The Warren Commission - A Critique

The Warren Commission Report has its weaknesses and inconsistencies. Many detailed issues have been recognised and documented, but the most significant issues that throw doubt upon the commission findings are probably these:

The Feat Of Marksmanship

The Zapruder film set a crucial timescale for the assassination. In the film the President is hidden briefly by the Stemmons Freeway road sign as the car passes down Elm Street. As he emerges from concealment by the sign he can be seen holding his throat, indicating a reaction to the first shot. This first shot is also set by the sighting available to the shooter from the sixth floor window. The direct line is obscured by a tree such that a shot could not be fired earlier. The Zapruder film sets the timing for the first shot no earlier than the point at which the President first becomes hidden by the road sign.

View from the sixth floor window
A more recent view of Dealey Plaza and Elm Street from the sixth floor.

The last shot is clearly when the president is hit in the head.

So the total timescale is set between these two events; not much more than 5 seconds. The Warren Commission said that 3 shots were fired within this time. Given that the rifle used was a manual, bolt-action, single-shot weapon, the minimum time required to cycle the mechanism and hence the minimum time between shots can readily be established. Assuming the rifle began loaded and Oswald was essentially aimed by the time the first shot was fired, then the rifle had to be fired, the bold action cycled to eject the first spent cartridge case and to load the next bullet, then aimed and fired again. It was clear that this could be repeated no more than twice within the time available, ie a maximum of three shots, and even this represented a very remarkable achievement, especially under such tense circumstances.

The car was moving away from the Book Depository as the first shot was fired, the President was some distance away and as such offered a difficult target. Despite such extreme circumstances, Oswald managed to hit the President in the back, to hit Governor Connally and then finally to hit the President in the head.

Various attempts over a long period have been made to repeat this feat of marksmanship, but with virtually no success. Oswald was a moderate shot at best when he was assessed in the Marines, he used a very poor gun, not renowned for its accuracy, and in addition, when examined, experts found the sights on the gun to be misaligned.

The Single Bullet

Having established from the timing and the Zapruder film that a total of three shots had been fired, the Warren Commission needed to account for the bullets and the injuries and damage they caused. This would have been relatively straightforward if it had not been for witness James Tague who was standing on the opposite side of Dealey Plaza. He was struck in the face by a fragment of bullet, or of pavement, due to one shot that went astray and struck a kerb near to where he was standing. As a consequence, the Warren Commission was forced to accept that at least one of the three shots fired had missed the President’s car altogether and they concluded that two shots only had caused all the injuries sustained by everyone in the presidential limousine.

According to the Warren Commission, the first bullet fired struck the President in the back, exited from his throat and then travelled on to strike Governor John Connally, who was seated in the jump seat in front of JFK, in the back. The bullet then passed through Connally’s torso, emerging just below his left nipple, then continued its passage through his wrist and ending up in his left thigh. Significant injuries sustained by Connally, which he was to survive. Indeed, it is very likely that the injuries to President Kennedy as a result of this shot would not have proved fatal.

This explanation seems quite convoluted and rather improbable. Indeed one does not need to be a ballistics expert to see that this was an unlikely scenario. More detailed investigation shows that the entry point in JFK’s back and the exit from his throat suggests a much more level, almost horizontal trajectory. Aligning the exit from Kennedy’s throat to Connally’s back requires a distinct change in trajectory in both plan and elevation, if the shot originated from the sixth floor window, and for it to continue with such a sharp downward course into Connally’s left thigh makes the total route even less plausible.

The Zapruder film was also revealing in that the Governor is seen to be moving after the President has clearly been hit for the first time. Connally turns to his right to look over his shoulder, reacting to the shot he heard. A little after this it is possible to see the effect of the shot striking Connally in the back.

All this was compounded however by the discovery of the bullet responsible for the injuries to JFK and Governor Connally. It was found on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital after the President and Governor Connally had been removed to emergency attention. The Warren Commission claimed it fell from the Governor’s thigh. As incredible as that may seem, the bullet in question was essentially pristine, ie it had lost virtually none of its pre-fired weight and had suffered very minimal distortion. Given the trajectory it had pursued, all the body parts, skin, flesh, even bone that it had struck in entry and exit, it was impossible to believe this was the self same bullet responsible. Furthermore, after the surgeons had completed their operation on Governor Connally they explained in a press interview how they had left some fragments of bullet in his thigh after the operation, which it was known were still present at his death. Various requests to have these fragments removed and investigated after his death were turned down.

Single Bullet
This illustration makes the single bullet theory seem quite credible. However, it is flawed in a number of ways. Firstly, the positions of Kennedy and Connally are exaggerated to create the alignment required. Secondly, Connally is shown turned some way to his right, but it is clear in the Zapruder film that he did not do this until after this shot. Thirdly, this looks only at the plan view, but in the projection view, ie from the side, the trajectory really does not work as the angle through Kennedy’s body is so much shallower than through Connally’s. There is also some obfuscation regarding Connally’s wrist injury.

The Head Shot And The Grassy Knoll

Again it is the Zapruder film that is most revealing. The point at which the President is hit in the head is perfectly rendered in the film and the recent re-casting of the film into an enhanced digital format makes it only too clear. The critical factor here is that the President is thrown violently backwards and to his left by the impact of the shot, which clearly causes massive damage. It is hard to see this as consistent with a shot fired from behind and to his right.

Various witnesses claimed to have seen and heard shots fired from the ‘Grassy Knoll’ situated at the north west corner of Dealey Plaza in front of a car park and railroad sidings. At the crest of the Grassy Knoll is a picket fence overshadowed by trees. It is here that some witnesses believed they had seen puffs of smoke from a rifle shot, some had seen a gunman dressed as a policeman, some had seen him disassemble a rifle and place it into a toolbox of sorts and depart in a car from the car park. Witnesses in front of the Grassy Knoll heard at least one shot fired from behind them and one witness claimed to hear the shot whistle past his ear from behind him as he and his family watched the motorcade pass at the critical moment.

Interestingly, film footage other than the Zapruder film survived and some showed spectators and witnesses running towards the Grassy Knoll as the last vehicles of the motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza following the shooting. Clearly, many of these witnesses believed the shots had originated from the Grassy Knoll.

The Grassy Knoll
A more recent view of the Grassy Knoll.

To say that the forensic and pathology evidence was confused and inconclusive would be an understatement. Images such as photographs and X-rays were totally inconsistent. For example, one X-ray, which purported to show the massive head injuries sustained by the President, clearly showed extensive damage to the skull on the right side, including to the orbit, or eye-socket, suggesting a collapse of the skull around that area at a minimum. However, corresponding photographs of the president from his right at the time of autopsy showed no visible damage to the skull at or near to his right eye. We can probably conclude little from this sort of evidence due to its inconsistency, but it is at least clear from the Zapruder film that the President did incur huge skull damage, a fact that was supported by the doctors that attended him at Parkland Hospital and those witnesses that saw the injuries en-route to or at the hospital.

The issue though is to what extent were these injuries consistent with an impact from a shot fired from behind? The Warren Commission explained that the bullet fired from above and to the right caused a very small wound of entry in the back of the head and then exploded to produce some damage at the rear of the head, blowing out a flap of scalp about 4 inches across at the lower rear right hand side of the skull. The Zapruder film seemed to suggest otherwise. The degree of damage was much greater and the fullest extent of the damage was at the rear of the head and not the side as suggested by the Warren Commission.

View from the Grassy Knoll
A more recent view from the Grassy Knoll.

It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than a shot was fired from the Grassy Knoll which hit the President in the head, throwing him violently backwards and causing massive brain damage. It is unlikely he would have survived such an injury.

Oswald In The First Floor Lunch Room

The first person to confront Oswald after the shooting was police officer Marrion Baker, who had abandoned his motorcycle outside the Depository and run into the building. He ran up the stairs with the manager of the building and on the first floor (ground floor in UK parlance) saw a man in the lunch room. The man was drinking a Coke that he had obtained from the machine there. The office manager immediately identified Oswald and told the police officer that he worked in the building.

Various attempts have been made to analyse this evidence and its significance in the assassination story. Re-enactments and various other experiments have established that the time from the last shot to the sighting of Oswald in the lunch room by the police officer would have been no greater than 90 seconds. The significance of this was that in this time Oswald would have had to wipe all fingerprints from the rifle, hidden it (admittedly amateurishly) on the far side of the sixth floor, found his way down the 5 flights of stairs, or by means of the lift, into the lunch room, vended a Coke and stood there looking cool and calm for his confrontation with the police, all this unseen by any witnesses in the buidling and after assassinating the President of the United States. Although one could not say this was impossible, it was highly improbable.

Warren Commission Conclusions

Whatever your views of what actually happened on the 22nd November 1963, if you can accept that a conspiracy of some sort did occur, then it is hard to accept other than the Warren Commission was a cover up. The incompetence theory is not really plausible, as the extent of the investigation, the quantity of evidence collected and the opportunities available to the investigators in the time they were working, means the conclusions drawn could only be arrived at by deliberate design.

Indeed, it is quite clear that much of the important evidence is available in the texts of the exhibits to the Warren Commission’s report. Within the 26 volumes, you can find all sorts of evidence that points to the potential for conspiracy. The shots from the Grassy Knoll are recorded there, the autopsy evidence and reports of the medical teams are there, the various accounts of the number of shots and many other examples of conspiracy can be found, if you look. What is more, there is much that undermines the Warren Commission findings, not least those explored earlier which led to the single bullet theory.

What is most significant about the Warren Commission are the conclusions drawn by the members from the evidence presented. They have clearly been selective about what they accept and what they dismiss, how they interpret evidence and the priority given to witnesses when accounts conflict. In some cases, when presented with evidence from several credible witnesses they chose to ignore their testimony in preference to accounts given by extremely unreliable and inconsistent witnesses, in some cases being the only person giving their chosen interpretation of events. One such account relates to the sighting of Oswald on the sixth floor window, when only one bystander saw him and his various accounts were never consistent, nor did this witness reliably identify Oswald.

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