November 22, 1963 is considered one of the darkest days in the history of the United States. Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas was the setting for one of the most horrific moments ever captured on video, in what has become one of the most controversial topics in US history. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has raised many theories about what exactly happened that day in the fall of 1963. Many wonder if the lone gunmen theory published by The Warren Commission is the truth, or better yet was even possible? Other questions such as why was certain evidence overlooked and in the case of the President’s limousine and clothing, why were they washed and repaired before the proper investigation could be performed on them? Many books have been written on the subject of the JFK assassination, and I in fact would have to end up writing a book just to mention and discuss all of them.
Simply to avoid that, I chose to discuss only a few topics and give my own two cents on what could have been done better to investigate the assassination of the 35th President of the United States. I first want to focus on the mishandling of critical evidence that many experts say would easily answer certain questions. For example the mishandling of evidence that might have proven that there was more than one shooter, and where exactly the shots came from. Second, I want to look at how that evidence would have helped in answering those questions and how they may have directed us towards a guilty suspect or suspects.
I have heard investigators say that you only get one shot at a crime scene, and once it is gone, you never get a second chance to redo it over ever again. It’s important to keep that in mind as regards to the JFK assassination because the lack of proper investigating is what has lead to there being so many myths about the assassination becoming fact, and the truth slowly being drowned underneath. Obviously, I will not be able to solve this case today, but I’d like to think that if I was given a fair and honest chance to be there in Dealey Plaza on the 22nd of November 1963, I could have provided our country the closure that its been looking for, for over 40 years now.
Video footage, eyewitnesses, firearm, bullets and casings, police on the scene during the crime, and most important of all, they immediately had a suspect. So why couldn’t the Dallas police department solve the most infamous murder of the 20th century? Disregarding all of the conspiracy theories and focusing on the crime scene investigation aspect, it seems that this case was all but in the bag when it was dropped into the lap of the Dallas police department. Poor mishandling of evidence seems to be the main contributor as to why so much speculation arises when the JFK assassination topic comes up.
A famous picture from that day is of a detective holding up what at first was thought to be a German-made 7.65-caliber Mauser, but was later identified to be an Italian Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5-caliber carbine (Lancer, 1996). The interesting detail in this picture is that the detective is holding the Italian Mannlicher-Carcano with his bare hands. In another photo from that day, a different detective is walking out of the Texas School Book Depository with the rifle in his hand, and again is carrying the rifle with his bare hands. Now obviously since the rifle did belong to Lee Harvey Oswald, the Dallas police department was more than likely able to lift a fingerprint off it. But simple procedures such as the proper handling of evidence is what can make or break an investigation, in this case the Dallas police department choose the latter of the two. In addition, another problem raised by poor mishandling of evidence was the Paraffin tests of Lee Harvey Oswald’s hands and cheek.
In his book Reclaiming History, Vincent Bugliosi says that the “Dallas Police performed a paraffin test on Oswald’s hands at the time of his interrogation to determine if he had recently fired a revolver and the results were positive, indicating the presence of nitrates from gunpowder residue on his hands” (Bugliosi, 2007). But here’s where the plot thickens, according to an online article written by Pat Speer; earlier in the book Bugliosi said that the Paraffin Test was inconclusive on the grounds that “the mere handling of a weapon may leave nitrates of the skin, even without firing it” (Speer, 2007, para. 4). Even worse, later on in Pat Speer’s article titled “Bugliosi Fails the Paraffin Test,” Speers brings up the fact that even though the paraffin tests on Oswald’s hands were positive, the tests on Oswald’s cheek were negative.
My point of all of this is simple; if Oswald did fire a rifle that afternoon, and he did so with the intentions of being deadly accurate, common sense and simple logic tells us that he would have had to put the rifle up to his check in order to fire it accurately at his target. Even with little knowledge of firearms or possessing any skills and or knowledge in using them, we can easily deduce that Oswald or any assassin for that matter would have had some form of gunshot residue on their cheek after accurately firing a rifle at President Kennedy. But the most frustrating and disheartening part of the investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy is the carelessness and maltreatment of the autopsy. After President Kennedy was illegally transported form Parkland hospital in Dallas to Bethesda Naval hospital in Washington, the mishandling evidence and the lack of operating according to procedures by untrained staff and personnel continued. An example of this is that none of the doctors who performed the autopsy were trained on how to trace a bullets trajectory through the human body (Ramsland, 2009).
The pathologist, a Naval officer by the name of Commander James J. Humes was ordered not to do a full autopsy, instead he was instructed to find the bullet lodged in President Kennedy’s body (Ramsland, 2009). More mistakes that are outlandish were made as the Commander burned his autopsy notes because they were covered with blood. And after only two hours, which is said to be an incredibly short amount of time for an autopsy, Commander Humes prepared President Kennedy’s body for embalming.
Bad photos by an inexperience photographer, and poor X-rays didn’t improve the situation either, examples of this are the photos of the head wound that Kennedy suffered. The pathologist did not shave the hair around the wound; consequently, the photograph of the area had poor visibility and almost no detail. Small and simple mistakes are contagious, and after time can add up into making a big difference. This was proven to be the case on that fateful day in Dallas.
Redoing the Crime Scene
I have pointed out many of the mistakes that were made during the investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Some of those mistakes may have been done intentionally; others may have been made on accident, that is a topic of discussion for another paper. The questions now are, could those mistakes have lead to clearing up some of the mysteries surrounding the JFK assassination, and how could they have been corrected. In addition, can modern day technology rise above those mistakes and produce a clear and definitive answer into the JFK assassination. I think we can agree that the mishandling of the rifle and the inconclusiveness of the Paraffin tests are easy mistakes to correct, that’s pretty much CSI 101 stuff. However, the investigation gets tricky as regards to the autopsy and the procedures that needed to followed there. First, trained and experienced pathologists needed to be performing the procedure, and need to perform the full autopsy, y-incision and all. Proper notes and sketches of the procedure need to made and kept on record, as well as the determination of whether a wound is an entrance or exit wound.
I bring this point up because Commander Humes was unable to determine which wounds were the exit and which were the entrance wounds (Ramsland, 2009). Appropriate photos of the autopsy need to be taken, and the basic process for taking the photos needs to followed so investigators can work with them later on. An example of this would be the photos of the fatal head shot wound and trying to make any determination from the photos. As I stated earlier, it is near impossible to draw any conclusions because the hair around the wound wasn’t shaven as it was supposed to have been in order to enhance the detail and clarity of the wound.
Unfortunately, we cannot go back and rework the crime scene or re-gather evidence in its original form. However, modern science and technology allows us the opportunity to take what evidence we do have and analyze it in ways that weren’t possible back in 1963. Let us take bullet trajectory for example; today, bullet trajectories are often determined and calculated using a computerized simulation to help in reconstruction. This method raises much debate, but at the same time, it has been useful in complicated cases. Whether it would be helpful in this particular case can be debated all day long, but the fact remains that if the initial evidence from 1963 that we have is accurate, than this method of mapping the bullets trajectory is more than likely to deliver us the answers we are looking for.
Finally, could new technology help us determine where the bullets came from? Was it the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, or could the shots have come from the infamous lone gunmen on the grassy knoll? Using new technology, we have the potential of figuring this out by analyzing the bloodstain pattern in the limousine before it was cleaned and repaired. A team of experts brought together by the Discovery Channel has reproduced the JFK assassination. “Using modern blood spatter analysis, new artificial human body surrogates, and 3-D computer simulations, the team determined that the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository was the most likely origin for the shot that killed the 35th president of the United States” (Bland, 2008, para. 1).
Experts simulated the assassination by recreating the scene as close as humanly possible to what happened that day in Dealey Plaza. After the simulation was complete, it was determined that “most of the simulated body material had spattered forward into the car, consistent with a shot that entered the back of the head and exited toward the front” (Bland, 2008, para. 10). This helps strengthen the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was the only assassin that day in Dealey Plaza, and that he alone assassinated John F. Kennedy. This type of computer investigation has only been available for close to five years now, it is probable however, that criminologists will keep on making use of 3-dimensional crime scene reconstruction to help recreate events and gather evidence that a 2-dimensional picture alone cannot divulge. Unfortunately for us though, with so many mysteries surrounding the JFK assassination, even when evidence such as this seems to be as hard as concrete, many still find it hard to believe.
It sometimes seems that we will never know what really happened that day in Dallas; too many clouds have surrounded the assassination and made it incredibly difficult to understand the facts about what truly happened that day. Nevertheless, if we ignore the conspiracy theories and simply look at the facts of the case we can conclude that it was mishandled from start to finish. I am no crime scene investigator, but I feel safe in saying that the men who investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy did a lousy job, and the only good that could ever come from studying their mistakes is using them as example of what not to do. Mishandling of evidence, botched autopsy, and failure to follow in the most basic criminal investigation practices and procedures is what has lead to what should have been an open and shut case, turning into a long drawn out nightmare.
We can easily look back and say the investigation should have been done this way, and the autopsy do that way, and that many of the errors that were made were elementary and the motives behind them questionable. However, we cannot go back, and instead of looking to the past for answers, we must look to the future for them. Technology has shed some new light on the investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and has pointed us in the direction to what more than likely happened that day. As stated earlier, the mystery surrounding the assassination of JFK is unprecedented, and no other case not even the assassination of Julius Caesar has so much secrecy, obscurity, and ambiguity been present. Will we ever know who murdered our former president and how? With the mishandling of the evidence collected back in 1963, it just may turn out that we may truly never know.
Bugliosi, V. (2007). Reclaiming History: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. Bland, E. (2008, November). Tech puts JFK conspiracy theories to rest. Retrieved October 12, 2009, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27705829
Ramsland, K. (2009). The Magic Bullet. Retrieved October 1, 2009, from http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/criminal_mind/forensics/ballistics/4.html?print=yes Speer, Pat. (2007, July). Bugliosi Fails the Paraffin Test. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from
(1996). Ballistic Evidence. Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.jfklancer.com/photos/Rifle_Bullets/index.html