Who Killed President Kennedy?

This series of essays isn’t going to give you the answer, but it will try to illustrate the best way to think about the question.

Much of the evidence in the JFK assassination is inconclusive and open to a variety of interpretations. There are, however, some basic, indisputable, uncontroversial facts. These facts suggest only two realistic solutions, both of which revolve around the role of Lee Harvey Oswald:

  • either Oswald killed Kennedy, with or without associates,
  • or he was set up in advance to take the blame.

The Basic Facts of the JFK Assassination

On 22 November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was a passenger in a motorcade through the centre of Dallas, Texas. At about 12:30pm, the motorcade was in Dealey Plaza, just outside the downtown area, when several gunshots were fired.1 Altogether, three people were injured:

  • President Kennedy was wounded in the back and the throat, and, fatally, in the head.2
  • The governor of Texas, John Connally, who was sitting directly in front of Kennedy, sustained three wounds:
    • one bullet hit him in the back, destroyed four inches of one rib, punctured his right lung, and came out of the right side of his chest;
    • his right wrist was shattered;
    • and a fragment of a bullet was embedded in his left thigh.3
  • A bystander, James Tague, received a slight cut on the cheek from the impact of a bullet to the concrete curb near his feet.4

The Bullet Shells and the Rifle

At the time of the shooting, the presidential limousine was heading west on Elm Street, and had just passed the Texas School Book Depository, which contained publishers’ offices and a book warehouse. A window was half open at the eastern end of the sixth floor of the building.5 Three empty bullet shells were discovered just inside this window. Elsewhere on the sixth floor, a rifle was discovered. Tests showed that those bullet shells had been fired from that rifle.6

Lee Harvey Oswald and the Sixth–Floor Rifle

The rifle had been purchased several months earlier by mail order. The name on the mail order coupon was a pseudonym known to have been used elsewhere by Lee Harvey Oswald. The handwriting on the coupon matched Oswald’s. The supplier had sent the rifle to a post office box rented by Oswald.7

Oswald at the Scene of the Crime

Oswald worked in the Texas School Book Depository, and had legitimate access to the sixth floor. He claimed to have been elsewhere at the time of the shooting, but there were no eye–witnesses to support his alibi.

Two Solutions to the JFK Assassination

On the face of it, this is an open–and–shut case: Oswald did it. The only realistic alternative is that Oswald had been carefully framed in advance.

The other, purely theoretical, solution, that some other lone nut happened to stumble across Oswald’s rifle and decided to take a few pot shots at the president, is too unlikely to be worth considering.

Either Oswald did it, or he was set up. Let’s examine each of these options in turn.

Notes

  1. The basic, uncontested facts of the JFK assassination can be found in the Warren Report.
  2. Lack of agreement about the exact location and nature of the president’s wounds is the main reason why the JFK assassination remains controversial. President Kennedy’s autopsy was carried out poorly: his back and throat wounds were not dissected, and none of his wounds were measured or photographed with adequate precision. The two official interpretations of the medical evidence differ in crucial ways; see Warren Report, pp.86ff and House Select Committee on Assassinations Report, appendix vol.7, pp.80ff.
  3. For Governor Connally’s chest wound, see Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.104. For his wrist wound, see ibid., pp.118ff.
  4. James Tague’s wound: Warren Report, p.116.
  5. This is the American definition of ‘sixth floor’; in the UK it would be the fifth floor. All such references will use the American definition.
  6. For the discovery of the bullet shells and the rifle, see e.g. Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, pp.300f. The bullet shells were matched to the rifle by Robert Frazier of the FBI: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, pp.421ff.
  7. A photograph of the envelope and mail order coupon for the rifle: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.19, p.275. Identification of the handwriting as Oswald’s: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.759 (Commission Exhibit 2145). For Oswald’s use of post office boxes, see Warren Commission Hearings, vol.20, p.177. For Oswald’s use of ‘A. Hidell’ as an alias, see The Career of Lee Harvey Oswald below. The man now universally known as Lee Harvey Oswald rarely used his middle name except in official documents; he usually called himself either Lee Oswald or, in the American fashion, Lee H. Oswald.
  8. According to a report by FBI agents who interviewed the suspect, “OSWALD claimed to be on the first floor when President JOHN F. KENNEDY passed this building” (Warren Report, p.613). The most detailed account of Oswald’s alibi is in a report by Captain J.W. Fritz of the Dallas police: “I asked him what part of the building he was in at the time the president was shot, and he said that he was having his lunch about that time on the first floor” (ibid., p.600). Some researchers have claimed that Oswald would surely have been questioned comprehensively about his activities and location at the time of the shooting, and that pertinent information from the interviews may have been deliberately omitted from the reports. Others have pointed out that Oswald was consistently unhelpful to his interviewers, and may simply have refused to expand on his alibi.
  9. Warren Report, p.622.
  10. Handwritten notes of Captain J.W. Fritz’s interview of Oswald, p.1. Fritz’s notes also contain the words, “out with Bill Shelley in front” (ibid., p.3), which have been taken to describe Oswald’s location at the time of the assassination. In fact, they almost certainly refer to his actions a few minutes later. An FBI interviewer reports that, after the assassination, Oswald “went outside and stood around for five or ten minutes with foreman BILL SHELLEY” (Warren Report, p.619).
  11. The Dallas Police radio log states that at 12:22pm the motorcade was on Harwood Street and “just about to cross Live Oak [Street]” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.17, p.461). Main Street was about one minute further on. Jarman’s testimony: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, pp.201ff. Norman’s testimony: ibid., pp.189ff. For a plan of the first (ground) floor, see Warren Report, p.148 (Commission Exhibit 1061). The domino room was in the north–east corner, overlooking the loading bay; it provided a good view of anyone using the rear entrances. Warren Commission Documents 81 and 496 contain photographs of the domino room. Another witness, Carolyn Arnold, saw Oswald on either the first or second floor at about this time.
  12. Warren Report, p.182. For a detailed account of Oswald’s movements immediately prior to the shooting, see Howard Roffman, Presumed Guilty: How and Why the Warren Commission Framed Lee Harvey Oswald, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975, pp.177ff (available online at http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/PG/PGchp7.html.

Lee Harvey Oswald’s Alibi

If any recordings or transcripts were made of Oswald’s many hours of interrogation, none survive, apart from some scribbled notes.

Oswald stated that he had been on the first (i.e., ground) floor of the Texas School Book Depository at the time of the assassination, which happened shortly after he had eaten his lunch in the ‘domino room’ on that floor.8

There is some corroboration for his alibi:

  • An FBI agent who interviewed him wrote that “Oswald stated that … he had eaten lunch in the lunch room at the Texas School Book Depository, alone, but recalled possibly two Negro employees walking through the room during this period. He stated possibly one of these employees was called ‘Junior’ and the other was a short individual.”9
  • The notes of Captain J.W. Fritz, of the Dallas police, read: “say[s] two negr came in. One Jr. + short negro.”10

Two black employees matched these descriptions: James Jarman was known as ‘Junior’, and Harold Norman was short.

Both men had been standing outside the TSBD, waiting to see the president. When they heard that the motorcade had reached Main Street, they decided to go back into the building to obtain a better view. Because of the crowd standing on the front steps of the TSBD, they used one of the building’s rear entrances. Their route took them close to the domino room. Oswald could hardly have known this unless he too had been on the first floor at the time.

According to police logs, the motorcade was on Main Street from about 12:23pm until 12:29pm, which places Oswald on the first floor just a few minutes before the shooting. Jarman narrows the time further: he was standing outside “until about 12:20, between 12:20 and 12:25.”11

Some second–hand versions of Oswald’s alibi have him claiming to have eaten lunch with ‘Junior’ Jarman, which Jarman denied. This denial allowed the Warren Report to dismiss without argument Oswald’s claim that he was on the first floor12.

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