Lee Harvey Oswald: Guilty or Not Guilty?

Summary

Although Lee Oswald has been declared guilty by the news media consistently for the last half a century and more, it is far from certain that he played an active role in the assassination.

22 November 1963: A Brief Guide to the JFK Assassination

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There is no absolutely conclusive evidence that proves Lee Harvey Oswald’s guilt or innocence of the assassination of President Kennedy.

  • There are no known photographs of anyone, whether Oswald or someone who was not Oswald, firing a gun from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
  • Nor are there any photographs showing Oswald elsewhere at the time of the assassination, although one photograph, taken halfway through the shooting, depicted a man who resembled Oswald standing in the doorway of the TSBD. The man turned out to be one Billy Lovelady, a colleague of Oswald’s. Two news films, however, show another man in the doorway who may be Oswald.1

The Prosecution and the Jury

Had Lee Oswald not been murdered by Jack Ruby, it would have been up to the prosecution in a court of law to prove the case against him beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of citizens.

In the event, the case against Oswald was made by the Warren Commission. The jury, formed of the print and broadcast media, accepted a very low standard of proof and delivered an almost unanimous verdict: Oswald alone was guilty of the assassination.

Evidence of Oswald’s Innocence

There were weaknesses in all three elements of the case against Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin of President Kennedy:

  1. The first claim, that all of the shooting came from the easternmost south–facing window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, was supported by some of the eye–witness evidence but was strongly contradicted by the medical and photographic evidence.
  2. The second claim, that Oswald had brought a rifle to work and was on the sixth floor with the rifle at the time of the shooting, was contradicted by all of the relevant, credible evidence. None of this evidence was conclusive, however, so the claim remained plausible.
  3. The third claim, that it was physically possible for a lone gunman to have caused all the known injuries with only three shots, turned out to be emphatically contradicted by the medical, photographic and eye–witness evidence.

Oswald was almost certainly not the lone gunman that he was made out to be. Other evidence suggested very strongly that:

Evidence of Oswald’s Guilt

It is commonly recognised, and even occasionally admitted by the news media, that the Warren Commission made no attempt to discover how or by whom President Kennedy was killed.2 Neither the commission nor the FBI, the agency that supplied almost all of the evidence that was considered by the commission, acted in good faith; both of them consistently ignored or misrepresented evidence or witnesses that were unhelpful to the commission’s preconceived conclusions.3

Of course, the Warren Commission’s dishonesty does not by itself invalidate its conclusions. It is possible to argue that, despite the weakness of the Warren Report’s case against him, Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact kill President Kennedy. For this argument to be valid, however, it is necessary for many witnesses and other individuals to have been mistaken and for many unlikely eventualities all to have happened.

Witnesses Must Have Been Mistaken

  • The two witnesses who saw Oswald carrying a bag on the morning of the assassination, and who were insistent that the bag was too small to have contained a rifle, must have been mistaken.4
  • Arnold Rowland, the witness who saw a gunman on the sixth floor a few minutes before the shooting, at a time when Oswald had a strong alibi, must have been mistaken.5
  • The many eye–witnesses who claimed to have heard gunshots from the direction of the grassy knoll, or who claimed to have seen smoke or smelled gunpowder from that direction, must have been mistaken.6
  • The doctors in Dallas who claimed that President Kennedy’s throat wound was one of entrance, not exit, must have been mistaken.7
  • The many medical and other witnesses who claimed to have seen a large wound located toward the back of Kennedy’s head, must have been mistaken.8
  • The pathologists at the autopsy, who were insistent that there was an entry wound on President Kennedy’s skull that was lower than the large exit wound, and who were equally insistent that there was no entry wound high on the back of the skull, must have been mistaken.9
  • The witnesses who claimed to have seen a bullet hole lower in Kennedy’s back than was consistent with the single–bullet theory, must have been mistaken.10
  • Dr Charles Carrico, who saw Kennedy’s throat wound before the president’s shirt and tie were removed, and who claimed that the wound was located above the shirt, must have been mistaken.11
  • John Connally, who was sitting directly in front of Kennedy, and who maintained under oath and repeatedly in later interviews that he and Kennedy were injured by separate bullets, must have been mistaken.12
  • Nellie Connally, who was sitting to her husband’s left, and who also claimed that he and the president were injured by separate bullets, must have been mistaken.13
  • The police motorcyclist who was riding to the president’s right, and who also claimed that Kennedy and Connally were injured by separate bullets, must have been mistaken.14
  • The experts from the US Army and the FBI, who found that the sixth–floor rifle was too inaccurate to have been able to accomplish the shooting, must have been mistaken.15

Unlikely Events Must Have Occurred

  • Immediately after the shooting, Oswald must have dashed down four flights of stairs in less time than it took two other men to climb one flight.16
  • The several well–placed witnesses who failed to see or hear Oswald running down the wooden stairs must have been exceptionally negligent.17
  • The large wound in the president’s head, which displayed all the signs of having been caused by a soft–nosed bullet, must instead have been the result of very unusual behaviour by a solid, metal–jacketed bullet.18
  • For the single–bullet theory to be true, Kennedy must have suddenly leaned much further forward than he is shown to have done in any of the known photographs or films; and his jacket must have bunched up much more than was shown in a photograph taken less than half a second before he became visible from the sixth–floor window; and his shirt must have bunched up far more than could reasonably have happened.19
  • The Zapruder film, which shows Connally reacting to a bullet wound noticeably later than Kennedy, and which shows Connally still gripping his cowboy hat seconds after Kennedy had been shot, must have been tampered with.20
  • The back–and–to–the–left movement of Kennedy’s head must have been a virtually impossible response to a shot fired from almost directly behind him; or, again, the Zapruder film must have been altered.21
  • The paraffin tests on Oswald’s hands and cheek, which indicated that he had not fired a rifle on the day of the assassination, must have been incompetently administered.22

Degrees of Plausibility

Not all of these unlikely eventualities are equally unlikely. It is not implausible that some of them did in fact occur. Frazier and Randle, who saw Oswald carrying a paper bag to work, may plausibly have underestimated the size of the bag. Arnold Rowland may plausibly have been mistaken about the time when he saw a gunman on the sixth floor.

Other eventualities, however, are less likely to have happened. The notion that the Zapruder film was altered to show evidence of conspiracy, for example, is quite implausible.23

For Oswald to have committed the assassination, every single one of these unlikely eventualities, and several others, must have occurred.

So Who Killed President Kennedy?

A more fruitful question would be: who didn’t kill President Kennedy? Lee Harvey Oswald, the one person investigated in detail, can be eliminated from suspicion even on the basis of the evidence made available to the Warren Commission, let alone on the basis of the evidence that has been made public since then.

The unimportant question of who pulled the triggers will probably never be answered. To explore the more significant question, of who was behind the shooting, it is necessary to examine some of the many JFK assassination conspiracy theories and the wider political context of the assassination.

Notes

  1. Oswald and Lovelady were not dissimilar in appearance. The face of the figure in James Altgens’s photograph occupies a tiny part of the frame, and is insufficiently detailed to provide a definitive judgment, at least in published versions of the photograph. Current majority opinion is that the man’s shirt more closely resembles that worn by Lovelady than that worn by Oswald when he was arrested. For details, see Was Oswald on the TSBD Front Steps? For the figure in the news films, see Who Is ‘Prayer Man’?
  2. Bertrand Russell, in his 16 Questions on the Assassination, was one of the first commentators to point out the Warren Commission’s lack of concern over who killed Kennedy:
    “At the outset the Commission appointed six panels through which it would conduct its enquiry. They considered:
    (1) What did Oswald do on November 22, 1963?
    (2) What was Oswald’s background?
    (3) What did Oswald do in the U.S. Marine Corps, and in the Soviet Union?
    (4) How did Ruby kill Oswald?
    (5) What is Ruby’s background?
    (6) What efforts were taken to protect the President on November 22?
    This raises my fourth question: Why did the Warren Commission not establish a panel to deal with the question of who killed President Kennedy?”
  3. For examples of the Warren Commission’s suppression of inconvenient evidence and witnesses, see: the claim by a doctor at Parkland Hospital that President Kennedy was shot from in front, the rumours that Oswald was an FBI agent, and the ballistics tests carried out by the Department of Defense that demonstrated that the so–called magic bullet, Commission Exhibit 399, could not have caused Governor Connally’s injuries. The Commission even suppressed the dissenting views of one of its members, Senator Richard Russell; see Richard Russell and the Warren Report.
  4. The rifle that had been discovered on the sixth floor was 40.2 inches long when in use, and 34.8 inches long when disassembled: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.395. Both Buell Wesley Frazier, who had given Oswald a lift to work that morning, and his sister, Linnie Mae Randle, at whose house Oswald had met Frazier, claimed that the bag they saw was about 27 inches long. Frazier: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, pp.239–43 and Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.409. Randle: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, pp.248–50 and Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.408.
  5. Arnold Rowland’s testimony: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, pp.169–189. He saw a gunman on the sixth floor at the same time as Carolyn Arnold saw Oswald on either the first or second floor.
  6. Among the 40 witnesses who claimed that shots had come from the infamous grassy knoll in the northwest corner of Dealey Plaza are: William Newman (“He was hit in the side of the head. … I thought the shots had come from the garden directly behind me, that was on an elevation from where I was.” [Warren Commission Hearings, vol.19, p.490]); Thomas Murphy (“These shots came from a spot just west of the Texas School Book Depository Building.” [Warren Commission Hearings, vol.22, p.835]); John Chism (“I looked behind me, to see if it was a fireworks display or something.” [Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.204]); Faye Chism (“It came from what I thought was behind us.” [ibid., p.205]); Sam Holland (“The puff of smoke I saw definitely came from behind the arcade through the trees.” [ibid., p.212]); Jean Newman (“The shots came from my right.” [ibid., p.218]); and two Secret Service agents, Paul Landis (“The [fatal] shot came from somewhere towards the front.” [Warren Commission Hearings, vol.18, p.759]) and Forrest Sorrels (“I looked towards the top of the terrace to my right as the sound of the shots seemed to come from that direction.” [Warren Commission Hearings, vol.21, p.548]).
  7. In a press conference at Parkland Hospital soon after the assassination, Dr Malcolm Perry, the surgeon who examined President Kennedy’s throat wound, stated three times that the wound was caused by a shot from the front.
  8. In several of the accounts written by the medical staff shortly after President Kennedy’s treatment at Parkland Hospital, the large head wound is described as extending into the rear of the head: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.17, pp.1–22 (Commission Exhibit 392).
  9. The autopsy report (Warren Report, p.541) claimed that there was an entry wound close to the external occipital protuberance, the small bony lump low on the back of the head. The Warren Commission published a drawing (Commission Exhibit 388) which demonstrated that this bullet wound was aligned both with the sixth floor window and the large wound at the top of the president’s head. The Zapruder film, however, showed that this drawing was inaccurate, and that Kennedy’s head was not tilted far enough forward to have allowed a shot from the sixth floor, sixty feet above the road, to enter near the external occipital protuberance and come out of the top of the head. See frame 312 and frame 313 for the actual angle of Kennedy’s head at the moment of impact. Later official investigations felt obliged to move the entry wound to a higher, more helpful location. Dr James Humes, the senior pathologist at the autopsy, did not agree: HSCA Report, appendix vol.7, p.254.
  10. The death certificate prepared by Dr George Burkley stated that the back wound was located at “about the level of the third thoracic vertebra” (ARRB MD6, p.2), which is typically four to six inches below the top of the shoulders. Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who famously had jumped onto the presidential limousine, and who attended part of the autopsy, wrote that “I observed a wound about six inches down from the neckline on the back just to the right of the spinal column” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.18, p.744 (Commission Exhibit 1024)). The two FBI agents who attended the autopsy described “a bullet hole which was below the shoulders and two inches to the right of the middle line of the spinal column” (Sibert and O’Neill Report). For the single–bullet theory to be credible, the bullet needed to have entered President Kennedy at the base of the neck, as depicted in Commission Exhibit 385. If the single–bullet theory was false, the assassination could not plausibly have been carried out by just one gunman.
  11. Dr Charles Carrico’s testimony: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, pp.361f.
  12. Governor Connally’s testimony: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, pp.135f. Among his many later remarks reaffirming his belief that he and Kennedy were struck by separate bullets: “there is my absolute knowledge that … one bullet caused the president’s first wound and that an entirely separate shot struck me. It is a certainty. I will never change my mind” (Washington Post, 21 November 1966). If Connally’s and Kennedy’s non–fatal wounds were caused by more than one bullet, those bullets must have been fired by more than one gunman. Connally’s testimony even caused one of the Warren Commissioners to doubt that Oswald had committed the crime alone; see Richard Russell and the Warren Report.
  13. Nellie Connally testified that “I turned over my right shoulder and looked back, and saw the President as he had both hands at his neck. … Then very soon there was the second shot that hit John” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.147).
  14. James Chaney, the police motorcyclist who was closest to Kennedy, was not called before the Warren Commission, but his colleague, Marrion Baker, testified that “I talked to Jim Chaney, and he made the statement that the two shots hit Kennedy first and then the other one hit the Governor.” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.266).
  15. The rifle that had been discovered on the sixth floor of the TSBD was examined by experts from the US Army and the FBI. They stated that it was necessary to apply shims before the telescopic sight could be used (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.443); that even when the sight had been repaired it was still inaccurate (ibid., p.405); and that the condition of the bolt and trigger pull meant that the rifle could not be aimed accurately (ibid., pp.449–51).
  16. According to the official account, Oswald met two witnesses, an employee of the Depository and a policeman, on the second floor about a minute and a half after the assassination. For the timing of the encounter, see 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). It is possible that this encounter did not happen; see What Is Lee Harvey Oswald’s Alibi?.
  17. No–one saw or heard Oswald’s alleged descent from the sixth floor. Of the four employees who were on or close to the stairs on the fourth floor, only Victoria Adams was called before the Warren Commission. She denied seeing anyone on the stairs: Warren Commission Hearings, vol. 6, pp. 388–90. For the credibility of Victoria Adams’s account, see Gerald D. McKnight, Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why, University Press of Kansas, 2005, pp.113f. Jack Dougherty was close to the stairs on the fifth floor, and did not notice anyone descending: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, pp.380–1.
  18. For evidence that the head wound was consistent with having been caused by a soft–nosed bullet rather than a metal–jacketed bullet, 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. The central conclusion of Menninger’s book is wrong, for reasons given in the Fiction, Propaganda and the Media section, but the book’s treatment of the ballistics evidence is sound.
  19. There was a period of only three–quarters of a second in which the hypothetical single bullet could have been fired. Kennedy was photographed by Phil Willis less than half a second before this. His posture and the alignment of his jacket are clearly visible; they show that the locations of the bullet holes in his clothing, and the location of his throat wound, are entirely inconsistent with the trajectory of a shot from the sixth floor of the TSBD.
  20. If Oswald had been the lone assassin, all of President Kennedy’s and Governor Connally’s non–fatal wounds must have been caused by just one bullet. The Zapruder film shows Kennedy reacting to his throat wound as he comes into view at frame 225. Connally, however, reacts no earlier than about frame 238, and his right wrist is undamaged as late as frame 268, more than two seconds after frame 225.
  21. For the abrupt back–and–to–the–left motion of Kennedy’s head, see the Zapruder film online. The only plausible explanation for the motion is that it was caused by a shot from the front; see G. Paul Chambers, Head Shot: The Science Behind the JFK Assassination, Prometheus Books, 2010, pp.160–8.
  22. The paraffin tests showed no traces of gunpowder deposits on Oswald’s cheek: FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–8. In the words of an unpublished internal Warren Commission memo, “At best, the analysis shows that Oswald may have fired a pistol, although this is by no means certain. … There is no basis for concluding that he also fired a rifle” (Memo from Redlich to Dulles, 2 July 1964, Investigation and Evidence File, RG 272, Series 12, box 4, folder 3, National Archives). It is very likely that Oswald had fired neither a rifle nor a pistol on the day of the assassination. According to an FBI memo, Oswald’s pistol was defective: “the firing pin would not strike … the cartridges with sufficient force to fire them” (Jevons to Conrad, 12 February 1964, FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–916). This is corroborated by the testimony of the police officer who arrested Oswald: “I noticed on the primer of one of the shells it had an indentation on it, but not one that had been fired or anything — not that strong of an indentation” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.301). The traces of nitrates on the casts of Oswald’s hands were consistent not only with gunpowder but also with several common substances, such as printing ink, with which Oswald certainly had come into contact on 22 November 1963.
  23. It has long been proposed that the Zapruder film has been altered in order to conceal evidence of conspiracy. The proposal fails for several reasons, not least that no–one had sufficient access to the film before it was copied and distributed. Until bootleg copies began to circulate a few years after the assassination, the film was never in the possession of anyone who promoted the idea of a conspiracy.

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22 November 1963: A Brief Guide to the JFK Assassination

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22 November 1963: A Brief Guide to the JFK Assassination

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  • Lee Harvey Oswald — lone assassin, conspirator or patsy?
  • Oswald’s longstanding links to US intelligence agencies;
  • Oswald’s visit to Mexico City a few weeks before the assassination — the crucial event which caused the Warren Commission to be set up;
  • the official investigations — and why their answers are not widely believed;
  • the medical evidence — the reason why the case remains controversial;
  • the political context of the JFK assassination;
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