Strange but true:
More than two dozen of the witnesses to the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 thought at least one gunshot came from in front of the presidential motorcade, a claim rejected by the Warren Commission and most U.S. news organizations.
With the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination approaching this fall, the perennial conspiracy debate is heating up and the testimony of people at the crime scene is getting renewed attention.
What do the facts tell us?
Defenders of the U.S. government’s semi-official theory that the 35th president, a liberal Democrat, was shot from behind by a psychopathic leftist will dismiss the earwitness accounts. Earwitness testimony, say crime scene investigators, is notoriously unreliable.
But not always. After all, it is well-documented that some earwitnesses of JFK’s assassination proved to have good hearing that day. Several dozen people reported hearing gunshots from above and behind the presidential motorcade. Their perception was accurate.
President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally were both wounded in the back. The location of their wounds proved that Oswald (or someone else) was firing from above and behind had assaulted the motorcade. The earwitnesses in Dealey Plaza proved right.
So what about the several dozen people who said a shot also came from in front of JFK’s car? Were they mistaken? Or could they have been right too?
The issue is well documented. Some JFK authors say as many 51 earwitnesses said they thought one or more shots came from in front of the motorcade. Even John McAdams, a die-hard anti-conspiracy theorist, agrees that at least 33 witnesses spoke of hearing a gun shot from in front of the motorcade.
The area was searched by police within minutes of JFK’s assassination. No gunmen were found.
Corroborating earwitness testimony
Law enforcement and criminal justice professionals agree that photographic evidence is more reliable than earwitness testimony.
What about the infamous home movie of the assassination made by Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder. What does it tell us about the source of the shots?
The film captures, in terrible detail, the six seconds in which the commander in chief lost his life. The film shows Kennedy jolted forward when he was struck in the back by a bullet. A few seconds later, the film show’s JFK head snapping backwards and to the left from the fatal shot.
The Zapruder film lends credence to — some say corroborates — the earwitness testimony that the fatal shot came from the front and to the right.
Among the earwitnesses to JFK’s murder were no less than 21 law enforcement officers.
While earwitness testimony is unreliable, these 21 cops were probably better earwitnesses than most.
All of these men were within 150 feet from JFK when the shots rang out.
They were trained in the use of firearms.
They were experienced in crime scene investigation. They were dispersed at various around the park-like area, which means they would have heard different echo patterns, a frequent source of faulty earwitness testimony.
What did these earwitnesses say about the origins of the gunshot killed JFK?
Twenty one officers said their reaction to the gunfire was to go search the area famously known as “the grassy knoll.”
The unanimity of their reaction is striking. On November 22, after hearing gunfire near the presidential motorcade, they all converged on the parking lot and the railroad yard, lined by a stockade fence, on top of a grassy embankment overlooking the motorcade route.
The Warren Commission ignored all of the earwitness testimony, even from cops. The Warren Report said there was “no evidence” of a shot from the front.
That is the sort of misleading statement that prompted a majority of Americans to mistrust the Warren Commission’s conclusions about the causes of JFK’s assassination.
There was credible evidence, in the form of earwitness testimony, that JFK was killed by a shot from the front. Here’s some of it.
What 21 cops said — and did — after JFK was shot
1) Secret Service man Paul E. Landis, Jr., was riding the rear right running board of the third car in the presidential motorcade. After JFK’s assassination, he wrote:
My immediate thought was that the President could not possibly be alive after being hit like he was. I still am not certain from which direction the second shot came, but my reaction at the time was the shot came from somewhere towards the front right-hand side of the road.
2) Secret Service man Forrest Sorrels was riding in the lead car of the motorcade when he heard the shots. He said he “turned around to look up on this terrace part there, because the sound sounded like it came from the back and up in that direction.”
Like many other witnesses Sorrells used the term “terrace” to refer to the area famously known as “the grassy knoll.” There is a monument structure in this part of Dealey Plaza overlooking the street where JFK’s motorcade was passing. Adjacent to the structure is a parking lot and a railroad yard separated by a line of trees.
Sorrells repeated this observation to the Warren Commission.
“And, as I said, the noise from the shots sounded like they may have come back up or the terrace there …
But the reports seemed to be so loud that it sounded like to me – in other words, that my first thought, somebody up on the terrace, and that is the reason I looked there.
3) Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry was driving the lead car in the motorcade. In a deposition taken in April 1964, Curry said:
I heard a sharp report. We were near the railroad yards at this time, and I didn’t know – I didn’t know exactly where this report came from, whether it was above us or where, but this followed by two more reports (Warren Commission, Vol. XII, 28).
The week after this deposition, Curry was in Washington testifying at great length before the Commission – but he was not asked about where he thought the shots came. He did say where he ordered his men to search for the gunman.
I said over the radio, I said: “Get someone up in the railroad yard and check.” (IV, 161)
Curry’s memory, though not his language, is confirmed by the audio recording of Dallas Police Department’s radio communications that day. On recording Curry is heard to say, “Get a man on top of that triple underpass and see what happened up there.” He was referring to the area in front of JFK’s limousine.
4) Deputy sheriff Eugene Boone ran towards the knoll and then the railroad yard as soon as he heard the shots (XIX, 507; VII, 105-9).
5) Deputy constable Seymour Weitzman, like most of the other deputies, was standing at the corner of Main and Houston when he heard the shots. He ran toward the President’s car and climbed over a wall in “the monument section,” looking for the assassin (IV, 161).
6) Roger Craig, too, on hearing the first shot, ran until he reached “the terrace on Elm Street” and then the railroad yards (XIX, 524.).
7) Harold Elkins was more explicit:
I immediately ran to the area from which it sounded like the shots had been fired. This is an area between the railroad and the Texas School Book Depository which is east of the railroad. (XIX, 540)
8) “Lummie” Lewis, 9) A. D. McCurley, 10) Luke Mooney, and 11 ) W. W. Mabra all heard the shots the same way and ran to search the grassy knoll and the freight yard. (XIX, 526, 514, 541, 528).
12) The shots sent Deputy Sheriff J. L. Oxford running toward the triple underpass (XIX, 530).
13) L. C. Smith’s reaction to the shots was to climb the fence behind the grassy knoll and search the parking lot (XIX, 516).
14) Deputy I. C. Todd ran to the railroad tracks, as did 15) Ralph Walters and radio officer 16) Jack Watson (XIX, 543, 505-6, 522).
17) Harry Weatherford told much the same story about when he heard the sound of gunfire. He knew what it was: (XIX, 502)
“I thought to myself that this was a rifle and I started towards the corner when I heard the third report … By this time I was running toward the railroad yards where the sound seemed to come from.”
18) Deputy sheriff Buddy Walthers (XIX, 502) was riding behind JFK’s car in the motorcade. He wrote a memo about what he did on November 22. He told much the same story when he testified in Washington in July 1964.
Walthers heard three shots, ran across Dealey Plaza until he reached the parking are behind the now-familiar “concrete structure on the knoll” (VII, 544-6). He recalled
“At the time there was something in my head that said that they probably could have been coming from the railroad overpass, because I thought since I had got splattered with blood – I was just a little back and left of – a little back and left of Mrs. Kennedy but I didn’t know.”
His second choice for the source of the gunfire was the Texas School Book Depository. (VI, 294-5).
19) After the shots were fired, Clyde Haygood tried to jump the north curb of Elm Street with his motorcycle and, failing, parked it on the street and ran to the knoll looking for any sign of the assassin. (VI, 297-9).
20) Joe Marshall Smith had his back to the Depository on Elm Street when the shots rang out. “I didn’t know where the shots came from,” he said, but ran “to an area immediately behind the concrete structure” and checked the bushes and all the cars in the parking lot behind the knoll. (VII, 533-6)
21) Edgar Leon Smith, Jr., stood on the east curb of Houston Street about 150 feet from the Depository . He guessed the first two shots were firecrackers but, after the third shot, he drew his pistol and ran down Elm Street.
Wesley Liebeler, a Warren Commission attorney asked him to clarify by referring to a map before them: “You thought the shot came from this little concrete structure up behind No. 7?
Smith said, “Yes, sir.”
Given the unreliability of earwitness testimony, such accounts cannot be dispositive in determining the source of the gunshot that killed JFK.
Some people say it is foolish to think that President Kennedy was killed in the crossfire of two assassins. Others will say it foolish to dismiss the testimony of 21 cops at the scene of a crime.
What do you think?
A note on sources:
This account is adapted from an essay “51 Witnesses: The Grassy Knoll,” written by Harold Feldman.
Stewart Galanor, a teacher and JFK researcher, did the most thorough accounting of eyewitness and earwitness testimony from the crime scene. He compiled the statements of 216 witnesses and provides links to their statements.
Professor John McAdams, a defender of the lone nut theory, says that “only” 33 witnesses thought a shot came from in front of the presidential motorcade. His efforts to dismiss evidence that conflicts with his theory are more revealing than persuasive. You can read it here.