems to be little logical reason why the analysis and conclusions he co-authored for an obscure forensic journal is not repeated in a book he presumably hopes will reach a much broader audience.

Furthermore, after finishing the book, I found myself less certain of Dr. Wecht’s opinions on some issues than I was before I picked it up. For example, there has been for some decades considerable debate among both amateur sleuths and genuine medical experts over the authenticity of the autopsy photographs and X-rays. Perhaps the most highly credentialed individual to offer the opinion that these materials have been altered is physicist and radiation oncologist Dr. David Mantik. In 2014, having spent considerable time studying Dr. Mantik’s work, I asked Dr. Wecht for his opinion on it. He responded by saying, “I have no basis to unequivocally contend that JFK’s autopsy photos and X-rays have been tampered with,” adding that, “…Dr. Mantik is an outstanding expert. The observations he has expressed should be thoroughly reviewed and analyzed.” (Private email, January 6, 2014) From this, I took that Dr. Wecht was not sold on the theory but was keeping an open mind. He appeared to confirm this two years later, when he utilized the X-rays for the AFTE Journal without making any suggestion whatsoever that they might be altered. And yet, a couple of passing remarks in The JFK Assassination Dissected appear to suggest that he has long felt otherwise.

In a high point of the book, Wecht relates a visit to New York with legendary Warren Commission critic Sylvia Meagher. They had a wide-ranging discussion, in which she told Wecht that Oswald was framed and a band of Cuban exiles killed Kennedy. (p. 151) But she also offered her belief that it would not be beyond the government to fabricate autopsy photographs and X-rays to suit the lone nut scenario. “There was no way to prove it at that time because the materials had not yet been released,” Dr. Wecht notes, “but I would reflect back on her comments in years to come and appreciate how prescient they were.” (p. 152) To me at least, these comments tend to indicate a belief that Meagher has since been proven correct.

The second such suggestion comes from his account of a visit he paid to the set of Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK. After Stone asked Dr. Wecht to take a look at the parts of the script dealing with the autopsy and medical evidence, he emphasised for the filmmakers that the Parkland doctors saw a gaping hole in the back of Kennedy’s head that does not appear in the autopsy photos. “That suggests,” he told the director, “…that the fatal blow had to come from the front and that the autopsy photos must have been tampered with.” (p. 253) If this does indeed reflect a long-held belief by Dr. Wecht, then it has not, as far as I am aware, been apparent in previous writings and comments. On the other hand, if it is something he has become more convinced of over recent years, it would have been useful to know why. Either way, I wish there had been further discussion of the issue in the book and that he had made his stance crystal clear.

Other readers may be confused as to Dr. Wecht’s opinion on the nature of JFK’s throat wound. Since virtually the day of the assassination, there has been a common―if, in my opinion, erroneous―belief among researchers that descriptions of the wound given by the emergency room physicians who treated Kennedy at Parkland Hospital prove that it was one of entrance. In discussing the observations of the Parkland doctors, Dr. Wecht writes, “Usually, first impressions of eyewitnesses are the most credible.” He goes on to note that “On three separate occasions” Dr. Malcolm Perry “described the bullet wound in the throat as an ‘entrance wound.’” Furthermore, Wecht explains, Dr. Perry was contacted on the night of the assassination by Secret Service agent Elmer Moore, “who explained that the doctor had to have seen an exit wound in the throat and berated him for holding an opinion that would cause the government trouble…Soon after, he began publicly modifying his observation of the throat wound as being either an entrance or exit wound…’” (p. 127–128)

From the above, readers might be forgiven for thinking that Dr. Wecht believes Perry’s initial assessment was correct. That, however, does not appear to be the case. Dr. Wecht writes that the doctors at Parkland “did not roll over Kennedy’s body for a full inspection, so they didn’t know about the bullet that entered the back and exited his throat.” (p. 128) And later in the book he suggests without further elaboration that “the bullet that hit Kennedy and missed Connally likely continued to crack the limo’s windshield, leaving a dent on the chrome.” (p. 282) This, it seems to me, is an area that deserved much greater attention. I believe that the majority of readers would have benefited greatly from a detailed discussion in which Dr. Wecht brought his skills to bear and explained the circumstances under which a rifle bullet might leave behind an exit wound that has all the appearances of an entrance. With his decades of experience, Dr. Wecht might finally have put this matter to rest. Or, at the very least, given those who cling to the belief that the throat wound had to have been an entrance reason to reconsider.

This review has been critical, but I do not want to create the impression that The JFK Assassination Dissected is a poor book or that it is without redeeming qualities. On the contrary, it is an engaging read and there is more than enough information on offer to inspire the casual reader or novice researcher to dig deeper into the assassination. I very much enjoyed the fact that it was presented as something of a memoir and some of my favourite parts of the book were those in which Dr. Wecht gave his recollection of his encounters with other notable figures like Mark Lane, Jim Garrison, and the late Warren Commission lawyer Arlen Specter. An encounter he had with Specter after a debate with the Commission lawyer is another memorable vignette in the book. (p. 143)

Nonetheless, for me the book could have been much more. Dr. Wecht is, as far as I’m aware, the first career forensic pathologist ever to author, or co-author, a full-length book on the JFK assassination. As such, it would have been something special had he given readers the full benefit of his knowledge and experience and dug deeper into the medical evidence. As it stands, The JFK Assassination Dissected is a mostly worthwhile first or second book for anyone developing an interest in the subject, but has little new or revelatory to offer those of us who have been around for a while.

Last modified on Saturday, 30 April 2022 19:09
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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