The State of the Evidence, The Evidence of the State

by Edward Jay Epstein

Evidence, by its very nature, can be controverted. If it could not be, it would not be evidence but an act of faith. Any document can be a forgery, any witness can give false testimony, and any object can be either fabricated or misidentified. Nevertheless, some evidence is better than other evidence. And when the best evidence is examined, tested and placed in the proper context, it provides the best way we have to establish the facts.

In the case of the assassination of President Kennedy, the central facts have been investigated and re-investigated for nearly three decades. The evidence-testers have included the FBI, the Treasury Department, the Warren Commission, the Rockefeller Commission, the House Select Committee on Assassination, the Department of Justice, independent coroners and forensic experts, and assassination researchers. Consider, for example, the much disputed autopsy findings of President Kennedy. Although the autopsy examination itself was badly handled by the Navy, and insufficiently probed by the Warren Commission, many of the problems were resolved the re-examination of the X-rays and photographs of the President's body by the panel of nine independent pathologists (including one Warren Commission critic) appointed by the House Select Committee. These findings, not those in the Warren Commission (or my criticisms of the original process in Inquest) constitute the best evidence.

Since as imperfect as the process has been, it has resulted in filling in much of the reality of what happened on November 22nd, 1963. I believe that the seven following questions now can be answered-- or at least narrowed down to finite possibilities.

1. Where did the bullets come from that hit President Kennedy and Governor Connally?

The best available evidence on the nature of the discernible wounds inflicted on Kennedy is, first, the photographs and X-Rays of the President taken during the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital and, second, the fibers of the President's clothing.

Although the photographs and X-Rays were not examined by the Warren Commission or its staff, leading to considerable doubt as to the validity of the Commission's conclusions, they were subsequently examined ,first, by a panel of three pathologists and a radiologist appointed by Attorney General Ramsey Clark in 1981, and then more thoroughly in 1976 by the nine man panel appointed by the House Select Committee. The members of this latter panel had between them experience in performing over 100,000 autopsies. The House Select Committee, moreover, established the authenticity of these photographs by having forensic dentists compare them with Kennedy's pre-mortem dental records and medical X-rays.

All these pathologists agreed, without any dissent, that all the detectable wounds in the photographs and X-rays of President Kennedy had been caused by bullets fired from behind and above him, confirming the conclusions of the doctors who had performed the autopsy itself as well as those of the FBI and the Warren Commission. They also agreed unanimously from a reconstruction of the medical evidence that Governor Connally's multiple wounds had been caused by a bullet fired from the same direction.

The path of the first bullet to hit the President was further established by the President's shirt and jacket fibers. The FBI analysis, as well as the re-analysis, showed that they were pushed inward, not outward, by the projectile which could only have happened if the President was shot from behind.

The path of the bullet that hit Governor Connally was also confirmed by Governor Connally's testimony that he was certain he was hit from behind.

The panel also unanimously concluded from the X-Rays that the fatal bullet had entered the rear of the President's head near the cowlick area and exited from the right front. None of the nine pathologist, including Warren Commission critic Dr. Cyril Wecht, were able to find any medical evidence that this massive wound was caused by a bullet fired from in front or side of the President's car. To be sure, a frame-by-frame analysis of the film of the assassination made by Abraham Zapruder shows President Kennedy's head at the time of impact moving backwards, not forward as might be expected. But this is not the evidence it seems to be because, depending on the neurological reactions to such a wound, the head can snap in any direction after being shot. Wound ballistic experts demonstrated this counterintuitive point to the House Select Committee through a filmed experiment that clearly showed that, when hit with a rifle bullet from the rear, the head could move either backward or forward. So there is not necessarily a relationship between the direction that the head moves and the direction from which the bullet strikes the head.

By tracing the trajectory of the bullets from the path of the wounds, an analyst from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration was able to plot all three shots to their source the upper floors of the southeast face of the Texas Book Depository. This was the same building that five witnesses --Howard Brennan, Amos Lee Euins, Carolyn Walther, Arnold Rowland and Barbara Rowland-- claimed to have seen a rifle protruding from a South-eastern window at about the time of the assassination (Brennan told police he actually saw the rifle being fired and reloaded before the suspect was apprehended).

While it is possible that numerous other shots may have been fired from other locations and directions and missed their target, we know from the best evidence, the autopsy photographs, that the shots that caused all the discernible wounds came from the a high window on the south eastern side of the Texas Book Depository.

2. Did the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found by police on the sixth floor of the Texas Depository fire these shots?

The best evidence for identifying the assassination weapon is the two bullet fragments found in the President's car and the nearly whole bullet found in a stretcher in Parkland Hospital in Dallas. In 1964, FBI experts ballistically matched this bullet and fragments to the rifle barrel of the Mannlicher-Carcano by microscopically comparing of the markings in the barrel with those found on the bullet and fragments. A firearms panel of independent experts appointed by the House Select Committee re-examined this evidence in 1977 and re-confirmed that the bullet and fragments had come from that Mannlicher Carcano rifle.

In addition, the House Select Committee employed a very advanced form of neutron activation analysis to match the recovered bullet and fragments to the ammunition used in the Mannlicher Carcano. In this technique, traces from the ballistic evidence are bombarded by neutrons in a nuclear reactor so that the precise composition of elements-- antimony, silver, and copper-- can be measured by their emissions on a gamma-ray spectrometer to an accuracy of one-billionth of a gram. The composition of traces from the bullet and fragments were thus compared to that of the unfired bullet found in the chamber of the Mannlicher-Carcano and found to exactly match. This analysis convincingly showed that all the ballistic material that was recovered, and could be tested, came from two bullets, and both bullets identically matched in their composition the ammunition for the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.

Although questions can be raised about the general accuracy of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found in the depository, there can be no doubt that the particular weapon can be fired with deadly accuracy at a target 100 yards away-- the distance from the depository to the President's car. After the assassination three different FBI agents fired this exact rifle and scored bull's-eyes two out of three times.

Although the suspicion has been raised that the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle was "framed" as the murder weapon by a conspirator who planted the nearly-intact bullet on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital, it lacks any reasonable persuasiveness because i) the conspirator would have no certainty that he could recover from the hospital, car, autopsy and crime scene the "real" bullets that presumably would not match the Mannlicher-Carcano; ii) the fragments found in the car and Governor Connally's wrist match the Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition; iii) it would be pointless to frame the Mannlicher-Carcano, which the conspirators would have had to have in their possession anyway to leave at the murder site, since it was a weapon perfectly capable of hitting its target. So why not use it?

We thus know that the Mannlicher Carcano found in the depository fired at least two of the shots at the President's motorcade.

3. How many snipers fired at the President's motorcade?

The best evidence of the sequence of events remains the ten-second long film taken by Zapruder. It fixes the earliest time Kennedy could have been first hit in the back, the latest time Connally was wounded, and the exact moment the President was shot in the head. From an analysis of this film, the Warren Commission staff determined that the interval between the time Kennedy and Connally were first shot was not long enough for a single rifleman to have fired two shots: therefore either both men were hit by the same bullet, or there had to be two riflemen. This conclusion was confirmed by the more sophisticated photographic analysis of the House Select Committee's photographic evidence panel and of independent researchers.

Despite the crucial implications of this photographic evidence, the issue of whether Kennedy and Connally were hit by the same or separate bullets has not been satisfactorily resolved. The FBI concluded it was separate shots, the Warren Commission begged the question as "not relevant" and the House Select Committee, which went most thoroughly into this evidence, was unable to reach a definitive conclusion because members of its 9-doctor panel irreconcilably disagreed. Eight doctors believed it was possible, though not necessarily probable. that the bullet recovered had caused both Kennedy's back wound and Connally's, multiple wounds; one doctor, however, Cyril Wecht concluded from the photographic and medical evidence that it was absolutely impossible for those wounds to have been caused by a single bullet. Since Wecht marshals considerable evidence to support his view (as will be recalled from Epilogue I), we are left with two possible scenarios.

A. The Single Bullet Scenario

One rifleman fired three bullets from the Mannlicher Carcano in the depository. The first bullet missed the motorcade entirely and incidentally wounded a bystander, James Teague. The second bullet hit Kennedy and Connally and was recovered from Connally's stretcher. About three seconds later, the rifleman fired a third bullet which killed Kennedy, abandoned his rifle, and fled the depository.

B. The Separate Shot Scenario

One rifleman fired the first shot that hit Kennedy in the back from an unidentified rifle. The bullet exited the car and was not recovered. He then fired a second shot that went astray and nicked bystander Teague. About one second after the first rifleman fired, a second rifleman, using the Mannlicher Carcano, hit Connally; and, with his second shot, hit Kennedy in the head. While the first rifleman left the depository with his rifle and shell casings, the second rifleman left his behind.

Both scenarios are consistent with the testimony of eyewitnesses-- one of whom saw a second person near the sniper's windows-- and the fingerprints found on the boxes arranged at the site. So we can conclude that either one or two riflemen participated in the assassination and that the one with the Mannlicher Carcano killed Kennedy.

4. Whose Mannlicher-Carcano was it?

The best evidence that identifies the ownership of the murder weapon is the handwriting of the person who ordered the rifle under the name "A. Hidell" from a mail order house in Chicago in March 1963 and rented the post office box in Dallas to which it was shipped.

It was Lee Harvey Oswald.

FBI and Treasury Department experts determined in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald had signed the name "A. Hidell" on both the purchase order for the rifle and the post box application. A half dozen other documents found in his possession, that Oswald used the alias "Hidell". The House Select Committee panel of questioned document experts, after re-examining the signatures, unequivocally agreed. So Oswald had ordered the murder weapon-- and it had been shipped to his post office box from Chicago on March 20,1963.


Marina Oswald confirmed that Oswald had received the rifle in late March, and four other witnesses--George De Mohrenschildt, Jeanne De Mohrenschildt, Alexander Taylor and Gary Taylor-- saw that Oswald had a rifle in either late March or Early April.

The best evidence of Oswald's actual possession of the Mannlicher- Carcano, however, is the much disputed photographs of Oswald holding the rifle in his hand that Marina Oswald said she took on Sunday, March 31, 1963 in the backyard of their house in Dallas. Oswald claimed after his arrest that the photograph had been faked by superimposing his head on the rifleman's body but this theory is contradicted by three pieces of evidence established by the House Select Committee. First, De Mohrenschildt produced in 1976 an inscribed copy of the backyard photograph which Oswald had given him in April 1963. The Committee's questioned document panel authenticated the signature-- which meant that Oswald had signed (and dated) the photograph he later claimed was faked. Second, by examining the negative with enhanced analytic techniques, the Committee' panel of photographic experts found a unique random pattern of wear on the rifle in the photograph which corresponded exactly to one on the Mannlicher-Carcano Oswald had purchased. Since the experts agreed this could not be faked, the rifle in the photograph had to be Oswald's. Third, by microscopically examining the scratch marks that Oswald's Imperial Reflex camera distributed on all negatives pulled through it, which are the equivalent of camera fingerprints, the panel established unequivocally that the backyard photographs could only have been taken by Oswald's camera, just as Marina had testified. Moreover, using digital processing analysis and stereo optic viewing techniques that did not exist in 1963, the panel concluded there was no signs of having been faked. Even two experts who had previously disputed the authenticity of the photographs (using copies, rather than the original) now agreed that the photograph was genuine. In light of this evidence, there can be no serious doubt that Oswald possessed the murder weapon at the end of March 1963.


Marina Oswald testified to the Warren Commission that when Oswald left their house on April 10,1963, he left her dramatic instructions in Russian about what she should if he were arrested, killed or had to go into hiding, and when he returned late that evening, he explained to her that he had just attempted to kill General Edwin Walker with his rifle. Her testimony is corroborated by three elements of evidence.

First, the Russian handwriting in the note has been unequivocally identified as that of Oswald by the questioned documents experts of both the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee. The note, which contains details that date it, confirms that Oswald expected to be killed, arrested or a fugitive the week of April 10th 1963.

Second, photographs of Walker's house taken from the position were the sniper fired at Walker were found among Oswald's possessions after the Kennedy assassination. Photographic experts established these photographs were taken with Oswald's imperial reflex camera. By referring to construction work in the background, the FBI was able to determine that the photographs were taken on March 9th or 10th (which was just about the date Oswald ordered the Mannlicher Carcano). Such photographs show that Oswald had reconnoitered Walker's house.

Third, the previously-discussed Neutron Activation Analysis done in 1977 exactly matched the metallic elements found in the bullet that was recovered in Walker's home to the batch of Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition used in Oswald's rifle in the assassination of Kennedy.

So we know the murder weapon was purchased, delivered and shown off in an inscribed photograph, and used in a prior attempted assassination by Oswald.

5. Was Oswald at the sniper's window on the sixth floor of the depository where the murder weapon was found.

The best evidence here is three palm prints (which are as uniquely identifiable as fingerprints) found on the boxes stacked in front of the window to support the rifle and the nearby paper sack which was long enough to accommodate the Mannlicher Carcano. FBI experts matched them to Oswald hands. ( A fourth palm print, found on one box, belonged to an unidentified individual). The House Select Committee's fingerprint panel unanimously confirmed this evidence. Since the "freshness" of palm prints is of limited duration, it was further determined that Oswald had handled those boxes and paper sack either the day of the assassination or the preceding day. Moreover, two witnesses testified he carried the paper sack into the depository that morning. So we know Oswald arranged the boxes used by the sniper and handled the paper sack within 24 hours of the assassination and, if the witnesses are correct, brought the sack to the sniper's window the morning of the assassination.

6. Was Oswald framed?

Whereas there is no doubt that Oswald's rifle was used to shoot President Kennedy, the possibility exists it was used by another party to frame Oswald. If Oswald was totally innocent, his activities after the assassination would reflect his lack of knowledge and involvement in the event. Instead, the evidence is persuasive that he fled the building after the assassination, changed his clothing, armed himself, fatally shot a policeman resisted arrest by attempting to shoot another policeman, and, after his arrest, lied repeatedly to his interrogators about owning the rifle, appearing in the backyard photograph with the rifle, and using the alias "Hidell" (which he purchased both the rifle and pistol).

The best evidence that he shot the policeman, J.D. Tippit, is that the cartridge cases found at the murder scene matched the firing pin of the revolver taken out of Oswald's hand when he was arrested. The FBI determined no all other weapon could have ejected these cartridges-- and these conclusions were reaffirmed by the Select Committee's firearms panel. Oswald admission that he had decided only on the spur of the moment to fetch this weapon effectively rules out the possibility he was framed since no one but Oswald could have known he would be carrying it.

In addition, five witnesses identified Oswald from the police line up as either the person who shot Tippit or the person who fled from the scene with a gun in hand. The House Select Committee produced an additional witness who testified he saw Oswald stand over the downed policeman and fire a bullet into his head.

His post-arrest actions, especially his mendacity in consistently denying ownership of the rifle to representatives of the FBI, Secret Service, Post Office, and district attorney, further indicate consciousness of guilt about owning the rifle. This would not be consistent with the behavior of a framed and innocent man -- who believed his rifle was still wrapped in a blanket in a friend's garage.

While none of this evidence is unimpeachable-- no evidence is-- and none of it proves that Oswald was the only person involved in the shooting of Kennedy, Tippit or General Walker, it convinces me that he was involved in the assassination.

The Conspiracy Question

One question, perhaps the only one that still matters, cannot be answered by the state's evidence: was Oswald part of a conspiracy? As we have seen, the re-investigations of the assassination have left unresolved the issue of whether or two shooters were involved but, even if they had definitively established, as the Warren Commission attempted to do, that a lone gunman had fired all the shots on November 22nd 1963, it would not logically diminish the possibility that the assassination resulted from a conspiracy.

Conspiracies do not necessarily require more than one rifleman to accomplish their purpose. In many cases, such as the highly-sophisticated Rightist conspiracy in France to assassinate President Charles De Gaulle, a single "Jackal" rifleman was employed. One accurate rifleman might be preferable to a conspiracy when it is expected that the intended victim could be protected by his bodyguard immediately after the first shot is fired, because each additional snipers would increase the chances of detection, both before and after the act, but not necessarily increase the probability of success. Moreover, if multiple gunmen are captured (or killed), it would be difficult to divert the investigation away from the conspiracy, whereas a lone gunman, especially if killed himself, can be dismissed as a lone lunatic.

The larger issue then is: was Oswald, whether firing alone or in tandem, acting at the behest of others.

Oswald was not, to be sure, the sort of well-adjusted individual with whom most people would want to associate. He was wantonly self-destructive (e.g. his suicide attempt in Moscow); militantly hostile towards symbols of authority (e.g. the threat he made to blow up the FBI headquarters in Dallas); contemptuous of legal restraints (e.g. his plan to hijack an airliner to get to Cuba) and homicidal (e.g. his brutal murder of Tippit). As early as 1960, he expressed a cold-blooded willingness to commit political murder in a letter he presciently wrote his brother from Moscow: "What I say now I do not say lightly or unknowingly ... I would kill any American who put a uniform on in defense of the American Government, Any American". The one position that such unrestrained aggression would not exclude a person for employment would be a political assassin.

In this context, the bullet Oswald coolly fired at General Walker was, whether he meant it to be or not, an advertisement of his willingness to kill or be killed for a political cause. Less than a week before he went out to assassinate Walker he distributed an inscribed photograph of himself to De Mohrenschildt (and perhaps others). It showed him dressed in black, armed to kill with a rifle and telescopic sight, and holding in his hand the radical newspaper, The Militant. When he went to Mexico to offer himself to the Cubans, he brought with him the tell-tale photographs of Walker's house to establish his bona fides as a revolutionary. Was his have gun, will kill message picked up of any antennae that summer? Just as De Mohrenschildt and Marina learned of his assassination attempt, so may have others in pro-Castro, anti-Castro and other fringe groups he was active with in the summer of 1963 (not to mention the various intelligence and police agencies monitoring his movements).

There couldn't be that many potential assassins hanging around the militant peripheries of the Cold War with Oswald's perverse virtues: a convenient defector background, military training, complete disregard for human life, including his own, and possession of a rifle he was more than ready to use. Here was as assassin awaiting a mission. Did anyone pick him up as a shooter-- or, lacking a sponsor but finding an opportunity, did he act alone?