The case against Lee Harvey Oswald

No one saw Lee Harvey Oswald aim a gun at President Kennedy and pull the trigger. However, more than one person saw Oswald (or a person who looked like him) standing at a sixth floor window of the Book Depository before the shots were fired. Some of them observed that he was holding a rifle. Others saw the rifle (but not the shooter) briefly after the shots were fired. Workers on the fifth floor of the Book Depository reported that shots were fired from above their heads. Photographs and film of the event show that, when the first shot was fired, Secret Service agents and people watching the parade turned to look in the direction of the Book Depository.

After the shooting, police officers found a grouping of boxes on the sixth floor of the Book Depository. Some of the boxes shielded the corner window from the view of the rest of the floor; two others were arranged as a seat and a rifle-rest for a gunman. Three cartridges rested on the floor near these boxes.

The President was shot from behind and from above, to his right. This fact is indicated by bullet damage to the clothing he was wearing at the time. A bullet entered his back between his right shoulder blade and spine. Fibers from his shirt and suitcoat demonstrate that the back wound was an entry wound. A bullet exited the President’s neck just above the knot of his tie. Careful study of his shirt collar and neck tie demonstrates that a bullet exited the President’s throat. The President’s other wound was in the head. The fact that he dropped backward after being shot in the head has caused many researchers to conclude that the fatal shot came from in front of the president. Autopsy photographs show a smaller entry wound at the top of the head, to the right of center, and a large exit wound on the side of the President’s head. Still photographs from the film taken at the time the president was shot show the exit of debris flying in front of the President. This indicates that the President was shot from behind and that he was thrown backward, not from the impact of the bullet, but from the force of the debris exiting his head.

Governor Connally was also shot from behind. A bullet entered his back, shattered a rib, exited his chest, pierced his wrist, and became embedded in his thigh. The scar from the Governor’s first injury is as long as the bullet, indicating that the bullet struck him after beginning to tumble, meaning that it had hit some other object first—likely the President, but possibly a tree branch. A bullet was found on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital. Although its nose is not deformed, the rear of the bullet is flattened with some lead missing. This appears to indicate that the tumbling bullet struck the governor’s rib and wrist, causing significant damage to the governor and some damage to the rear of the bullet.

A rifle was found hidden among boxes on the sixth floor of the Book Depository. Bullet fragments found in the President’s car were fired from that rifle, as was the nearly intact bullet found at the hospital. The rifle matched a gun mailed to “Alek Hidell” at a post office box Hidell shared with Oswald. When arrested, Oswald was carrying an identification card with his picture and the name of Alek Hidell. When his possessions were searched at the house where his wife was staying, photographs were found of Oswald holding the same rifle, as well as the pistol used to kill the police officer.

Oswald had received a ride to work that morning from a co-worker. Both the co-worker and his sister testified that Oswald had carried a large paper package with him to work that morning. Oswald told the co-worker that the package contained curtain rods for his apartment. He later told the police that he had carried nothing to work except his lunch. Paper resembling that of the package witnessed by the co-worker and his sister was found near the sixth-floor window where the three cartridges were discovered.

Researchers have questioned whether or not Oswald could have fired three shots in the amount of time that the shooting took place. If the first shot missed, then the three shots happened in about eight seconds, well within the limitations of the rifle, especially since Oswald had familiarized himself with the workings of the gun. Researchers have questioned whether Oswald was capable of hitting a moving target at that range. His shooting scores while in the Marines were quite low. Yet in all his other jobs, Oswald frequently did less than his best at assigned tasks. His scores at the Marine shooting range probably did not reflect his actual ability. Researchers have questioned whether the gun Oswald used was equal to the task. While it was an inexpensive, mass-produced gun, it was certainly capable of the damage that happened in Dallas when in the hands of an experienced shooter.

Researchers also have asked why Oswald did not fire at the car while it was approaching him on Houston Street. First, the President had people in front of him in the car, but no one behind him in the car. Second, Oswald would have been in the line of vision of Secret Service personnel and police if he fired from in front of the car, but he was more protected from their vision after the car turned the corner. Third, given the downward incline of Elm Street and Oswald’s location at the sixth floor window, his moving target was much easier to locate on Elm Street than on Houston Street.

Most of the witnesses to the shooting reported hearing two or three shots; very few remembered hearing more than three shots. Governor Connally heard only two shots, but he knew that he was not struck by the first shot, and he knew that the other shot hit only the President. Thus it appears that three shots were fired, one of them (the first) missing the car entirely. This matches the three cartridges found by the sixth floor window. No evidence of additional shots has been uncovered; if one or more shots were fired from the grassy knoll, they missed the car and its occupants entirely without causing any damage behind the car.

Moreover, Abraham Zapruder would have done more than flinch if a rifle was fired from the grassy knoll behind him. His location, with his movie camera, was too close to the knoll to be unaffected by a shot from that site.

Some researchers suggest that Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald to silence him before he revealed details of a larger conspiracy; others think that Ruby shot Oswald to prevent Oswald from proving his innocence. Ruby had connections to organized crime, but so did virtually every other person in his business. His flurry of phone calls to known criminals before the assassination was likely connected to a work dispute at his nightclub and not to the killing of Kennedy or Oswald. Ruby arrived at the parking garage where he shot Oswald long after Oswald was scheduled to be moved; Oswald’s move was delayed by an interview and by Oswald’s own decision to change clothing. When Ruby entered the garage, he left behind his favorite dog in a locked car, unlikely behavior for a man who expected to be detained more than a few minutes.

The Commission appointed by President Johnson and a Congressional investigation in the 1970s both concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy. They did so after considerable study of the evidence, questioning of witnesses, and consideration of other points of view. The case against Oswald appears to be convincing to all but a few conspiracy-minded investigators. But tomorrow I will post several items in Oswald’s defense.

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The Kennedy Assassination–Part One

The murder of President John F. Kennedy has shaped the American view of our own history like few other events. For many people, even some who had not yet been born, the events of November 22, 1963, are indelibly impressed on the mind as a day that changed the world.

Over the years, I have built a library of three dozen books about that murder. I read them one by one as I acquired them. Late last year, I decided to read through the entire collection from earliest publication date to the most recent volume. With that new reading, I not only renewed my memory of the various ideas of what happened that day; I also witnessed the history of the history. I saw how one writer’s speculation could become an authoritative footnote in a later book. I saw how the same puzzle pieces could be assembled in various ways to create distinctly different pictures.

When I meet with history students on the first day of a new semester, I ask them whether they agree that, the more information we have about a particular event, the better we can understand that event. Usually they agree. Then I use the events of that day to show that too much information can muddle the picture. Consider the amount of evidence—hundreds of witnesses, photographs, moving pictures, and a great many artifacts from bullet fragments to the victims’ clothing. In fact, few crimes have provided as much material for investigation as this very public assassination. In spite of that wealth of information, various understandings and interpretations of the evidence have led to widely varying conclusions about what happened.

President Kennedy was visiting Texas largely for political purposes. He had narrowly carried the state in the 1960 election, and his reelection was doubtful without the electoral votes of Texas in 1964. His wife Jackie, probably even more popular than the President, accompanied him on this trip, as did assorted Texas politicians including Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Governor John Connally. After a morning appearance in Fort Worth, the President and his associates made the extremely short plane ride to Dallas to ride in a motorcade through downtown in order to give a speech at the World Trade Mart that afternoon.

The President was greeted in a largely cordial manner, although some pamphlets and newspaper ads carried negative statements about his policies. Cheering crowds lined the streets between the airport and the World Trade Mart. As the President’s car neared the end of downtown Dallas, after it turned from Houston Street onto Elm Street, shots rang out. Both the President and the Governor were injured. Secret Service rushed the car to Parkland Hospital. Doctors were able to save Governor Connally, but President Kennedy was declared dead at the hospital.

Over the objection of local authorities, federal agents rushed Kennedy’s body to the airport to take it back to Washington DC. Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated as the nation’s thirty-sixth President, and then the airplanes took off. When the airplanes arrived in Washington, the President’s body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an autopsy. After a weekend of mourning, the President was buried at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, police officers had found a rifle and three cartridges on the sixth floor of the Book Depository at the corner of Houston and Elm streets. Asking for the names of employees who had left the building since the shooting, they were given the name of Lee Harvey Oswald. Already a description of an unnamed man, given by one of the parade observers, had been broadcast on the police radio, describing him as a suspect in the crime. Oswald had left his workplace, taking a bus and a taxi to his apartment. He left the apartment around one o’clock. A few minutes later, a police officer was shot and killed within a mile of his apartment. Some time after that, as police cars were still rushing to the scene of the second shooting, a shoe salesman spotted a man hiding in doorways and acting in a suspicious manner. When this man ducked into a movie theater without buying a ticket, the shoe salesman consulted the theater clerk and decided to call the police. They answered quickly and arrested Oswald in the theater. He was brought to the police station for questioning, a suspect in the murder of the police officer. Another officer, preparing to search for Oswald as a suspect in the President’s murder, was told that Oswald was already in custody. The Dallas police proceeded to question Oswald, while also searching his apartment and the house where his wife was staying.

Oswald was questioned through the day on Saturday as well as Sunday morning. He was displayed to reporters late Friday night and frequently had to pass through groups of reporters while being moved from place to place in the police station. He was placed in line-ups to be identified by witnesses of the shooting of the President and of the police officer. He was formally charged with both murders.

Then, late Sunday morning, Oswald was being transferred to the county jail for greater security. While in a police department garage, and while surrounded by police officers, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby, owner of a Dallas nightclub. His death prevented Oswald from being brought to trial and given the benefit of legal defense. Instead, President Johnson appointed a Commission to investigate the assassination and associated events. The published report of the Commission in 1964 indicated that Lee Harvey Oswald did shoot and kill President Kennedy and that he acted alone, not as part of a conspiracy.

Since that report was issued, many people have questioned its conclusions. Some have suggested that Oswald was involved in a conspiracy to murder the President, while others say that he was framed for the crime. Over the next three posts, I will consider the evidence of Oswald’s guilt, the evidence that he was framed or was part of a conspiracy, and two possible solutions to the mystery.