As much as the Warren Commission tried to hide the fact, the “Single Bullet Theory (SBT)”¾usually referred to by its critics as the “Magic Bullet Theory”¾is the keystone of its central conclusion that Oswald acted alone. As Commission lawyer Norman Redlich candidly admitted 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.” (Inquest, p. 38) Indeed, as critics and researchers have maintained ever since the publication of the Warren Report, without the SBT there could not have been a single gunman whether it was Oswald or anybody else. In order to fully understand and appreciate this concept, it is important to explore the origins of the commission’s most controversial conclusion.
When it began its work the Commission believed that, as far as the facts of the shooting were concerned, the FBI had handed it a simple case. The Bureau’s report, Commission Document [CD] 1, concluded with little elaboration that there had been one shooter (Oswald), three bullets and three hits; Kennedy had been struck by the first and third bullets fired and Connally by the second. The Commission members proceeded under this assumption until June of 1964 when they had originally hoped to wrap up their investigation. But when the Bureau’s director J. Edgar Hoover elected to leak the contents of CD 1 to the press he unintentionally forced the Commission to confront the evidence of a missed shot in Dealey Plaza.
Soon after the details of the FBI’s report appeared in the papers, United States attorney for northern Texas Harold Barefoot Sanders contacted the Commission to inform them of facts he had learned from Dallas Morning News photographer, Tom Dillard. Dillard had publicly confronted Sanders with information that proved the Bureau’s conclusions were wrong¾or at least incomplete. He explained that on the day of the assassination Deputy Sheriff Buddy Walthers had directed his attention to a spot on the south side of Main Street where a bullet had apparently struck the curb and wounded bystander James Tague. Dillard had taken a photograph of the chip in the concrete that had appeared in the following day’s edition of the newspaper with the caption “Concrete Scar.” Walthers filed a report with the Sheriff’s Department and told Tague that he should report his minor injury to the Homicide Branch of the Dallas Police Department. But despite his experience being common knowledge, the FBI did not contact Tague and did not bother to interview him until December 14, 1963, after he contacted their Dallas office. Even then the Bureau did not see fit to examine the curbstone until July 1964 when it was directed to do so by the Commission. Apparently still preferring to pretend that the Tague shot did not exist, and attempting to hoodwink the Commission, the Dallas field office quickly reported back that “The area on the curb…was carefully checked and it was ascertained that there was no nick in the curb in the checked area, nor was any mark observed.” (21H474) It concluded its report with the implausible claim that “since this mark was observed on November 23, 1963, there have been numerous rains, which could have possibly washed away such a mark and also that the area is cleaned by a street cleaning machine about once a week, which would also wash away any such mark.” (Ibid) In the end, FBI Supervisor Lyndal Shaneyfelt was dispatched to Dallas to locate the damaged area of curbstone which was promptly dug up and transported back to Washington for spectrographic analysis. According to the FBI this analysis “disclosed metal smears” which were “spectrographically determined to be essentially lead with a trace of antimony.” (R116)
In truth, even before Sanders had his assistant write the Commission, it was already fully aware that a shot had likely missed the Presidential limousine and its occupants¾it had been quietly noted in a December 23, 1963 report from the FBI’s Dallas field office and the Commission itself had taken testimony from witnesses like Virginia Baker who remembered seeing “a shot or something hit the pavement.” (7H508) Nonetheless, for as long as they were able, the Commission fully intended to ignore the Tague shot and stick with a three-shot, three-hit scenario. However, with a United States attorney and a newspaper reporter publicly drawing attention to the evidence, the Commission could no longer play dumb. Accepting that a shot had missed placed the Commission in quite a quandary. The time constraints imposed by the Zapruder film and the mechanical firing time of Oswald’s rifle left little possibility for a fourth shot without necessitating a second gunman. This, of course, was unacceptable because it would prove a conspiracy the Commission was not looking to find. It was now forced to rely upon an already controversial theory being proposed by Commission lawyer and future senator Arlen Specter.
It had been established in early 1964 through frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder film and physical re-enactments conducted by the FBI and Secret Service in Dealey Plaza that the shots had all been fired in less than six seconds. The FBI re-enactment disclosed that an assassin on the sixth floor of the TSBD would have had his view blocked by the foliage of an oak tree between frames 166 and 210 of the Zapruder film. (R98) In a rare display of logic, the Commission concluded that the first shot was probably not fired before frame 210 “since it is unlikely that the assassin would deliberately have shot at him [the President] with a view obstructed by the oak tree when he was about to have a clear opportunity.” (Ibid) The final shot¾the shot which exploded President Kennedy’s head¾struck at Zapruder frame 312. Since the film was found to run at 18.3 frames per second (Ibid 97) this established a time frame for the shooting of 5.6 seconds. FBI examination of Oswald’s rifle found that the time required to fire a shot, work the bolt, and squeeze off another round was a minimum of 2.3 seconds or the equivalent of 42 Zapruder frames. (3H407) As the lawyer responsible for “the basic facts of the assassination” this was a cause of serious concern for Arlen Specter because the Zapruder film showed Kennedy and Connally reacting to being hit at different times but well within the 42 frames necessary for a lone gunman.
When Kennedy reappears from behind the Stemmons Freeway sign at frame 224 he is already reacting to the impact of a shot fired somewhere between frames 210 and 223 but Connally is showing no sign of being hit at all. The precise moment of impact on the Governor is unclear but Connally’s doctors testified that he was probably struck around frame 236 (5H114, 128) and it was decided that he was no longer in a position to receive a shot from the “sniper’s nest” after frame 240. (5H170) The Zapruder film, therefore, established that Connally was hit after Kennedy but within 30 frames, which was much too soon for Oswald to have recycled the bolt on his antique Mannlicher Carcano rifle. With this major discrepancy in mind, a lawyer working on an honest, “let the chips fall where they may” investigation would have likely conceded the probability of a second gun. But for Specter, who was committed to maintaining the Commission’s preordained conclusion that Oswald acted alone, this was simply not an option, regardless of what the evidence showed. Luckily for the Commission, the cunning and resourceful Specter found a way to shoehorn the evidence into a hypothesis that facilitated the inevitable outcome of its inquiry. Specter proposed that if there was not enough time for Oswald to have fired two shots then Kennedy and Connally must have been hit by the same bullet. Connally, he claimed, had simply suffered a “delayed reaction.” The seven members of the Warren Commission were not in unanimous agreement about the validity of Specter’s theory but they had to accept it. Because if one bullet had missed the limousine and one had shattered the President’s skull, without admitting to a second assassin, they only had one round left to account for the seven non-fatal wounds.
The SBT as advanced by the Warren Commission has a bullet, dubbed Commission Exhibit (CE) 399, enter the back of JFK’s neck heading downwards and leftwards. Hitting no bony structures it exits his throat just below the Adam’s apple and strikes Connally in the back of his right armpit. The bullet sails along Connally’s fifth rib, smashing four inches of it before exiting his chest below the right nipple, and then pulverises the radius of his right wrist¾one of the densest bones in the human body. It then enters 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. The problems with the SBT are myriad and they start near the very beginning of CE399’s alleged journey.
No bullet, CE399 or any other, could have entered the back of Kennedy’s neck and ranged downward out of his throat¾because there was no bullet wound anywhere in the back of his neck. The President’s rearward entrance wound was in the upper back, below the shoulders and, most importantly, below the wound in the throat. In its desperation to legitimize the SBT the Commission simply moved the wound up to the neck! And in an attempt to ensure they got away with it, the Commissioners suppressed the autopsy photos and published an inaccurate drawing prepared by a navy artist who did not have access to the pictures. (CE385) In his mammoth re-writing of the Warren Report, anti-conspiracy buff Vincent Bugliosi tried to explain away the Commission’s dishonesty by claiming it was all a “mistake” made because the Commission “did not have access to the autopsy photos and X-rays.” (Reclaiming History, p. 425) Bugliosi’s assertion is pure, unadulterated nonsense as this passage from the Commission’s January 27, 1964, executive session clearly shows:
RANKIN: Then there is a great range of material in regard to the wounds, and the autopsy and this point of exit or entrance of the bullet in the front of the neck...We have an explanation there in the autopsy that probably a fragment came out the front of the neck, but with the elevation the shot must have come from, the angle, it seems quite apparent now, since we have the picture of where the bullet entered in the back, that the bullet entered below the shoulder blade, to the right of the backbone, which is below the place where the picture shows the bullet came out in the neckband of the shirt in front, and the bullet, according to the autopsy didn’t strike any bone at all, that particular bullet, and go through. So how it could turn--
BOGGS: I thought I read that bullet just went in a finger’s length.RANKIN: That is what they first said. [Author‘s emphasis]
It is a fact to be lamented that the official autopsy report failed to record the precise location of Kennedy’s back wound according to the fixed anatomical landmarks routinely used in forensic pathology. As a result, there remains to this day considerable confusion about its exact location. The President’s death certificate signed by his personal physician, Admiral George Burkley, on November 23, 1963, places the bullet hole at “the level of the third thoracic vertebra” which is several inches below the neck. This original placement is supported by the bullet holes in the jacket and shirt worn by the President at the time of his assassination¾both found approximately 5 and ¾ inches below the top of the collar (7HSCA81-3)¾and by the autopsy face sheet prepared by Dr. Boswell at the autopsy. (CE397) The Warren Commission, or course, moved this wound up to “the base of the back of President Kennedy’s neck.” (R87) This location has absolutely no evidentiary support whatsoever. A third location was proposed by the Forensic Pathology Panel (FPP) for the House Select Committee On Assassinations (HSCA) in 1979. The nine-member FPP, made up of some of the United States’ most distinguished medical experts, made careful measurements from the autopsy photos and X-rays and placed the back wound at the level of the first thoracic vertebra (7HSCA175), approximately 5 cm below the shoulder (Ibid 85), and roughly 1 cm below the wound in the throat (Ibid 92). Because they did not have access to the actual body, the conclusions of the HSCA cannot be considered definitive. Therefore, the best that can be said is that President Kennedy’s back wound was somewhere between the first and third thoracic vertebra. What we can say with a certainty, what is obvious from even a cursory glance at the autopsy photos, is that the back wound was below the throat wound.
So, what does this mean for the SBT? The FBI re-enactment established that the angle from the sixth floor of the TSBD to the President’s back between frames 210 and 225 of the Zapruder film was 20-21 degrees below the horizontal plane. (18H89-90) Any bullet hitting Kennedy at the level of the first thoracic vertebra (or lower) and continuing on a 20 degree downward trajectory would have exited his chest and could not possibly have exited his throat just below the Adam’s apple. It is possible that a bullet could have entered the back heading downward, been deflected, and ranged upward out of the neck. However, after leaving the throat headed on an upward trajectory it could not have then changed direction in midair to course back down into Connally’s right armpit.
The FPP concluded that the SBT was possible providing Kennedy was leaning forward far enough to raise the back wound several inches above the one in the throat, and the HSCA published a diagram to illustrate the amount of forward lean necessary. (7HSCA100) But what the FPP ignored is that all available films and photos, the Zapruder film especially, show that the President was sitting perfectly upright when he was struck. Nothing like the amount of lean portrayed in the panel’s illustration is seen in the Zapruder film. When Dr. Cyril Wecht, the only member of the FPP to dissent from its findings, raised this issue with his colleagues he was told, “ah, but we cannot know what happened when they were behind the Stemmons Freeway sign.” (1HSCA339) As Dr. Wecht dryly opined, “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.” (Ibid) Of course, such a supposition is absurd. There is no getting around the evidence as the HSCA tried to do; the back wound was below the throat wound and Kennedy was sitting upright when first struck. These simple facts essentially destroy the SBT all by themselves.
But we’re not done with the back wound yet.