Single Bullet, Single Gunman

By Gerald Posner, the author of “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of J.F.K.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 21/02/07):

THE ability to use advanced forensics and minuscule traces of DNA to solve crimes, even cold cases decades old, has turned many Americans into armchair sleuths seeking to “solve” the unexpected deaths of people like Princess Diana and Anna Nicole Smith. But sometimes, old-fashioned evidence is as useful in solving puzzles as anything under a nuclear microscope.

Last weekend, a never-before-seen home movie was made public showing President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade just before his assassination. An amateur photographer, George Jefferies, took the footage and held onto it for more than 40 years before casually mentioning it to his son-in-law, who persuaded him to donate it to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. The silent 8-millimeter color film was of interest to most people simply because it showed perhaps the clearest close-up of Jacqueline Kennedy taken that morning.

But to assassination researchers, the footage definitively resolves one of the case’s enduring controversies: that the bullet wound on Kennedy’s back, as documented and photographed during the autopsy, did not match up with the location of the bullet hole on the back of his suit jacket and shirt. The discrepancy has given conspiracy theorists fodder to argue that the autopsy photos had been retouched and the report fabricated.

This is more than an academic debate among ballistics buffs. It is critical because if the bullet did enter where shown on the autopsy photos, the trajectory lines up correctly for the famous “single bullet” theory — the Warren Commission hypothesis that one bullet inflicted wounds to both Kennedy and Gov. John Connally of Texas. However, if the hole in the clothing was the accurate mark of where the bullet entered, it would have been too low for a single bullet to have inflicted all the wounds, and would provide evidence of a second assassin.

For years, those of us who concluded that the single-bullet theory was sound, still had to speculate that Kennedy’s suit had bunched up during the ride, causing the hole to be lower in the fabric than one would expect. Because the holes in the shirt and jacket align perfectly, if the jacket was elevated when the shot struck, the shirt also had to have been raised.

Some previously published photos taken at the pivotal moment showed Kennedy’s jacket slightly pushed up, but nothing was definitive. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists have done everything to disprove that the jacket was bunched. Some used grainy photos or film clips to measure minute distances between Kennedy’s hairline and his shirt, what they dubbed the “hair-to-in-shoot distance.”

The new film has finally resolved the issue. At the end of the clip, as the camera focuses on the backs of the president and first lady, Kennedy’s suit is significantly bunched up, with several layers creased together. Only 90 seconds before Lee Harvey Oswald fired the first shot, Kennedy’s suit jacket was precisely in the position to misrepresent the bullet’s entry point.

While the film solves one mystery, it leaves another open: estimates are that at least 150,000 people lined the Dallas motorcade route that fateful day, so there must be many other films and photographs out there that have never come to light. Those who have them should bear in mind that even the most innocuous-seeming artifacts, like the Jefferies tape, can sometimes put enduring controversies to rest. As Gary Mack, the curator of the Sixth Floor Museum said the other day, “The bottom line is, don’t throw anything away.”