HOW FIVE INVESTIGATIONS INTO JFK’S MEDICAL/AUTOPSY EVIDENCE GOT IT WRONG
Gary L. Aguilar, MD and Kathy Cunningham
I-A. The First Investigation - The Warren Commission
I-B. The Warren Commission Examines Kennedy's Medical/Autopsy Evidence
II. The Justice Department Investigates JFK's Autopsy
III. The Clark Panel
IV. The Rockefeller Commission
V. The 'Last' Investigation - The House Select Committee on Assassinations
Appendix - Tables and Figures
In discussing the media’s reaction to Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK, Sam Smith commented that, “It is one of contemporary journalism’s most disastrous conceits that truth can not exist in the absence of revealed evidence. By accepting the tyranny of the known, the media inevitably relies on the official version of the truth, seldom asking the government to prove its case, while demanding of critics of that official version the most exacting tests of evidence.” (emphasis in original) Nowhere is this phenomenon more visible than in Kennedy’s medical/autopsy evidence. The original, official findings are accepted without serious scrutiny, as if the government was institutionally incapable of anything but impartiality. Challenges, by contrast, are run through the most withering gauntlet, perhaps for the obvious reason that it is the government that sits in judgment of the merits of the challenge.
Asking any organization to investigate itself is always a chancy endeavor. It is difficult to prevent the ‘introspectors’ from reflecting their own interests. So it is scarcely a surprise to see the pro-government inclinations of the examiners the government has commissioned to reinvestigate John F. Kennedy’s death – from the Justice Department in the mid 1960s to the House Select Committee in the late 1970s. Ironically, the House Select Committee’s criticism – “It is a reality to be regretted that the [Warren] Commission failed to live up to its promise” – applies just as much to the Select Committee as it does to the Warren Commission. And just as much to the Rockefeller Commission, the Clark Panel and the Justice Department. It is a regrettable reality that none of these groups lived up to the promise.
It would have been a surprise if they had, especially given the sort of stakes involved with the death of a popular president. Once the government’s top cop, J. Edgar Hoover, announced what would ultimately be the government’s final conclusion before he’d lifted an investigative finger – that a loner had done it and, implicitly, that the government was innocent of failing to foil a patricidal plot – one could have predicted suspicion would persist, not only about Earl Warren’s first probe, but perhaps any reinvestigations orchestrated by the government.
If nothing else, the handling of JFK’s medical/autopsy evidence provides a case exemplar of how easily things can get started on the wrong foot, and why reinvestigations conducted by the original investigative authority may prefer to keep them on that foot.
The choice of three inadequate pathologists to perform the autopsy of the century was certainly a very bad step in the search for truth, but perhaps only the second error, after allowing the government to do Kennedy’s autopsy in the first place. The doctors’ having been told that, as already discussed, three shots had been heard before JFK fell forward to the floor of the limousine, and that a rifle barrel was seen being withdrawn from an upper floor window behind JFK, certainly influenced the findings of men whose clinical capacities to sort out complex injuries were well below par. And, during the 36 hours between the end of Kennedy’s autopsy and the final, written draft of the autopsy report, a time when the government and news media were solidifying around the theory Oswald, alone, had fired from the rear, it is difficult to imagine the pathologists being willing to defy the overwhelming, conventional wisdom.
And when, ultimately, the august Warren Commission endorsed the desperado theory that the highly revered FBI chief, Hoover, had divined on the very night of the murder, considerable national prestige and pride became invested in that conclusion. Although the Church Committee concluded that The Warren Commission’s “investigation of the assassination was deficient and that facts which might have substantially affected the course of the investigation were not provided the Warren Commission” by the FBI, CIA and other agencies, the failure of the Commission to examine autopsy X-rays and photographs, and to subject them to independent scrutiny by outside experts, suggests it was itself little inclined to look too closely at medical conclusions that already fit so nicely with the Justice Department solution the Commission was keen to endorse.
The pillars upon which the government’s sole assassin solution thereafter rested were (primarily) the reputations of the unimpeachable American legends – J. Edgar Hoover, and after him, Earl Warren, Allen Dulles, Senator Richard Russell, and so on. How precisely these men had derived their conclusions was a secondary consideration. But in those days, the public never imagined it couldn’t trust the good faith, honor and loyalty of any of these men.
The government reacted fairly predictably to the first wave of criticism in the mid 1960s: by confining the dispute to a small, containable area – JFK’s autopsy evidence. It then had the Justice Department dissolve doubts by having the original autopsists reaffirm their original findings. When that failed to quiet things, Justice got one of the original pathologists to write a letter asking for an independent review of the autopsy evidence, a request that led, as explored, to the creation of the Clark Panel.
A statement by one of Clark’s experts probably reflects how the Justice Department had conveyed to the panelists their marching orders. Namely, as Russell Fisher, MD described it, one of their jobs was to “refute some of the junk that was in [Josiah Thompson’s] book” [Six Seconds in Dallas]. The Clark Panel’s final report, as discussed, reflects a remarkable degree of sloppiness, especially for men of such high distinction. Their carelessness makes it hard to escape the conclusion that they produced what was really wanted – a pro-government answer to skeptics, but not what was really needed – a good old college try at the evidence.
Would any of them have ever imagined that giants like J. Edgar Hoover and Earl Warren got the wrong murderer or missed an accomplice? Given Oswald’s assumed guilt, Dr. Fisher explained away what are gigantic discrepancies in JFK’s autopsy evidence as the result of “minor errors” by Kennedy’s pathologists. Since, as the Church Committee put it, “Director Hoover, the Justice Department and the White House ‘exerted pressure’” on officials to affirm Oswald’s guilt, what physician, chosen by the Justice Department to act as a government reviewer in 1968, would have dared challenge a Justice Department conclusion that had earned Earl Warren’s prestigious endorsement?
Although its mandate was for a broader investigation than just the JFK case, the same question may also be asked of the Rockefeller Commission. But here, the selection of appointees raises additional doubts. All of the men Rockefeller picked to look at the Kennedy case had either direct ties to the original autopsy team or the Warren Commission, or they had ties to members of the Clark Panel. Rockefeller tapped Warren Commission counsel David Belin and ballistics consultant Dr. Alfred Olivier. And, as discussed, the medical consultants – Werner U. Spitz, MD, Richard Lindenberg, MD, Fred Hodges, MD and Lt. Col. Robert R. McMeeken, MC – all had links either to the original autopsy or to the members of the Clark Panel. Their prior associations might easily have been forgotten if they had not demonstrated such an uncharacteristic degree of professional sloppiness in supporting the position of the government that had appointed them.
In the case of the House Select Committee, what is most striking is the conflicted nature of the conclusions: while the committee reached the stunning conclusion that there had indeed been a conspiracy to kill JFK, the HSCA’s forensic subpanel concluded there was no evidence for one in Kennedy’s medical and autopsy evidence. But Werner Spitz, MD had already endorsed the official verdict as a Rockefeller appointee. And James Weston, MD, had sided already with the Warren Commission before ever being appointed by the HSCA. Moreover, the chair, Michael Baden, MD, appears not to have given the matter sufficient thought, for his recounting of the facts of the JFK case in his book, Unnatural Death, prove that he grossly misunderstood those facts.
It bears repeating that though the medical experts overwhelmingly agreed there had been only two shots, fired from the rear, those conclusions were based on incomplete data, and they were not unanimous. As mentioned, Cyril Wecht, MD, JD issued a spirited dissent in the HSCA’s final report.
Having been the first person to publicly report that key pieces of autopsy evidence were missing, something never disclosed by the Warren Commission, the Justice Department, the Clark Panel, the Rockefeller Commission, or the other forensic experts working for the HSCA, Wecht realized early on that the evidentiary basis for a confident conclusion was suspiciously incomplete. But Victor Navasky’s important comment about how unanimously the medical authorities have endorsed the Oswald theory goes to the heart of the current status of the Kennedy case: there has been little public coverage, and no significant analysis, of the peculiar deficiencies in JFK’s autopsy.
Wecht’s disturbing discovery, it turns out, wasn’t the half of it. Besides the President’s brain and tissue slides, the camera that took JFK’s “best evidence” autopsy photographs has vanished, as have the HSCA tests that revealed that the camera failed a test to match them with the official photographs. The skull fragments that ostensibly proved the bullet’s direction by their supposed beveling characteristics have disappeared. Original autopsy notes were vaporized by JFK’s chief pathologist, who followed that up by signing false affidavits about them, and then by giving the Warren Commission misleading testimony. Also, multiple lines of evidence suggest that crucial – what might fairly be described as “diagnostic” – autopsy photographs are also missing, if not falsified.
The prior experts Navasky implicitly deferred to are the experts we have discussed. They never knew anything about any of this. Instead, they worked under the reasonable presumption that they had been given full access to all pertinent information. Perhaps more importantly, it appears they also worked under the “reasonable” presumption that the unimpeachable Warren Commissioners had conducted an impartial and thorough investigation into Dallas and rightly concluded that only one man was responsible.
Would the experts have regarded the autopsy team any differently if they had realized that the same men who had told them autopsy photographs were missing had also signed a false Justice Department affidavit saying the opposite? Would the experts have considered the pressure the Justice Department had exerted on the autopsy team to reaffirm the original conclusions relevant to the objectivity of the pathologists, to say nothing of the Justice Department? Would they have wondered why the Justice Department, which had no legal standing in Garrison’s trial of Clay Shaw, nevertheless flew Finck down to New Orleans to testify, and then sent Boswell to refute Finck? Would they have wondered why Boswell was so cooperative with the Justice Department’s extralegal, clandestine arrangements?  Or what Justice’s true motives were in asking Boswell, a general pathologist, to supervise Martin Luther King’s forensic autopsy?
As a result, it must now be asked whether the experts would have thought differently, or pursued their investigations any differently, if they had known what we now know.
Would the HSCA’s forensic experts have investigated the HSCA’s selective withholding of important medical/autopsy evidence from them – the inconvenient testimonies and diagrams obtained from witnesses who were present at the autopsy? And if they had known of these witnesses, is it unreasonable to imagine they might have followed up the information with additional inquiries?
Would it have made a difference to the experts if they had been familiar with the new evidence suggesting that more than one “JFK” brain was autopsied? That autopsy photographs are missing, including brain images the photographer reported have vanished? How would they have regarded the fact that, despite questionable autopsy photographs showing the opposite, it is likely JFK had a sizable segment of the rear of his skull, including part of his occipital bone, blasted out? Would they have investigated why the HSCA reported it had authenticated the autopsy photographs that had, in fact, failed authentication tests? Would the fact that the original autopsy camera is missing, along with the tests that proved a mismatch between camera and JFK’s autopsy pictures, have made any difference in their thinking?
Since the best scientific judgments cannot be rendered until all data has been analyzed, it is safe to say that the best scientific judgments are not yet in on the JFK medical/autopsy evidence. So does the evidence merit a reexamination by a new panel of experts? The reader will have to decide for himself how much suppressed, and contradictory, evidence it takes to justify a reappraisal. Or to justify lack of confidence in prior appraisals. But today it is not an exaggeration to argue that still, nearly 40 years later, there remain myriad unanswered questions.
Had JFK’s death been a simple matter of a sole, deranged act by a disgruntled loner, how likely is it that so much inconvenient evidence would have been suppressed or ignored? Evidence such as signed false affidavits arranged by the Justice Department that just happen to endorse the Justice Department’s preferred conclusions? Such as overwhelming witness testimony at odds with the “hard” photographic evidence, key portions of which all the relevant witnesses insist are missing? Such as selectively suppressed, and exculpatory, medical and autopsy evidence whose disclosure might have forced a new, official theory of the President’s death, had sanctioned experts been but allowed to see it? Such as key witnesses – like Burkley – being brushed aside?
The proven mishandling of evidence, and the discovery of so much suppressed and contrary evidence, has increased the already heavy burden of proof on the proponents of the Oswald solution to the assassination. That, intriguingly, is what the record now shows. Despite the estimable credentials of previous expert examiners, the full record has never been expertly examined with any great vigor or skepticism. Any one of the previous panels might easily have begun to unravel this medical conundrum, had a freewheeling and unhindered probe ever been officially sanctioned. But it never has been. And so what we are left with is a suspiciously inadequate Autopsy of the Century that has repeatedly undergone an inadequate post mortem of its own.
 The Investigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Performance of the Intelligence Agencies, Book V, Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, p. 6.
 Blaine Taylor, The Case of the Outspoken Medical Examiner. Maryland State Med. J., March, 1977, p. 66.
 Blaine Taylor, The Case of the Outspoken Medical Examiner. Maryland State Med. J., March, 1977, p. 65.
 Michael Baden, MD. Unnatural Death – Confessions of a Medical Examiner. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990, p. 11.
 For an elaboration and an expanded discussion of this, see an essay – “The Medical Case for Conspiracy” – by Gary Aguilar and Cyril Wecht in the book, Trauma Room One: The JFK Medical Coverup Exposed. New York: Paraview Press, 2001.
 For an elaboration and an expanded discussion of this, the reader is referred to the book, Trauma Room One: The JFK Medical Coverup Exposed. New York: Paraview Press, 2001.
 For an elaboration and an expanded discussion of this, the reader is referred to the book, Trauma Room One: The JFK Medical Coverup Exposed. New York: Paraview Press, 2001