How Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill President Kennedy?

Although the bullet shells and the rifle implicated Lee Oswald in the assassination, a substantial proportion of the general public either remained unconvinced that he had acted alone, or doubted that he had been involved at all.

In order to help the media to “convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin,”1 the Warren Commission was obliged to describe in detail how Oswald, without assistance, was able to kill one man and injure two others.

The Case Against Lee Harvey Oswald

The essential part of the Commission’s case involved three claims:

  • that all of the shooting came from the easternmost south–facing window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository;
  • that Lee Harvey Oswald had brought the rifle to work, and was at the sixth floor window with the rifle at the time of the shooting;
  • and that it was physically possible for a lone gunman to have caused all the known injuries with only three shots.

All the Shots Came from the Sixth Floor

As well as the presence of the rifle and the empty bullet shells, there was other strong evidence that at least some of the shooting came from the TSBD:

  • many eye–witnesses heard one or more shots from the building;
  • and a gunman was seen on one of the upper floors.

The idea that every gunshot originated from the building’s south–easternmost sixth–floor window was, however, merely the Warren Commission’s working assumption. The idea had no explicit evidence in its favour, and was contradicted by, among other things, the location and nature of President Kennedy’s head injuries.

The Location of President Kennedy’s Head Injuries

The autopsy pathologists consistently claimed that there was an entry wound low down on the back of President Kennedy’s skull. There was also a large wound, the location of which was variously described as toward the top, right and rear of the skull. All of these locations of the supposed exit wound are higher than the entry wound, and are incompatible with a shot coming from above and behind at an angle of about 10°–15° to the horizontal, given the inclination of Kennedy’s head at the moment of the fatal shot or shots, which is shown on frame 312 and frame 313 of the Zapruder film.2

The Nature of President Kennedy’s Head Injuries

The majority of the damage to the head appears to have been caused by a soft–nosed bullet, a type designed to break apart on impact, while all the non–fatal wounds were caused by metal–jacketed bullets, which were designed to remain intact. The shells found on the sixth floor of the TSBD were all from the same batch, and must have contained the same type of bullet. The implication is that either the soft–nosed bullet was fired from elsewhere, or it was fired from the sixth floor by a second gunman, a conclusion equally unhelpful to the notion of Oswald as the lone assassin.3

The Motion of President Kennedy’s Head

Perhaps the best–known evidence of shooting from somewhere other than the TSBD is the motion of President Kennedy’s head in reaction to the fatal shot. The sharp back–and–to–the–left movement was revealed when bootleg copies of the Zapruder film began to circulate a few years after the assassination. It corroborates the statements of the many witnesses who claimed to have heard one or more shots coming from the direction of the grassy knoll at the north–west corner of Dealey Plaza.4

No Gunman in the Window

A home movie by a spectator, Robert Hughes, showed the easternmost sixth–floor window as the president’s car passed directly underneath, no more than five seconds before the shooting started. The three TSBD employees in the fifth–floor window are clearly visible, but there appears to be no–one in the sixth–floor window. Another spectator, Charles Bronson, filmed the window six minutes earlier, at about the time when the motorcade had been due to pass by. Again, the window appears to be empty.5

Oswald at the Scene of the Crime with a Rifle

Other objections were made to the Commission’s claim that Oswald:

  • had brought a rifle to work on the day of the assassination,
  • was on the sixth floor at the time of the shooting,
  • and fired that rifle from the sixth floor.

Oswald Carried the Rifle to Work

Only three witnesses had seen Oswald prior to and during his arrival at work on 22 November 1963. All three testified that he had not carried a rifle. Buell Wesley Frazier, who had driven Oswald to work, and his sister, Linnie Mae Randle, at whose house Oswald had met Frazier that morning, both claimed that Oswald had been carrying a paper bag, but that the bag was much too short to have held the Mannlicher Carcano rifle that was discovered on the sixth floor of the TSBD. Jack Dougherty, a colleague of Oswald’s who saw him enter the TSBD, was adamant that he did not see anything in Oswald’s hands.6

Dallas police officers claimed to have discovered on the sixth floor a paper bag that was long enough to have contained the rifle, but the bag turned out to have had no association with either Oswald or the rifle:

  • Frazier and Randle were shown this bag. Both claimed that it was several inches longer than the one they had seen.
  • The bag did not show creases or oil stains consistent with it having held the disassembled rifle.7
  • The bag that was produced in evidence was almost certainly not found at the scene of the crime: the police officers who first came across the alleged sniper’s nest gave confused testimony about whether there was a paper bag nearby,8 and none of the crime scene photographs showed the bag in situ.9
  • Oswald could not have assembled the bag: although it had been constructed from wrapping paper and tape used at the depository, the bag could only have been assembled at the building’s wrapping table, to which Oswald did not have access.10

Oswald Was on the Sixth Floor During the Shooting

The first sighting of Oswald after the shooting was by two reliable witnesses, a policeman and the building supervisor, who encountered him on the second floor of the TSBD very shortly after they heard gunshots. The timing of the incident suggests that Oswald was not on the sixth floor during the assassination.

Two problems were pointed out with the Commission’s treatment of the encounter:

  • The Commission re–enacted the movements of the two witnesses, who had come up from the first floor, and of Oswald, who in theory had come down from the sixth floor after laboriously hiding the rifle. The re–enactments were only able to get Oswald to the second floor in time to meet the witnesses by artificially quickening his descent and slowing their ascent.11
  • The Commission brushed aside evidence from other people within the TSBD who would have seen or heard anyone dashing down the stairs, but who failed to do so.12

Oswald Was Seen Firing a Rifle

Several people had seen at least one person with a rifle on the sixth floor of the TSBD, but only one witness, Howard Brennan, provided an identification that came close to matching Oswald’s appearance. Brennan, however, turned out to be unreliable and unhelpful:

  • He claimed that the gunman had been standing up when firing, although the half–open window required any gunman to have crouched or kneeled.
  • He claimed to have seen the gunman’s trousers, which would not have been visible from Brennan’s viewpoint on the street sixty feet below.
  • When asked whether he had actually seen the firing of the rifle, he replied, “No.”
  • He claimed that on hearing the first shot, “I looked up at the building. I then saw this man I have described in the window and he was taking aim with a high powered rifle. I could see all of the barrel of the gun.” Brennan’s reaction to the first shot is visible on the Zapruder film: standing directly opposite the sixth–floor window, he watches Kennedy’s car go past him to his left, then from about frame 204 he in fact turns his head sharply to his right, away from the TSBD, rather than up toward the sixth floor.
  • He failed to pick out Oswald at an identification parade, despite already having seen Oswald’s picture on television.13

Two witnesses, Arnold Rowland and Amos Euins, saw a man on the sixth floor, holding a rifle, who did not resemble Oswald.14 Rowland saw the gunman a few minutes before the shooting, when Oswald’s alibi almost certainly places him on the first floor, a location which is consistent with his encounter with the policeman and the building supervisor.

The Bullet Shells Matched the Wounds

The final, and perhaps the most important, element of the case against Oswald required the three bullet shells to be matched to the wounds.

Several facts soon emerged which greatly constrained any explanation of how a lone gunman, in the time available, could fire one particular rifle from one particular location and cause one particular set of wounds.

Constraint 1: At Least 2.3 Seconds per Shot

The rifle found on the sixth floor was examined and tested by the US Army and the FBI, who found that it was in poor condition. It could not be aimed accurately, and so it was tested mainly for the speed with which it could fire a sequence of shots. In a series of tests by skilled marksmen, the fastest time taken to operate the bolt, aim the rifle, and operate the trigger pull, was 2.3 seconds.15

The first constraint is that if Oswald’s rifle fired all the shots, there must have been a minimum of 2.3 seconds between each shot.

Constraint 2: Only Three Bullets Were Fired

Three empty rifle bullet shells were found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, all of them close to the window in the south–eastern corner. One unfired bullet was found in the rifle. No other rifle bullets or bullet shells were discovered either in the building, or on Oswald’s person, or in his belongings.

The second constraint is that if Oswald’s rifle was the only weapon used, all the injuries had to have been caused by no more than three bullets.

Constraint 3: Three Shots in Six Seconds

Abraham Zapruder’s famous home movie of the shooting allowed the timing of Kennedy’s progress along the road to be accurately determined. As Kennedy’s car passed the Texas School Book Depository, it was hidden at first from the sixth–floor window by a large oak tree. There was a period of just under six seconds between the car becoming visible to anyone in the easternmost sixth–floor window and the moment of the fatal head shot.16

The fact that Oswald encountered reliable witnesses on the second floor shortly after the shooting meant that he would have had to leave the sixth floor immediately after the head shot.

The third constraint is that if every shot was fired by Oswald from the easternmost sixth–floor window, all the shooting must have taken place within six seconds.

Was Lee Harvey Oswald the Lone Gunman?

For Oswald to have been the lone gunman, all of the following constraints had to apply:

  1. There were at least 2.3 seconds between each shot.
  2. No more than three bullets caused all of the wounds.
  3. The whole shooting took no longer than six seconds.

If any of these statements were contradicted by the balance of the evidence, Oswald could not have committed the crime alone. The Warren Commission attempted to deal with these constraints by devising what became known as the single–bullet theory.

Notes

  1. The essential purpose of what became the Warren Commission, in the words of J. Edgar Hoover: HSCA Report, appendix vol.3, p.472.
  2. The Warren Commission’s interpretation of the head wounds is shown in Commission Exhibit 388, a drawing in which the angle of the head at the instant of the fatal shot does not correspond to that shown in the Zapruder film. The Clark Panel in 1968, followed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977–78, felt obliged to move the entry wound four inches or ten centimetres higher, so that it might plausibly appear to be in line with the sixth–floor window and the larger wound. Dr James Humes, the pathologist in charge of President Kennedy’s autopsy, gave his opinion of the revised entry wound, as shown in a photograph of Kennedy’s head: “I can assure you that as we reflected the scalp to get to this point, there was no defect corresponding to this in the skull at any point. I don’t know what that is. It could be to me clotted blood. I don’t, I just don’t know what it is, but it certainly was not any wound of entrance.” (HSCA Report, appendix vol.7, p.254). For more about the medical aspects of the case, see the Medical Evidence section.
  3. For the ballistics aspects of the case, see G. Paul Chambers, Head Shot: The Science Behind the JFK Assassination, Prometheus Books, 2010, and Bonar Menninger, Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK, St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Menninger’s treatment of the ballistics evidence is credible, even though his main conclusion is not; see Fiction, Propaganda and the Media for a discussion of the book.
  4. The phrase “back and to the left” was popularised by the film JFK, and later by the TV show, Seinfeld, and the comedian, Bill Hicks. A Nobel Prize–winning physicist, Luis Alvarez, attempted to demonstrate that the motion was not in fact inconsistent with a shot from the sixth–floor window, which was almost directly behind the president; see Luis A. Alvarez, ‘A Physicist Examines the Kennedy Assassination Film’, American Journal of Physics, vol.44 no.9 (September 1976), pp.813–27. Against Alvarez, see e.g. G. Paul Chambers, Head Shot: The Science Behind the JFK Assassination, Prometheus Books, 2010, pp.163ff. It was pointed out that Alvarez’s experimental method, which involved shooting at melons on a fence post, hardly resembled the conditions it was supposed to replicate. Against other aspects of Alvarez’s analysis, see Michael A. Stroscio, ‘More Physical Insight into the Assassination of President Kennedy’, Physics and Society, vol.25 no.4, (October 1996), pp.7f. Alvarez’s motivation and objectivity came under suspicion when it was later revealed that his research in this area had been funded by the US government, and that in 1949 he had testified against the dissident physicist Robert Oppenheimer to the House Un–American Activities Committee. For more information, see the sources mentioned in the Medical Evidence section. Altogether, about 40 witnesses claimed to have heard shots from the grassy knoll or seen smoke in that area.
  5. For the films by Robert Hughes and Charles Bronson, see David Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination, University Press of Kansas, 2003, pp.150–5, and Richard Trask, Pictures of the Pain, Yeoman Press, 1994, pp.269–304. The FBI laboratory examined Hughes’s film, and concluded that “there are no images in any of the exposures … which show the corner window … that can be interpreted in the form of an individual. The forms recorded in this window can be interpreted as in the same general shapes of boxes, found at and just behind the window in question” (FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–1899). Because the exact timing of the first shot is very much open to question, Hughes’s film may have depicted the empty window no more than two seconds before the beginning of the shooting sequence. Zapruder started filming Kennedy at frame 133, when the president’s car had just passed the window. The very latest point at which the first shot could have been fired was frame 224, when Kennedy came into view while reaching for his throat. At 18.3 frames per second, frame 224 is almost exactly five seconds later than frame 133. The Warren Report incorrectly states that Hughes took his film “at 12:20pm, 10 minutes before the assassination” (p.644), despite the film showing Kennedy’s car passing directly underneath the window.
  6. Frazier’s testimony: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, pp.239–43. Randle’s testimony: ibid., pp.248–50. Dougherty’s testimony: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, pp.376f. In interviews with the FBI, Randle (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.408) and Frazier (ibid., p.409) both claimed that the bag they saw was 27 inches long. The rifle, however, was 34.8 inches long when disassembled and 40.2 inches long when intact (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.395). Oswald said that he had brought a sandwich and an apple to work (Warren Report, p.622), so Dougherty must have been mistaken about having seen nothing in Oswald’s hands. Overlooking a small lunch bag is perhaps understandable; overlooking a bag containing a long rifle, on the other hand, is not. The Warren Commission overcame the problem by claiming that all three witnesses were mistaken, which would have been a reasonable assumption had it been supported by strong independent evidence of Oswald’s guilt. A later lone–nut account, Case Closed by Gerald Posner, took a less reasonable route: by misrepresenting elements of Frazier’s and Randle’s testimony, Posner was able to claim that the package they saw was in fact large enough to contain the rifle. The context and credibility of Case Closed are discussed in the Fiction, Propaganda and the Media section. For various reasons, the only date on which Oswald plausibly could have brought the rifle to work was the day of the assassination. If, as the evidence strongly suggests, he did not do so, either Oswald had an accomplice or the rifle was taken into the building without his knowledge.
  7. James Cadigan, of the FBI laboratory, testified that “I was also requested … to examine the bag to determine if there were any significant markings or scratches or abrasions or anything by which it could be associated with the rifle, Commission Exhibit 139, that is, could I find any markings that I could tie to that rifle. … And I couldn’t find any such markings” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.97).
  8. Roger Craig (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, p.268) and Gerald Hill (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, p.46) denied seeing a bag. Richard M. Sims saw what he described as “some wrappings”, “a brown wrapping”, “some loose paper” and “a wrapper” (ibid., p.161). Marvin Johnson did see a paper bag: “L.D. Montgomery, my partner, picked it up off the floor, and it was folded up, and he unfolded it …. It was folded and then refolded. It was a fairly small package …. The sack was folded up here and it was east of the pipes in the corner. To the best of my memory, that is where my partner picked it up. I was standing there when he picked it up.” (ibid., pp.103f). Montgomery also saw a bag but denied picking it up (ibid., p.98). It is conceivable that the paper bag that some of the officers saw was a small one that was later shown to have contained a TSBD employee’s lunch.
  9. The nearest thing to a photograph of the paper bag at the crime scene was Commission Exhibit 1302 (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.22, p.479): a photograph showing the sniper’s nest with a printed outline of the supposed location of the bag. The earliest known photograph of the bag was taken on the front steps of the TSBD shortly before 4pm, more than three hours after the police had entered the building; see Richard Trask, Pictures of the Pain, Yeoman Press, 1994, p.552.
  10. The paper and the tape both contained markings from one particular tape dispensing machine at the TSBD (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, pp.90–93). The machine was too sturdy to have been removed from the premises, and was under constant supervision. Troy West testified that he spent his entire working day at the wrapping table, and that Oswald never had a chance to manufacture the bag (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, pp.360ff). James Cadigan of the FBI laboratory testified that the paper and tape of the bag possessed “identical” physical characteristics to samples of wrapping paper and tape taken by the Dallas police on the afternoon of 22 November (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.93). The TSBD used approximately one roll of paper every three days, and one roll of tape every three hours, which suggests that the paper bag supposedly found on the sixth floor was constructed after Oswald’s arrival at the TSBD and within a short time of the samples being taken. For a detailed account of the paper bag, see Ian Griggs, ‘The Paper Bag that Never Was, part 1’, Dealey Plaza Echo, vol.1, no.1, July 1996, pp.30–36 and Ian Griggs, ‘The Paper Bag that Never Was, part 2’, Dealey Plaza Echo, vol.1, no.2, November 1996, pp.30–38.
  11. The Warren Commission’s account of Oswald’s descent to the second floor where the encounter occurred: Warren Report, pp.149ff. For the problems with this account, see David Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination, University Press of Kansas, 2003, pp.170f, and Howard Roffman, Presumed Guilty: How and Why the Warren Commission Framed Lee Harvey Oswald, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975, pp.209ff (available online at http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/PG/PGchp8.html). The known facts of the encounter are entirely consistent with Oswald having ascended from the first floor by a more direct route than that taken by the witnesses.
  12. Several employees were on or close to the stairs and would have seen or heard Oswald on his journey to the second floor, but none did. Jack Dougherty was working on the fifth floor close to the stairs; he heard a shot from the floor above him, but did not report any sound from the stairs (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, pp.380–1). Nor did he or the three other workers on the fifth floor hear anyone shifting cartons of books, which would have been necessary in order to hide the rifle (Bonnie Ray Williams: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, pp.161–184; Harold Norman: ibid., pp.186–198; James Jarman: ibid., pp.198–211). Victoria Adams and Sandra Styles were with two colleagues on the fourth floor at the time of the shooting. Adams and Styles immediately ran to the stairway. Adams was asked specifically if she had seen or heard anyone else on the stairs, and replied that she had not (Warren Commission Hearings, vol. 6, pp. 388–90). Styles and her other two colleagues were not questioned.
  13. Howard Brennan’s testimony: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, pp.142–158. His statement to the Dallas Sheriff’s office on the afternoon of the assassination, in which he describes the gunman: ibid., p.470. The House Select Committee on Assassinations chose not to use Brennan as a witness. In the absence of any other plausible candidates, the Warren Commission nominated Brennan as the source of the Dallas police radio despatcher’s description of the gunman, but his limited credibility as a witness raises uncomfortable questions about the actual source. Brennan’s turn to his right after the first shot suggests that at least that shot came from somewhere other than the TSBD.
  14. Arnold Rowland described the gunman as having “dark hair … it was dark, probably black. … He had on a light shirt, a very light–colored shirt, white or a light blue or a color such as that” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, p.171). Amos Euins stated that “I seen a bald spot on this man’s head, trying to look out the window. He had a bald spot on his head. I was looking at the bald spot” (ibid., p.204). Oswald’s hair was light brown; it was receding slightly at the temples, but he did not have a bald spot. Brennan agreed with Rowland that the gunman had been wearing a light–coloured shirt: “light colored clothes, more of a khaki color” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.145; see also ibid., p.161). Carolyn Walther saw a man on one of the upper floors, holding a rifle and wearing “a white shirt” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.522). Two other witnesses saw a man, wearing a light–coloured shirt, in the easternmost sixth–floor window of the TSBD: Ronald Fischer (“light in color; probably white” [Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, p.194]) and Robert Edwards (“light colored shirt” [ibid., p.203]). Oswald was wearing a dark brown shirt when arrested (see the photographs in Robert Groden, The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald, Viking Penguin, 1995, e.g. p.161). He claimed to have changed out of a “reddish colored, long sleeved, shirt with a button–down collar” between the assassination and his arrest (Warren Report, p.622; see also Handwritten notes of Captain J.W. Fritz’s interview of Oswald, p.7). He had certainly been wearing a dark shirt before he left the TSBD. Linnie Mae Randle stated that “I remember some sort of brown or tan shirt” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, p.250). Marrion Baker, the policeman who encountered Oswald on the second floor immediately after the shooting, said that Oswald was wearing “a brown–type shirt” that was perhaps “a little bit darker” than the one the suspect wore after his arrest (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.257).
  15. “At least 2.3 seconds were required between shots:” Warren Report, p.97. 2.3 seconds was very much the minimum amount of time that could have been taken by a gunman firing at a moving target from 60 feet above, and scoring two hits out of three. The army’s experts, having adjusted the rifle to improve its accuracy, fired seven groups of three shots at stationary targets from 30 feet above. Their times were: 4.45, 4.6, 5.15, 6.45, 6.75, 7, and 8.25 seconds. Of the 21 shots, 20 missed the heads and shoulders of the silhouettes on the targets. The army’s test times: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.446. The FBI’s test times: ibid., pp.403–10.
  16. The time available for all the shots: Warren Report, p.117. President Kennedy would have become visible to a sixth–floor gunman at frame 210 of the Zapruder film. He is hit in the head immediately after frame 312. At 18.3 frames per second, Zapruder’s camera took 103 frames in just under six seconds.

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