The Single Bullet Theory
It is hard to believe that 50 years after it was first conceived we are still discussing something as ridiculous and ill-supported as the Single Bullet Theory. If not for the fact that it has been endorsed by so many socially constructive government panels it may well have been consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs decades ago. But Warren Commission apologists will simply not let it die because they know that to admit to the obvious fallacy of the SBT is to admit to a conspiracy. As former Warren commission lawyer Norman Redlich commented to author Edward Epstein, “To say that they [President Kennedy and Governor Connally] were hit by separate bullets, is synonymous with saying that there were two assassins.” (Epstein, Inquest, p. 38) It is no surprise, then, that Reitzes makes a stab at defending the theory. But make no mistake, he does so in spite of the evidence. Because the SBT is challengeable on every level, from the trajectories involved, to the nature of the wounds, to the condition and provenance of the bullet itself. There is not one facet of the SBT that holds up to scrutiny.
It has long been accepted that Commission lawyer Arlen Specter, a man with no medical or ballistics training, was the “father” of the SBT. But hoping to lend it some legitimacy, Reitzes claims that it was actually JFK's pathologist Dr. Humes “who first voiced the possibility that JFK and Governor Connally had been struck by the same bullet.” Let's be very clear about this: The SBT holds that a bullet (dubbed Commission Exhibit 399) entered JFK’s back heading downwards and leftwards. Hitting no bony structures it exited his body from an anatomically higher position, just below the Adam’s apple, then somehow struck Connally under his right armpit. It sailed along Connally’s fifth rib, smashing four inches of it, before exiting his chest below the right nipple and pulverizing the radius of his right wrist. It then entered his left thigh just above the knee, depositing a fragment on the femur, before miraculously popping back out to be found in near-pristine condition on an unattended stretcher in Parkland Hospital. That is the SBT and, despite the impression Reitzes attempts to convey, Humes neither suggested nor endorsed it.
At Specter's prompting, Humes did raise the “possibility” that one bullet had passed through the torsos of both men. However, he considered it “extremely unlikely” that the same bullet had also caused the wounds to Connally's wrist and thigh. The report from Parkland Hospital noted that “small bits of metal were encountered at various levels throughout” Connally's wrist wound as well as in his thigh. Looking at CE399, Humes noted, “this missile is basically intact; its jacket appears to me to be intact, and I do not understand how it could possibly have left fragments in either of these locations.” He suggested that a separate bullet had been responsible for these two wounds. (2H375-76) Humes' colleague, Dr. Finck, concurred. Asked if CE399 could have “inflicted the wound on Governor Connally's right wrist” Finck said, “No; for the reason that there are too many fragments described in that wrist.” (Ibid, 382) Connally's wrist surgeon, Dr. Charles Gregory—who also did not believe the SBT—testified that the amount of debris carried into the wound suggested "that an iregular missile had passed through the wrist". (6H98) Dr. Gregory pointed to the two mangled fragments found on the floor of the limousine as being likely culprits. (5H127-28)
Nonetheless, Reitzes assures his readers that the trajectory analysis of "an actual rocket scientist" and "meticulous reconstructions of the shooting...have confirmed again and again the plausibility, if not certainty, of the single bullet theory". He finishes his discussion of the SBT with the following quote from Vincent Bugliosi: “‘the single-bullet theory’ is an obvious misnomer. Though in its incipient stages it was but a theory, the indisputable evidence is that it is now a proven fact, a wholly supported conclusion.” There are numerous hyperbolic statements in Bugliosi's tedious and bloated tome but this is one of the most ridiculous. In fact it may be one of the silliest claims found anywhere in the JFK literature. In point of fact, the SBT barely meets the requirements necessary to be considered a viable theory. Why? Because it is based on a number of entirely unproven and highly contradicted assumptions.
Firstly, there is the location of Kennedy's back wound. Because a bullet fired from the sixth floor of the depository building would have been travelling at a downward angle of apprxomiately 20 degrees, for the SBT to work, the back wound had to have been considerably higher than the hole in the throat. But as crazy as it seems, five decades after the assassination, we still do not know the precise location of this wound. In large part this is due to the faliure of the autopsy doctors to record its position according to fixed anatomical landmarks. The autopsy report states that the "7 x4 mm oval wound" was "14 cm from the tip of the right acromion process and 14 cm below the tip of the right mastoid process." But as the HSCA pathology panel noted, the mastoid process and the acromion "are moveable points and should not have been used." (7HSCA17) A more precise way to record the location of the back wound would have been with respect to the thoracic vertebrae. This was, in fact, done but not by the autopsy doctors.
The official death certificate prepared and signed by Kennedy's personal physician, Dr. George Burkley—who was present at both Parkland Hospital during the attempts to save the President's life and at Bethesda Naval Hospital for the autopsy—states that the wound of "the posterior back" was situated "at about the level of the third thoracic vertebra" which is typically 4 to 6 inches below the shirt collar. This location is fully supported by the bullet holes in Kennedy's shirt and jacket, which are approximately 5.5 inches below the top of the collar, (7HSCA83) and by the autopsy descriptive sheet prepared by the autopsy surgeons. (ARRB MD1) However, it must be admitted that Burkley's wording, "about the level of", is not precise and the clothing could have ridden up Kennedy's back somewhat during the shooting.
The Warren Commission could and should have tried to clear this matter up but instead it added to the confusion. The transcript of the Commission's January 27, 1964, executive session reveals that it had the autopsy photos at its disposal and was fully aware that Kennedy's rear wound was below the shoulder. Nonetheless, in order to make the SBT more palatable, the Commission wrote with deliberately misleading language that the bullet had "entered the base of the back of his neck" (WR2). It then kept the troublesome autopsy photos out of the report and accompanyng volumes and instead presented another of its deceptive drawings which showed a bullet hole above the shoulder (CE386)—far above where the Commission knew it to be.
A decade and a half later, following its review of the autopsy materials, the HSCA forensic pathology panel suggested that the bullet had entered at the approximate level of the first thoracic vertebra (T1). Although this location has been generally accepted by proponents of the SBT, it is far from proven. The HSCA panel admitted that it was not possible to determine "the exact entrance point" from the available evidence (7HSCA87) but largely based its conclusion on two factors: Interstitial emphysema (a pocket of air) overlying T1, and a fracture of the transverse process of T1. (Ibid, 93) However, the panel explained that although the "air in the soft tissues" could have been caused by the passage of a bullet, it was just as likely a result of the tracheotomy performed at Parkland Hospital. (Ibid) As for the alleged fracture of the transverve process, Dr. Baden only said in his testimony that it could have been caused by a bullet strike. "...we cannot be certain of that," he admitted. (1HSCA305) Additionally, it seems that there is some disagreement as to the very existence of the fracture as one of the panel's consultant radiologists, Dr. William Seaman, told the panel that to him, "the transverse process appears normal..." (7HSCA99)
The available evidence simply does not allow us to pinpoint exactly where the bullet entered the President's back. When the three autopsy doctors gave depositions for the Assassination Records Review Board, both Humes and Finck refused to be pinned down on this issue. Dr. Boswell, however, at least tried to be a little more helpful. "Well, it's certainly not as low as T4", he said. "I would say at the lowest it might be T2. I would say around T2." (Boswell deposition, p. 155) But this again is just an estimate. It seems that the best that can be said is that the wound was somewhere between T1 and T3.
As previously noted, most single bullet theorists accept the HSCA's T1 hypothesis. But even this assumed entrance location is problematic for the SBT since it is anatomically lower than the hole in the throat. Looking to endorse the SBT, the pathology panel suggested that the theory was still possible but that JFK had to be leaning significantly forward at the moment he was struck. The necessity of the forward lean was confirmed by two of the "meticulous reconstructions" Reitzes alluded to. One of these, utilizing lasers, dummies, and the Presidential limousine, was undertaken in 1998 for the TV special, The Secret KGB JFK Assassination Files. In order to get a trajectory through the body that pointed back to the sixth floor, the show's participants had to bend the JFK dummy markedly forward.
The second of these reconstructions was conducted for the 2004 Discovery Channel show, JFK: Beyond the Magic Bullet. The Discovery Channel shot a rifle from a crane set at the height of the sixth floor window into specially made torsos that were placed in normal, upright seated positions. The bullet entered the upper back of the Kennedy torso just below the shoulder and exited through the upper chest—completely missing the throat. Thus, these real-world experiments demonstrated that the forward lean is absolutely integral to the SBT. The problem is that the Zapruder film shows President Kennedy in the moments before and immediately after he was shot and at all times he is sitting upright.
SBT proponents, therefore, must assume that Kennedy adopted the necessary pose during the tiny 0.9 second interval that he was hidden from Zapruder's view by the Stemmons Freeway sign. Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht rightly ridiculed this notion in his HSCA testimony: "I just think it is important for the record to reflect upon the fact that what presumably they are asking us to speculate upon is that in that 0.9 second interval, the President bent down to tie his shoelace or fix his sock, he was then shot and then sat back up...I would suggest that is a movement that the most skilled athlete, knowing what he is going to do, could not perform in that period of time." (1HSCA339)
On top of assuming that the back wound was at T1, and that Kennedy was leaning forward when shot, it must also be assumed that the throat wound was an exit for the bullet which entered the back. This has also never been established. As noted in part one of this critique, all of the doctors at Parkland Hospital believed the wound looked more like an entrance than an exit and described it as small, round and neat. Dr. Perry told Dr. Humes that it measured only 3-5 mm and Dr. Carrico recalled that it had "no jagged edges or stellate lacerations." In tests performed for the Commission at Edgewood Arsenal using the very rifle and ammunition Oswald is alleged to have used, Dr. Alfred Olivier fired numerous rounds through blocks of gelatin, horsemeat, and goatmeat with skin and clothing attached. At a distance of 60 yards, which was the approximate distance from the sixth floor window to Kennedy's back at Zapruder frame 224, typical exit wounds were elongated and measured 10-15 mm (5H77, 17H846)—twice the size or more than the wound in Kennedy's throat.
More importantly, no pathway between the two wounds was observed at autopsy. On the contrary, physical probing of the wound led the prosectors to conclude that the back wound was shallow with no point of exit. FBI agents James Sibert and Francis O'Neil were present for the entire autopsy and filed a report of their observations. The report states: "During the latter stages of the autopsy, Dr. Humes located an opening which appeared to be a bullet hole which was below the shoulders and two inches to the right of the middle line of the spinal column. This opening was probed by Dr. Humes with the finger, at which time it was determined that the trajectory of the missile entering at this point had entered at a downward position of 45 to 60 degrees. Further probing determined that the distance travelled by this missile was a short distance inasmuch as the end of the opening could be felt with the finger." (AARB MD44) Further inspection of the wound was carried out with the use of a surgical probe as Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman explained in his Warren Commission testimony: “There were three gentlemen who were performing the autopsy. A colonel Finck—during the examination of the President, from the hole that was in his shoulder, and with a probe, and we were standing alongside of him, he is probing inside the shoulder with his instrument and I said, ‘Colonel, where did it go?’ He said, ‘There are no lanes for an outlet of this entry in this man’s shoulder.’” (2H93)
Bethesda laboratory technician James Curtis Jenkins recalled that the back wound was “very shallow…it didn’t enter the peritoneal (chest) cavity.” He remembered the doctors extensively probing 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.” (MD65) Jenkins also recalled in an interview with David Lifton that the doctors continued to probe the wound after the chest was opened and the organs removed. At that time he could “see the probe…through the pleura [the lining of the chest cavity]…where it was pushing the skin up…There was no entry in the chest cavity…it would have been no way that that could have exited in front because it was then low in the chest cavity…somewhere around the junction of the descending aorta [the main artery carrying blood from the heart].” (Lifton, Best Evidence, p. 713)
Jenkins' colleague, Paul O'Connor, concurred. In an interview for the HSCA, O'Connor said 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.” (MD64) He later told author William Law: “…another thing, we found out, while the autopsy was proceeding, that he was shot from a high building, which meant the bullet had to be traveling in a downward trajectory and we also realized 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.” (Law, In the Eye of History, p. 41)
In 1973, pathology professor John Nichols, MD, Ph.D., suggested that a straight-line from the back wound to the throat wound would have had to have to passed directly through the hard bone of the spine. In 1998, radiologist Dr. David Mantik provided striking confirmation of Nichols' conclusion using a cross-sectional CAT scan of a patient with approximately the same upper body dimensions as President Kennedy. Mantik added the proposed entrance and exit points to the CAT scan and demonstrated that a straight-line from one to the other had to intercept the spine. Any bullet taking this path through Kennedy's torso would have been severely deformed and the spine would have been shattered. And yet there had been no major trauma to Kennedy's spine and CE399 is in the same near-pristine condition as test bullets fired into water.
To recap, the SBT assumes that the back wound was at T1 but there is evidence that it was considerably lower. It assumes that President Kennedy was leaning significantly forward when he was struck even though the Zapruder film shows no such thing. And it assumes that the throat wound was an exit for the bullet which entered the back when no such thing was established at autopsy, the only physical examination ever conducted contradicts the idea, and medical evidence strongly suggests that such a path through the body was not possible. The reader will notice that all of these assumptions have to do with the wounds to President Kennedy which is just one section of CE399's supposed journey. There are numerous other problems with the bullet's magical voyage but to highlight them all now would be simply flogging a dead horse. The point has been made: The SBT is not built upon proven facts but upon a series of unproven assumptions that are not borne out by closer examination of the evidence. The SBT, therefore, is not even remotely close to being considered a “proven fact” and no honest person would make or repeat such a claim.