Was the CE 399 Magic Bullet Planted?

CE 399 and the JFK Assassination

One particular bullet was central to the case against Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin of President Kennedy. This bullet, which was referred to in the Warren Report as Commission Exhibit 399, is supposed to have:

  1. entered President Kennedy’s upper back,
  2. passed through his upper back and lower neck,
  3. come out of his throat just below the Adam’s apple,
  4. entered Governor John Connally’s back close to his right armpit,
  5. passed through his body, smashing several inches of one rib,
  6. come out of the right side of his chest,
  7. passed through his right wrist, breaking the radius bone,
  8. embedded itself in his left thigh,
  9. and finally, while Connally was laying on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital, the bullet worked its way out of his thigh and fell onto the stretcher, where it was discovered by a hospital employee.

The Single–Bullet Theory

It is essential to the lone–assassin hypothesis that no more than one bullet caused all of the non–fatal wounds to President Kennedy and Governor Connally. This follows from the known facts of the case:

  • the time available for the shooting;
  • the properties of the rifle that was discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository;
  • the existence of only three bullet shells at the scene of the crime;
  • and the fact that at least two bullets were required to account plausibly for President Kennedy’s fatal head wound and the minor wound to the bystander, James Tague.

This is the single–bullet theory: one bullet caused all the non–fatal wounds to Kennedy and Connally. If the non–fatal wounds were caused by more than one bullet, those bullets must have been fired by more than one gunman.

The Involvement of the CE 399 Bullet

It was also essential to the lone–gunman hypothesis that the single bullet which caused all the non–fatal wounds was the CE 399 bullet.

Robert Frazier, the FBI’s firearms expert, claimed that the CE 399 bullet had been fired from the rifle found in the TSBD (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, pp.421ff). If Frazier’s identification of the CE 399 bullet with the rifle is correct, the bullet’s association with the assassination cannot plausibly be accidental. There are three possibilities:

  • The CE 399 bullet was fired from the sixth floor of the TSBD; it caused all the injuries specified above; and it was discovered on Connally’s stretcher. The single–bullet theory is correct, and the lone–gunman hypothesis is plausible.
  • The CE 399 bullet was fired from the sixth floor; it caused some, but not all, of the injuries specified above; and it was discovered on Connally’s stretcher. The single–bullet theory is incorrect, and there was more than one gunman in Dealey Plaza.
  • The CE 399 bullet was inserted into evidence fraudulently, either before it was discovered on the stretcher or while it was in the possession of law enforcement officers.

Problems with the Commission Exhibit 399 Bullet

Several aspects of the evidence suggest that at least some of the wounds to President Kennedy had not been caused by Commission Exhibit 399, and that the bullet was not authentic:

  • The trajectory of the bullet.
  • The lack of damage to the bullet.
  • The circumstances of the bullet’s discovery.
  • The chain of possession of the bullet.

The Trajectory of the Bullet

The known location of the bullet holes in President Kennedy’s clothing show that the most likely location of the wound in Kennedy’s back was lower than the wound in his throat. Photographs and home movies show that he was sitting almost upright during the latter stages of the motorcade. JFK’s non–fatal injuries cannot all have been caused by one shot from the sixth floor of the TSBD, which was approximately 60 feet or 18 metres above the road.

Clearly, the single–bullet theory cannot be correct. More than one gunman was involved in the shooting.

If the CE 399 bullet is genuine, it must have been fired from the sixth floor, and must then have been discovered on Connally’s stretcher. The bullet may have caused Connally’s wounds, but cannot have done so after passing through Kennedy.

The Damage to the Bullet

The CE 399 bullet had sustained only superficial damage. Its base was slightly flattened, and there were several fine scratches on the copper surface. For photographs of the bullet, see http://www.maryferrell.org/wiki/index.php/Photos_-_NARA_Evidence_-_Magic_Bullet.

For the bullet to be considered genuine, its limited amount of damage must be consistent with the injuries the bullet is supposed to have caused. The Warren Commission, which was given the task of proving Lee Oswald’s sole guilt, needed to demonstrate that CE 399 could have broken Governor Connally’s rib and wrist bones while suffering no more than a slightly flattened base and a few scratches.

How Much Damage Should Have Occurred?

Tests were carried out on behalf of the Warren Commission by the Department of Defense at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. Two experiments suggested strongly that the CE 399 bullet had not caused Connally’s wounds:

  • Bullets of the same type as CE 399 were fired into the wrist bones of ten human cadavers. All ten bullets were severely deformed, unlike CE 399.
  • One bullet was fired into a goat’s rib, and was flattened substantially more than CE 399. Another bullet was fired into a block of gelatin, and was only moderately flattened, like CE 399.

In the words of Dr Joseph Dolce, the US Army’s most senior expert in wound ballistics, “one bullet striking the President’s neck, the Governor’s chest and wrist, should be badly deformed, as our experiments at the Edgewood Arsenal proved.” Dr Dolce was not called to testify before the Warren Commission. The Edgewood Arsenal report, Wound Ballistics of 6.5–mm Mannlicher–Carcano Ammunition, was withheld from the public for ten years, and only made available as the result of a law suit under the Freedom of Information Act by the researcher Harold Weisberg.

How Much Metal Was Missing from CE 399?

According to the FBI’s ballistics expert, Robert Frazier, the CE 399 bullet weighed 158.6 grains (10.277 grammes, or 0.363 ounces). He examined three unfired bullets of the same type as the CE 399 bullet, and found that they weighed 160.85, 161.5 and 161.1 grains. Frazier pointed out that CE 399’s weight was within the normal range of intact bullets, and that “there did not necessarily have to be any weight loss to the bullet” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.430).

Some metal was missing from the CE 399 bullet, for reasons other than the bullet striking Kennedy and Connally:

  • The bullet had been fired from a rifle, which would have removed approximately half a grain from the copper coating.
  • The FBI had taken two small samples from the bullet: one from the copper at its nose, and one from the lead at its base.

If CE 399 were the only bullet to have struck Governor Connally, it must have been the source of all the metal fragments that were deposited in his chest, thigh and wrist wounds:

The pathologists who conducted President Kennedy’s autopsy were presented with the CE 399 bullet by representatives of the Warren Commission and were asked whether they thought it could have caused Connally’s injuries. Dr James Humes, the chief pathologist, replied:

I think that is most unlikely. … This missile is basically intact; its jacket appears to me to be intact, and I do not understand how it could possibly have left fragments in either of those locations. … I doubt if this missile would have left behind it any metallic fragments from its physical appearance at this time. … Metallic fragments were not removed and are still present in Governor Connally’s thigh. I can’t conceive of where they came from this missile.

(Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, pp.374–76)

The other two pathologists, Dr J. Thornton Boswell (ibid., p.377) and Dr Pierre Finck (“there are too many fragments”: ibid., pp.381f), agreed with Dr Humes.

CE 399: The Magic Bullet

The JFK assassination single–bullet theory demanded that one bullet followed an improbable path from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, through Kennedy, and into Connally. There was only one candidate for that single bullet: Commission Exhibit 399. The bullet’s elaborate trajectory, and the minimal amount of damage sustained by CE 399, led irreverent commentators to prefer the term magic bullet theory.

Where Did the CE 399 Bullet Originate?

Darrell Tomlinson, an engineer at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, was working on an elevator close to the operating theatre in which Governor Connally was undergoing emergency surgery. He moved one of two nearby unoccupied stretchers, and noticed a bullet roll off the stretcher and onto the floor. He alerted the hospital’s chief of personnel, a retired police officer named O.P. Wright, who picked up the bullet and handed it to a representative of the Secret Service.

Which Stretcher Had Contained the Bullet?

One of the two stretchers outside the elevator may have been Connally’s. Arlen Specter, a senior counsel for the Warren Commission, pressed Darrell Tomlinson to specify that the stretcher that may have contained Connally was the one that had contained the bullet. Tomlinson refused to do so (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, pp.130ff).

The only evidence about the location of the bullet was the testimony of Darrell Tomlinson. O.P. Wright was not called to testify before the Warren Commission. Nevertheless, the Warren Report stated categorically that:

A nearly whole bullet was found on Governor Connally’s stretcher at Parkland Hospital after the assassination. …

The Commission has concluded that the bullet came from the Governor’s stretcher. That conclusion is buttressed by evidence which eliminated President Kennedy’s stretcher as a source of the bullet. President Kennedy remained on the stretcher on which he was carried into the hospital …. He was never removed from the stretcher.

(Warren Report, pp.79–81)

It is certainly true that the bullet could not have come from Kennedy’s stretcher, which remained in a different part of the hospital until after the bullet was discovered, but it is far from certain that the bullet came from Connally’s stretcher.

Was CE 399 the Stretcher Bullet?

According to an FBI memo of 7 July 1964, both Tomlinson and Wright had been shown Commission Exhibit 399, and both men had tentatively identified it as the bullet they had seen in Parkland Hospital. The bullet had not yet been entered into evidence as CE 399, and was referred to by the FBI’s original identification number, Exhibit C1:

On June 12, 1964, Darrell C. Tomlinson, Maintenance Employee, Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas, was shown Exhibit C1, a rifle slug, by Special Agent Bardwell D. Odum, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Tomlinson stated it appears to be the same one he found on a hospital carriage at Parkland Hospital on November 22, 1963, but he cannot positively identify the bullet as the one he found and showed to Mr O.P. Wright. …

On June 12, 1964, O.P. Wright, Personnel Officer, Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas, advised Special Agent Bardwell D. Odum that Exhibit C1, a rifle slug, shown to him at the time of the interview, looks like the slug found at Parkland Hospital on November 22, 1963. … He advised he could not positively identify C1 as being the same bullet which was found on November 22, 1963.

(Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.412 [Commission Exhibit 2011, p.2])

In his appearance before the Warren Commission, Tomlinson was not shown the CE 399 bullet, and was not asked to identify it as the bullet he had discovered. Wright had not given evidence. A private researcher, Josiah Thompson, tracked down Wright in November 1966 and asked him about the bullet. In the presence of two witnesses, Wright replied that the bullet he had seen possessed a pointed tip rather than the rounded tip of the CE 399 bullet; see Josiah Thompson, Six Seconds in Dallas: a Micro–Study of the Kennedy Assassination, New York: Bernard Geis Associates for Random House, 1967, p.175.

Wright’s assertion that CE 399 was not the bullet he had seen was supported by another FBI memo, dated 20 June 1964 and declassified several decades after the assassination: “neither DARRELL C. TOMLINSON … nor O.P. WRIGHT … can identify bullet.”

The 7 July memo was contradicted also by Bardwell D. Odum, the splendidly named FBI agent who, according to the memo, showed CE 399 to Tomlinson and Wright. Odum was interviewed by Josiah Thompson and another researcher, and denied that he had ever handled the CE 399 bullet.

It is difficult to avoid three conclusions:

  • CE 399 is not the bullet that was discovered in Parkland Hospital.
  • CE 399 was introduced into evidence fraudulently.
  • The FBI memo of 7 July 1964 may also be deliberately fraudulent.

For a full account of the issue, see Gary Aguilar and Josiah Thompson, ‘The Magic Bullet: Even More Magical Than We Knew’ at history–matters.com.

The CE 399 Bullet’s Chain of Possession

The bullet passed through several hands en route to the FBI laboratory (see Warren Commission Hearings, vol.18, pp.722ff [Commission Exhibit 1024]):

  1. Darrell Tomlinson spotted the bullet, and alerted O.P. Wright.
  2. O.P Wright picked up the bullet and gave it to Richard Johnsen, one of the Secret Service agents stationed in Parkland Hospital immediately after the assassination.
  3. Johnsen showed the bullet to Gerald Behn, the head of the Secret Service’s White House detail, probably on the evening of 22 November.
  4. Johnsen or Behn appears to have handed the bullet to James Rowley, the chief of the Secret Service.
  5. Rowley gave the bullet to Elmer Todd of the FBI’s Washington office.
  6. Todd inscribed his initials on the bullet and gave it to Robert Frazier of the FBI laboratory, who also initialled the bullet.

The Warren Commission asked the FBI in May 1964 to attempt to authenticate the chain of possession of various items of evidence, including Commission Exhibit 399. There were problems with the early stages of the bullet’s journey:

  1. Tomlinson “cannot positively identify the bullet.”
  2. Wright “could not positively identify C1 as being the same bullet.”
  3. Johnsen “could not identify this bullet.”
  4. Behn does not appear to have been asked to identify the bullet.
  5. Rowley “could not identify this bullet.”

Only Todd and Frazier, who had initialled the bullet, were able to identify CE 399 as the bullet they had handled. For all the identifications, see Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.412 (Commission Exhibit 2011, pp.2f).

The Authenticity of Commission Exhibit 399

CE 399 is an essential component of the case against Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin of President Kennedy. Because the bullet had been fired from the rifle apparently owned by Oswald, the bullet’s connection to the JFK assassination cannot be accidental:

  • either it was genuine, and had been fired during the assassination,
  • or it had not been fired during the assassination, and was planted.

The almost impossible trajectory required by the single bullet theory shows that CE 399 is extremely unlikely to have passed through both President Kennedy and Governor Connally. The lack of damage to CE 399 implies that it cannot have caused all of Governor Connally’s injuries. These factors, as well as the bullet’s patchy chain of possession and the strong likelihood that it is not the bullet that had been discovered in Parkland Hospital, makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Commission Exhibit 399 was entered into evidence fraudulently after the assassination.

Further Reading about Commission Exhibit 399