In 1976, the US Senate ordered a fresh inquiry into the assassination of John F Kennedy, who was murdered in 1963 during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. People who had been involved in the original Warren Commission investigations were asked to make fresh statements. The FBI and the CIA were persuaded to release more of their documents on Oswald. New lines of inquiry were opened and individuals who had not previously given evidence were persuaded to come forward. Most important of all, pieces of evidence such as photos and sound recordings were subjected to scientific analysis using the most up-to-date methods and equipment. The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) completed their investigation in 1979 and they finally came to a discrete verdict that Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots at Kennedy, one of which killed the president. The fourth shot was fired from the grassy knoll. They concluded that John Kennedy was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. There are many reasons why the HSCA came to this verdict, but firstly it was important that the American people understood why this case was re-opened over a decade later!
The investigation was set up as direct result of the assassinations of two other major political figures; the civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King and the Presidents brother Robert Kennedy, in 1968. Naturally this aroused immense suspicion and the American public started questioning why so many key US figures had been assassinated in the space of just four years when previously this type of incident had been rare. At the time there was also an increasing amount of corruption and scandal within the government. This alarmed the public who had completely trusted the government before. The Watergate Scandal in 1974 involving President Nixon had clearly shown that this was not the case anymore. Nixon had abused his authority and power to his advantage. This indicated that even politicians were prone to sleaze and scandal. As a result of this, people also started questioning the behavior of the government. This is most likely why they were more receptive in accepting that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy, later on.
The public also became increasingly interested in the Kennedy assassination as books such as Rush to judgment’ by Mark Lane and Inquest’ by Edward Jay Epstein, started to be written. They immediately became best sellers and played a large role in raising awareness regarding the assassination. As a result people started to inquire more and rumours began that other people or organisations had been involved in Kennedy’s assassination i.e there had been a conspiracy. As people became more and more aware about the events surrounding the assassination, many blamed the Dallas police as being incompetent in handling the whole investigation. They had proven to be extremely unorganised despite the fact that the President had just been murdered. The fact that interviews hadn’t been recorded was one of the reasons why there was so much confusion. Yet the only excuse the Dallas police could come up with was that they couldn’t find a tape recorder! The questions that were asked by the officers proved to worthless and what little records were kept are said to be inadequate. However more seriously, the Dallas police were wildly believed to be at fault for Oswalds death and even the world wide doubt over his guilt. Even though previously an attempt had been made to kill Oswald, no further security precautions had been taken to prevent this from happening again. Considering that they were holding the alleged assassin of the President in custody, the security was appalling. At the hands of Jack Ruby, one bullet had proved sufficient enough to kill Oswald. The fact that reporters were allowed to mingle around Oswald as he was escorted out of court, probably caused the death. Public access to Oswald should not have been permitted under any circumstance. Oswald was murdered in front of cameras and video footage of the incident shows that the police didn’t make hardly any attempts to prevent the murder, but literally just stood there. Many people have found this to be extremely suspicious. Some believe that Jack Ruby killed Oswald to silence him and the police were ordered to let it happen. If this is true, who were they taking orders from?
Despite discrepancies such as these, for many years the American public had to be content with the Warren Commissions verdict that Lee Harvey Oswald had been the sole assassin in the murder of John Kennedy who died as result of three shots being fired from the Texas school depository building. However since the report was published on 24 September 1964, fresh evidence kept surfacing, as did inconsistencies on the Warren Commissions part. There was a general feeling that they had disregarded evidence if it contradicted their conclusion. They had been under immense pressure from the public to come to a verdict. At the time Oswald had seemed like the perfect person to blame – a motiveless man with a grudge. They had no doubt been influenced by public opinion and their conclusion had been a hasty one. In fact, three days after the assassination, Lyndon Baines Johnson received a memo saying; “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin, that he did not have confederates.”
By the 1970’s Americans were actually alarmed that the Warren Commission had been so single minded and did not make any attempt to investigate other possible theories and that they hadn’t followed a number of promising leads. It later also came to light that none of the commission members had any investigative experiences and completely relied on Hoover and the FBI. However, probably their biggest mistake was disregarding key eyewitnesses whom they considered to be incompatible, inconsistent and were contrary to their lone psychotic assassin theory. Nobody of the commission heard one of the witnesses who appeared before the counsel. Among them were crucial witnesses such as Abraham Zapruder. Others didn’t even give evidence. J C Price, a bystander at the motorcade, claimed to have seen a man with a rifle running behind the fence on the grassy knoll. Similarly, Gordon Arnold and James Simons stated that the shots came from the grassy knoll. Jean Hill, a teacher who was standing near the Presidents car, said: “I heard four to six shots and I’m pretty used to guns. They weren’t echoes. They were different guns that were being fired.”
Credible testimonies from literally dozens of witnesses such as these was ignored purely because it contradicted the Warren Commissions conclusion of a lone assassin firing three shots from the depository building. This indicated that their report was based on appallingly selective reading of evidence and just shows how reliable it was!
All these eyewitness testimonies remained inconclusive to the Warren Commission at the time, as they just didn’t make sense. Similarly Kennedy’s autopsy reports also contained many discrepancies. Two autopsies were carried out on Kennedy. It was hoped at the time that they would reveal the angles at which the bullets had entered Kennedy’s body, hopefully pointing to where the gunman or gunmen were situated. The autopsies actually created even more confusion, as they were completely contradictory. The first autopsy was conducted in Parkland Hospital, Dallas although the official one was conducted in Bathesda Naval Hospital, Washington DC. When the two examinations were compared, alarming differences showed up. The main difference was that the exit and entry wounds were said to be different. In Dallas, doctors claimed that the bullet entered Kennedy’s body at the front of the neck, about bow-tie height. When Kennedy was brought into Parkland Hospital, Dr Malcom Perry said that when he was about to perform the tracheotomy, he noticed a hole of about 5mm just below Kennedy’s adams apple, presumably where the bullet had entered. Contrary to this, in Washington the autopsy reports show that the bullet exited from the neck. Their report confirmed the single bullet theory’ addressed by the Warren Commission whose conclusion was highly dependent on this theory. This was that the bullet entered Kennedy’s right shoulder blade, bruised the strap muscles of the right side of the neck, damaging the windpipe and making its exit through the front of the neck. According to the single bullet theory,’ the very same bullet entered Governor Connally’s back, who had been seated in front of Kennedy, went through his chest taking out part of his fifth rib and collapsing his lung. The bullet then went into his right wrist and then buried itself in his left thigh. Although there is medical evidence to support this theory, some believe that the bullets path and velocity could not have been possible. Even Governor Connally believed that the bullet that wounded Kennedy wasn’t the same one that responsible for his wounds. A FBI supplementary report states that the bullet that entered Kennedy’s back had penetrated to less than a finger length. If this is true, how can the bullet have exited from the front of his neck? There are of course other facts that warp this theory such as the fact that the bullet was mysteriously found on a hospital stretcher in pristine condition. Yet the bullet should have been out of shape and showing signs of severe impact, considering that it had gone through two major bones and had torn out a great deal of muscle. However some theorists believe that the bullet was in fact planted on the stretcher by the FBI or CIA so that they could pin the assassination on Oswald, again indicating the involvement of a conspiracy.
Another disturbing piece of evidence surrounding the autopsies is the fact that the bullet wound to the head was said to have entered at different angles. On report says that it entered at a low trajectory whilst the other said that it entered at a high trajectory. As well as this the diagrams and measurements made during the autopsies vary.
The differences as you can see are substantial and inevitably have a great influence on the theory of the second gunman. The examination of the body in Dallas seems to point towards two gunmen, whilst the autopsy in Washington points towards a single gunman! The fact that the autopsy reports are still classified arouses suspicion in itself. It has recently also come to light that much of the reports have been destroyed. Is it possible that the government may be hiding something? Secret service presence during both examinations also has to be considered as it would have been in the interest of the government what the outcome of the autopsies were, if there was indeed something to hide.
Up till two weeks prior to when the HSCA was due to publish their report, they had believed the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin and this single bullet theory.’ However, they changed their minds as a vital piece of evidence came to light, which provided a strong indication of the involvement of a conspiracy. It was a previously overlooked sound recording. A police outrider travelling with Kennedy’s motorcade had left the microphone of his two-way radio switched on. The recording had amazingly been stored and not destroyed. It was rediscovered by committee investigators and sent of to a leading acoustics lab. There, by separating and amplifying the background noises he was able to determine the direction of sound waves in Dealy Plaza at the time of the shooting. He concluded that at least two rifles could be heard firing four shots. Furthermore one of the shots came from a direction to the front and to the right of the motorcade. He stated that there was a 50% chance of there being a second gunman on the grassy knoll. The HSCA called in two more acoustic experts who confirmed this and said there was actually a 95% chance of a second gunman. For the HSCA this was a dramatic confirmation of some of the earlier witness accounts that the Warren Commission had chosen to ignore. Many of the eyewitnesses questioned by the Warren Commission had recalled hearing a rifle fired from the direction of the grassy knoll. However, now together with these eyewitness reports and the acoustical and forensic evidence, which hadn’t been available to the Warren Commission, everything fell into place and made a lot more sense. As a result the HSCA was able to get a clearer picture of what happened and at this point the involvement of a conspiracy was looking more likely. Further analysis of the sound recording provided the HSCA yet with more evidence of a second gunman. Experts found that two of the shots fired from the direction of the depository building were within an interval of just 1.66 seconds. As the Mannlicher Carcano rifle isn’t an automatic weapon and requires a bolt to be drawn by hand in order to feed single live rounds to its breech, it is almost impossible to load, aim and fire in such a short space of time. Expert marksmen tested the rifle on a firing range. A telescope sight, which was also found with the rifle on the sixth floor, made the rifle difficult to aim and fire in rapid succession. Without a telescope sight speed of fire improved and the marksman managed times of 1.65 and 1.75 seconds. But at such speeds the marksmen only hit the target with one shot in three. Oswald’s military records showed that he had been a poor shot, an average marksman at best. Could he have really managed to fire so many shots successfully? Doubts were also raised about the accuracy of the weapon. Tests were conducted and experts found that the rifle was inaccurate and they described it as being “crudely made, poorly designed and dangerous.” They also found that the ammunition for the rifle was frequently of a poor quality. In one batch, 17 out of 20 bullets were defective and failed to fire. Considering all this, was it possible that Oswald could have shot three bullets at a moving target, through immense foliage, 88 yards away in just 5.6 seconds using a faulty rifle? To many people this seemed highly unlikely. There was also evidence suggesting the presence of a second gunman on the sixth floor of the depository building, but this remains inconclusive. Several eyewitnesses reported seeing two gunmen with guns on the sixth floor. The men were described as wearing light coloured clothing. Oswald had worn a dark coloured shirt to work that day. Certainly with two gunmen firing from the depository building the chances of hitting the target would have been greatly improved.
The HSCA now had enough evidence supported by eyewitness reports to conclude that Kennedy was a victim of a conspiracy. Unlike the Warren Commission they were able to conduct a more thorough investigation, most likely because they had more time to come to a verdict. However, although they had been able to come up with a satisfactory conclusion, they had not been able to identify the second gunman or even the extent of the conspiracy. But people came up with their own theories about what happened, blaming various organisations for the assassination of Kennedy. Undoubtedly the most poplar theory was that government agencies were involved, that it was planned by either high officials in the White House or by the secret service, FBI and CIA. It was executed by paid killers and afterwards the agencies ensured that the murderers remained uncovered. But what motive could such agencies have? The CIA certainly had a motive. They blamed Kennedy for not throwing the full weight of his air force behind the Bay of Pigs affair and in addition they were bitterly disappointed that he had come to an agreement with the Soviets over Cuba. Kennedy had also stopped listening to the CIA after the Bay of Pigs affair and it resented being cold-shouldered by the President.
Another popular theory was that the Mafia, the most powerful criminal organisation in the world, was involved. An indication of this was the involvement of Jack Ruby who supposedly had Mafia links. One of the reasons they could have conspired to kill Kennedy was that the Presidents brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had been using his legal powers to act vigorously against some of the larger and more influential Mafia bosses. In fact he had been leading a strong campaign against the Mafia. Getting rid of Kennedy would have resulted in a new government and therefore Robert Kennedy would be replaced. However it has to be considered that according to the Mafia’s code of conduct, they are forbidden to kill any individuals with any legal authority i.e police officers, magistrates and the President!
Other implications included blaming the right-wing extremists to whom Kennedy was a communist as he attempted to build peaceful relationships with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Communists were also blamed for being involved as they saw Kennedy as a friend of industrials and held him responsible for the Vietnam War, the blocking of Cuba and many other things.
These were just a few of the theories around at the time but it has to be remembered that none of them have ever been proven. It was possible that people were so shocked by Kennedy’s assassination that they were overreacting and that there was a plausible explanation for his death. In key assassinations there is almost always speculation of a conspiracy, yet one has never been identified. But even the HSCA concluded that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy, as they believed that all the evidence and the eyewitness reports indicated this. If there was indeed a conspiracy involved, it would cause a huge political crisis to unravel it. Although the HSCA came to a sufficient conclusion, the truth about Kennedy’s assassination will never be known. However, the haunting words that Oswald left us with; “I’m just a patsy” will always raise questions to whether there was a cover up, if Oswald was part of the conspiracy or if he was just a lone gunman with a grudge!