The limits of science: NOVA looks at JFK as a ‘cold case’

What can science tell us about the assassination of President Kennedy assassination — and the investigations that followed?

NOVA, the PBS science show, will take a stab at answering that question with JFK Cold Case, a documentary scheduled to premier next November 13 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

From the PBS press release:

“The 1963 murder, in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses, was a homicide investigator’s best-case scenario. Yet somehow the JFK assassination became a forensic nightmare, plagued by mishandled evidence, a controversial autopsy and, incredibly, a Prime Suspect murdered while in police custody before he could be tried — all of it captured on film.”

This sounds like the show may tell us that comforting story that “November 22 1963 was a very simple crime made complicated by an incompetent government and irrational people.” I hope not because the evidence indicated that November 22 was not a very simple crime, not when the assassin, Lee Oswald, had been watched so carefully by senior CIA officers (named here) in the weeks and months before Kennedy was killed.

NOVA’s experts include private investigator Josiah Thompson, gunshot wound authority Larry Sturdivan, laser scanning specialist Tony Grissim, medical examiner and forensic neuropathologist Peter Cummings, and firearms experts Lucien and Michael Haag.

(I only know Thompson out of this group. As one of the first serious practitioners of assassination science, he certainly belongs on the show. I’m familiar with Sturdivan’s work. I don’t know anything about the others, so I’m curious what they have to say.)

That said, I’m skeptical of the notion that forensic science can enable us to make definitive statements about who killed JFK. Kennedy’s assassination was a “national security event,” and the senior U.S. intelligence officers who knew the most about the assassin Lee Oswald were empowered, by official secrecy, to conceal what they knew and when they knew it from investigators.

The operational files of some of the key CIA officers involved (all of them now deceased) remain classified — for reasons of “national security. I argue here that CIA director John Brennan should review and release these records before the 50th anniversary.

The persistence of secrecy around certain JFK files held by the CIA indicates that the Dallas crime still falls under the penumbra of national security secrecy.

So the best science on the crime scene evidence can clarify what happened when presidential security broke down in Dealey Plaza. But it cannot clarify the causes of the intelligence failure that culminated there.

 

23 comments

  1. JSA says:

    I wonder why NOVA didn’t include an acoustics expert, say someone like Donald B. Thomas, who has written quite extensively on what we know about this (“Hear No Evil” available for purchase on the Mary Ferrell Foundation site). I’ve seen documentaries like this one before, and they don’t always mention all of the discrepancies and details. Also, some remain fixated that there were only three shots fired. I think there were more, but an honest reexamination should at least entertain this possibility for their viewers, in order to fully look at the crime scene.

    I agree that these ‘technical shows’ can be valuable and offer insight, and I also agree that to avoid contemplating the “national security” aspects of the event means one cannot really look very thoroughly at the case. I think FRONTLINE once did do a show about Oswald that included John Newman in it, which was good. But to dance around the political/power and focus only on the technical aspects means you can’t go very far. The best you can do is say “we may never know” which is kind of like saying “we may never know exactly who killed O.J. Simpson’s wife even if we have pretty good reason to think her husband, Simpson, committed the crime, and even though Simpson got off in court, just as the Warren Commission probably got the JFK killers off.

  2. Jeff Pascal says:

    When the Discovery Channel had a program to try and replicate the Single Bullet Theory, they failed as the bullet went through the chest,not neck, on JFK Dummy, as well as not being able to get the bullet to have enough force after causing several wounds in the Connally dummy to even penetrate his left thigh, let alone end up on a stretcher. I wish Dr. Aguilar, and Dr. Wecht were on this upcoming Nova program to ensure all the measurements, and data pertaining to the single bullet theory will be correct. At least the Discover show used anatomical dummies to placed the back wound at T3, where the majority of hard evidence places it, and used live ammo, not just lasers, which I hope this show will do.

    • Brian LeCloux says:

      The Warren Commission disproved the Single Bullet Theory as it was being created.
      One Commission consultant was Dr. Joseph Dolce, chair of the Army’s Wounds Ballistic Board.
      As Dolce told Chip Selby, for his documentary on the single bullet theory, Reasonable Doubt (1988), “When the ar-legal personnel could get, could not get us to agree with them, they said well, we think you ought to go back to Edgewood and carry out some tests. And so they gave us the original rifle, the Mannlicher-Carcano, plus a hundred bullets, 6.5 millimeters, and we went, and we shot the cadaver wrists…and in every instance the front, or the tip of the bullet was smashed.”
      In a letter to U.S. Senator Lawton Chiles, Dolce noted that his experiments with the ten cadaver wrists proved just the opposite of the testimony in support of the single bullet theory. Dolce was “convinced that one bullet theory is wrong…as our experiments at the Edgewood Arsenal proved.”

    • mike says:

      My interpretation of the facts or evidence is the 2nd shot went through Kennedy’s upper back out his neck clipping his tie on Kennedy’s left side. His spine was not touched. His clothing confirms the entrance and exit wounds. Also, the bullet went through soft tissue and not slowing down greatly as it passed through Kennedy. As it hit Connolly’s back it was in a tumble and hit above his arm pit flat, not on the pointed end. The bullet then began to decrease velocity greatly. The bullet went through Connolly’s right lung and exiting out Connolly’s chest around the right nipple. The exit wound was a large sucking wound that was close by Mrs Connolly’s when she held the Governor in her arms. He most likely would have died if she have not (unknowingly) held the wound close. While slower in velocity, it enter Connolly’s wrist shattering a bone and barely entering his right thigh were it stopped. I haven’t read much about the assassination in a long time and I might be wrong on some points.

      • Mike T. says:

        mike

        I’d say your recollection of John Connelly’s wound, as well as how it and where it entered and exited JFK is as I remember it.

        Trying to replicate a tragic event like the JFK assassination is impossible. The targets are not going to be identical, and therefore any test will be just that,a test. I have seen a number of test firings over the years and at one or two were pretty darn close to the actual path of the magic bullet.

        A lot of people diss Oswald’s ability with a rife and the accuracy of his mail order gun. But the final fatal head shot to JFK was only 88 yards from the 6th floor window. Anyone that has ever qualified in the military with a rifle could make that shot consistently. The second shot was even closer. Childs play.

  3. SMGalbraith says:

    I have to disagree with your characterization that Oswald had “been watched so carefully by senior CIA officers (named here) in the weeks and months before Kennedy was killed.”

    Oswald’s pro-Castro activities in New Orleans and his trip to Mexico City led to the CIA’s interest in him. The CIA didn’t follow Oswald; Oswald crossed the agency’s radar. He was wearing a big sign, “Look at me!”

    And he wasn’t “watched so carefully”. They lost track of him when he went to Dallas. The FBI in Dallas didn’t even know where he lived. They didn’t find out until after the assassination.

    As Norman Mailer pointed out in his book on Oswald, the KGB and CIA were and are large bureaucracies. The Soviet agents monitoring Oswald’s activities – or non-activities – in Minsk would go home early in the morning. They’d just quit.

    Oswald crossed the CIA’s radar, they saw him and then lost him. And his name was just one of hundreds if not thousands that they knew about.

    • jeffmorley says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Steve. I think you are lacking some basic information. The CIA did track Oswald carefully. Information about his travels, contacts and intentions was reviewed at the highest levels of the CIA on October 10, 1963. These senior CIA officer did not receive reports on thousands of leftist Americans who got into fights with anti-Castro Cubans and made contact with suspected Cuban and Russian intelligence operatives in Mexico City. They only watched one such character in the fall of 1963 and his name was Oswald.

      Here’s the gist of the story: “Did the CIA track Oswald before JFK was killed.”

      • George Simmons says:

        And, of course, we have a senior CIA official (Jane Roman) on record as saying that other senior CIA officials showed a keen interest in Oswald which was held very closely on a need to know basis.

    • mike says:

      To me it was the FBI’s responsibility to keep an eye on Oswald in the US, not the CIA’s. But because was considered somewhat a dim wit, Oswald was ignored after a period of time and not considered a plausible nation security threat.

  4. Marcus Hanson says:

    I recall the words of Walter Cronkite,in the 1988 PBS Nova program.
    Something about “Science may not have all the answers,but it must set the (investigatory) standard”.
    Might not be an exact quote , but it is an accurate representation of the sentiments expressed in his closing remarks.

    • JSA says:

      And as I recall, that PBS NOVA program in the eighties did a lot of twisting of the acoustic and ballistics facts to support the Warren Commission’s flawed ‘single bullet’ theory.

  5. Mike Rago says:

    Science can solve this case but not junk science and so far all that we have is junk science.

    Josiah Thompson has adopted the Single Bullet Theory. I do not know if he realizes he has done so but when he adopted the acoustic evidence as an overlay to the Zapruder film in is “Untrue fact” video he implicitly accepted the Single Bulltet theory because the Don Thomas acoustic view of the case adopts the single bullet theory.

    Everyone is trying to get Josiah to adopt their theories and I am afraid that Josiah is making some serious mistakes by not being careful.

  6. JIM GERMAIN says:

    I EXPECT ANOTHER ridiculous and twisted single bullet theory, WHICH WILL MAKE ME turn the channel half way through.
    Oliver Stone’s movie tells the truth….

    • Mike T says:

      Jim Germain:

      Oliver Stone’s movie JFK is FICTION. Even Stone said that he took “creative license”. Ha, about the only thing he got right was the date of JFK’s murder.

  7. Jim DeBrosse says:

    The national obsession with the Single Bullet Theory eludes me. The head shot that killed Kennedy clearly came from the front and right, despite all the techno-bull about “jet effect” and involuntary body movements that Lone Gunman theorist have used to explain away what’s obvious from the Zapruder film. Need more evidence? The motorcyle cop behind and to the left of Kennedy was splattered with blood and brain matter. You don’t need to be a ballistics expert to know that the fatal shot could not have been fired by Oswald from behind.

    • Don White says:

      Yeah, but in testimony to the WC, that same cop said “he drove through” the stuff that splashed into the air. And Nellie Connally, in her testimony, also said that after the major JFK head wound, “we were covered” . . .

      To me, the Governor holding his hat as JFK reaches for his throat was always proof of different shots hitting the two men. Well, that and the fact that Gov and Mrs Connally both said that he was hit by a different shot than JFK.

      But none of that proves that Oswald (or someone behind the car) DID NOT shoot JFK in the back of the head causing the splatter of head matter up and to the front.

      One of the interesting things they showed on the show was that the pattern of radiating skull fractures indicated a shot from behind. Another expert addressed that the yaw and lift of the bullet inside the skull would cause more of a curve in the bullet’s flight path than a straight line . . . thereby concluding the shot hit JFK low in the back of the head.

      Obviously, everything shown was totally based on accepting the x-rays and autopsy photos of JFK. So if those are fake, then PBS Nova just proved that the fakes supported the Warren Commission.

    • Chris says:

      Sorry Jim, but your conclusion is wrong.

      1. The shot could not have been fired from the front & right. The left side of the presidents brain did not have any damage. The damage was only on the right side of his brain, an entry to the right rear & exit in the right front, with the position of his head there would have been damage to the left side of his brain if there was a shot from the front & right.

      2. A shot fired from the front & right would have hit Jackie upon exit as she had him cradled in a position that the only way she wasnt hit was if a shot came from the rear.

      3. The blood splatter & brain matter that hit the policeman can be seen in any HD enhanced version of the Zapruder film. Not only does brain matter go on the back of the car, but the car was traveling about 10-12 miles an hour, and confirmed weather reports showed the motorcade was traveling into a 13 mph headwind. From a physics standpoint, the blood mist entered the air traveling 25 mph backwards, hence the cop, the secret service agent Clint Hill, and the back of the car, all had blood splatter.

      Discovery has shown 3 different documentaries since 2008 that demonstrate this. If you see them, you will see they were done in a very meticulous manner, with exact measurements, computer enhancements, using blood splatter specialists, expert marksmen, etc. They were also live tested with reconstructed heads, ballistic gel models, used a Mannlicher-Carcano with original 6.5 mm ammo, and tests were done with live shots fired from multiple spots.

      Their conclusions were also the same, the shots could have only come from the right rear, at an angle that led directly to the 6th floor window.

      Sorry.. but I was a conspiracy believer for many years, and as Ive grown older and wiser,and put aside opinion and emotion, the facts & science(as boring as they may sound)have led me to one conclusion. That LHO alone shot JFK. And there has yet to be one fact, or piece of evidence that disproves it. No matter what opinion, idea, or conspiracy theory anyone has.. nobody has yet to show one factual piece of evidence to disprove that LHO fired 3 shots and killed JFK.

      • Jim DeBrosse says:

        Chris, I’d believe what you’re saying if anyone had preserved Kennedy’s brain, or had performed an autopsy that wasn’t totally suspect. Jim D.

      • Mike T says:

        Chris:

        The bullet that hit JFK in the head broke up into a number of pieces. Basically it exploded when it hit his skull. So there was not just one entry and one exit to that bullet. Most of JFK’s brain matter splattered in a number of directions. The Zapruder film was the most gruesome film I ever saw.

  8. Kaiser says:

    The PBS Nova “documentary” on JFK is full of lies… for starters, they showed the wound on JFK’s back in the wrong spot… five inches too high, above his collar, when the autopsy photos clearly show the bullet-hole inches below the collar-line. This is a major fraud, designed to bolster the impossible Single Bullet Theory. Look for yourself, you’ll see it’s true. Read more here:
    Killing JFK: 50 Years, 50 Lies
    –From the Warren Commission to Bill O’Reilly,
    A History of Deceit in the Kennedy Assassination
    by Dr. Lance Moore
    The unbiased facts, concisely-presented by a skilled, highly-credible author.
    For more info, search for the term “JFK50Lies”

  9. Neriki says:

    Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy have nothing on LHO and that incredible bullet. They all act alone and unseen with magic in delivering their “works” And if you are under perhaps 7 years old intellectually speaking, you might believe in the truth of their existence. But if you are, say, ten or more, you see a conspiracy of adults with special access doing the deed and crafting the story.
    As for junk science to prove it, thats par for the course. Garbage in, garbage out.
    Personally, I was about ten when this happened and the 40 to 65 year old male adults close around me from the time of the JFK funeral onward have felt LHO’s unscripted statement on being the patsy is the nugget of truth right from the horse’s mouth. A mouth silenced inside a police station on live TV. A police station without security. With detectives without notes. With an FBI agent that flushes his notes down the toilet. Other assassins and terrorists are proud of their work and claim it as their twisted badge of honor, a culminating act of their belief system. Why doesn’t Lee Harvey Oswald conform to this standard behavior is a question that is constantly omitted from scrutiny.

  10. kenyon says:

    For conspiracy theorist. Believe this. 11/22/63, LHO, is supposed to have killed JFK. Less then 5yrs later, brother Robert Kennedy, and Presidential Canidate, killed 6/68 by Sirhan Sirhan, a Syrian National/dishwasher. Then 2 months prior 4/68 MLK killed by James Earl Ray, drifter/petty criminal. Ray always denied killing King, and insisted a man called Raoul did it. Ray denied King until his dying day. Ray Just like LHO, stated he was a patsy. Whoever person or persons pulled the strings, got 3 expendable losers in life, to remove 3 men who wanted to change the status quo. In 1972, Ted Kennedy, ran for and lost nomination for President to Jimmy carter. His mother Rose kennedy asked him to not run again as she was afraid for him. He never ran again. If you watch/re-watch JFK directed by Oliver Stone. Pieces are put together, without the forensic evidence. Food for thought. Who ever wants to debunk the conspiracy theory, wants mis-direction, to confuse the facts. In closing 3 prominent figures, JFK, RFK, MLK, are part of the same conspiracy, Just under 5 yrs from JFK assasination. Per Donald Sutherland.s part in JFK, who has the motive: Black Ops!!! CIA!!! and where were additional soldiers for security, as previous incidents in the Dallas area from Right Wing groups. Sutherland,s character was sent to iceland on a inspection tour. When he should have been in Dallas, performing security details for the President. No One ever mentions JFK the movie/facts put forth by Stone/Kevin Costner. No body!!! no guilty parties. LHO/RAY/Sirhan were patsy,s even though Sirhan was caught in the act by Rosy grier on RFK.

  11. Mike T says:

    Kenyon:

    Ray killed MLK, Sirhan killed RFK, Oswald killed JFK. No all crimes in life are conspiracies. The Lincoln Assassination was, Archduke Ferdinand was, but that doesn’t mean they all were conspiracies and the public was fed a patsy. Look at the evidence, ignore wild theories than no one can prove.

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