Dr Pierre Finck: Dissecting JFK’s Back and Throat Wounds

Problems with President Kennedy’s Autopsy

The assassination of President Kennedy remains a mystery partly because the nature of his wounds remains a mystery. This in turn is due largely to problems with the president’s autopsy, which took place at Bethesda Naval Hospital Center, a military teaching institution near Washington:

  • The autopsy was carried out by three pathologists, all of them middle–ranking military officers whose only practical experience of forensic autopsies was a one–week course taken by one of the pathologists ten years earlier.
  • The room in which they worked was crowded with a variety of non–medical onlookers, several of whom were giving orders to the pathologists.
  • The written records from the autopsy are incomplete, and perhaps corrupt. The original autopsy report was deliberately destroyed by Dr James Humes, the senior pathologist, after the murder of Lee Oswald. The rewritten autopsy report includes measurements and other data that do not exist in the pathologists’ surviving notes and diagrams.
  • The photographic record is incomplete. The pathologists and photographers recalled ordering and taking photographs which appear no longer to exist.

Pierre Finck’s Testimony in New Orleans

Although all three pathologists testified under oath before several official inquiries, there was only one occasion on which any of their testimony was seriously questioned. In the criminal trial of Clay Shaw in New Orleans in 1969, one of the pathologists, Dr Pierre Finck, was cross–examined by an assistant district attorney, Alvin Oser. His testimony, part of which is reproduced below, is remarkable for two reasons:

  • He states that senior military officers had taken an active part in proceedings, and he implies that they were in charge of the autopsy.
  • He admits, after trying hard to avoid the question, that the pathologists were forbidden to dissect the president’s back and throat wounds and the connecting tissue.

JFK’s Back and Throat Wounds

Dissecting the wounds was a basic procedure, and would almost certainly have determined whether the president’s non–fatal injuries had been caused by one or more bullets, and from which direction or directions the bullet or bullets had come.

The autopsy took place several hours after President Kennedy’s assassination and Lee Oswald’s arrest. It was widely known at the time of the autopsy that Oswald had been inside the Texas School Book Depository, almost directly behind the president, during the shooting. The broadcast media had already reported the claims of eye–witnesses that shots had come from more than one direction, as well as a press conference at Parkland Hospital, during which one of the doctors who had treated the president claimed that the throat wound had been caused by a shot from the front.

Those in charge of the autopsy would surely have been aware that President Kennedy’s wounds may have been caused by more than one gunman, and that dissecting the wounds was likely to resolve the question one way or the other. Their refusal to allow the dissection can only reasonably be interpreted as a fear of discovering definitive evidence of conspiracy.

Evidence of Oswald’s impersonation in Mexico City, which implies that Oswald either had associates or was impersonated without his knowledge, did not reach Washington until several hours after the conclusion of the autopsy. Pierre Finck’s testimony indicates that the high–ranking military officers who appeared to control the autopsy were already aware of the need to promote the lone–assassin explanation.

The Sibert and O’Neill Report

One aspect of Dr Finck’s testimony is open to question. He agreed with the revised version of the autopsy report, which stated that the pathologists had concluded during the autopsy that one bullet had caused both the back and throat wounds.

This was contradicted by the two FBI agents who attended the autopsy. James Sibert and Francis O’Neill informed the pathologists during the latter stages of the autopsy that a bullet had been retrieved from Parkland Hospital. In their report and in a later memorandum, the agents maintained that the pathologists were satisfied that this bullet had fallen out of the president’s back during emergency cardiac massage. The Sibert and O’Neill Report was not made public until after Dr Finck had testified in New Orleans.

Official Disapproval of Pierre Finck

Another of the pathologists, J. Thornton Boswell, revealed three decades later that the Justice Department was greatly concerned by Finck’s testimony. Carl Eardley, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General, got in touch with Boswell:

He was really upset. He says, “J, we got to get somebody in New Orleans quick. Pierre is testifying, and he’s really lousing everything up.” … They showed me the transcript of Pierre’s testimony for the past couple of days, and I spent all night reviewing that testimony. And it was this bit about the general. Jim [Humes, the chief pathologist] said, “Who’s in charge here?” And when they asked Pierre in court who supervised and ran the autopsy, he says, “Some Army general.”

(Boswell’s testimony to the ARRB, pp.208ff)

Further Information

For more about President Kennedy’s autopsy, see the sources mentioned in the Medical Evidence section.

Excerpts from the Transcript

Mr Oser :
How many other military personnel were present at the autopsy in the autopsy room?
Col. Finck :
The autopsy room was quite crowded. It is a small autopsy room, and when you are called in circumstances like that to look at the wound of the President of the United States who is dead, you don’t look around too much to ask people for their names and take notes on who they are and how many there are. I did not do so. The room was crowded with military and civilian personnel and federal agents, Secret Service agents, FBI agents, for part of the autopsy, but I cannot give you a precise breakdown as regards the attendance of the people in that autopsy room at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Mr Oser :
Colonel, did you feel that you had to take orders from the Army General that was there directing the autopsy?
Col. Finck :
No, because there were others, there were Admirals.
Mr Oser :
There were Admirals?
Col. Finck :
Oh, yes, there were Admirals, and when you are a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army you just follow orders, and at the end of the autopsy we were specifically told — as I recall it, it was by Admiral Kenney, the Surgeon General of the Navy — this is subject to verification — we were told not to discuss the case.
Mr Oser :
You were told not to discuss the case?
Col. Finck :
— to discuss the case without coordination with the Attorney General.

(State of Louisiana vs. Clay L. Shaw, Criminal District Court, Parish of Orleans, State of Louisiana, 198–059 1426(30) section C, transcript, pp.51f)

Mr Oser :
Doctor, speaking of the wound to the throat area of the President as you described it, after this bullet passed through the President’s throat in the manner in which you described it, would the President have been able to talk?
Col. Finck :
I don’t know.
Mr Oser :
Do you have an opinion?
Col. Finck :
There are many factors influencing the ability to talk or not to talk after a shot.
Mr Oser :
Did you have an occasion to dissect the track of that particular bullet in the victim as it lay on the autopsy table?
Col. Finck :
I did not dissect the track in the neck.
Mr Oser :
Why?
Col. Finck :
This leads us into the disclosure of medical records.
Mr Oser :
Your Honor, I would like an answer from the Colonel and I would ask The Court so to direct.
Judge :
That is correct, you should answer, Doctor.
Col. Finck :
We didn’t remove the organs of the neck.
Mr Oser :
Why not, Doctor?
Col. Finck :
For the reason that we were told to examine the head wounds and that the —
Mr Oser :
Are you saying someone told you not to dissect the track?
Judge :
Let him finish his answer.
Col. Finck :
I was told that the family wanted an examination of the head, as I recall, the head and the chest, but the prosectors in this autopsy didn’t remove the organs of the neck, to my recollection.
Mr Oser :
You have said that they did not. I want to know why didn’t you as an autopsy pathologist attempt to ascertain the track through the body which you had on the autopsy table in trying to ascertain the cause or causes of death? Why?
Col. Finck :
I had the cause of death.
Mr Oser :
Why did you not trace the track of the wound?
Col. Finck :
As I recall I didn’t remove these organs from the neck.
Mr Oser :
I didn’t hear you.
Col. Finck :
I examined the wounds but I didn’t remove the organs of the neck.
Mr Oser :
You said you didn’t do this; I am asking you why didn’t [you] do this as a pathologist?
Col. Finck :
From what I recall I looked at the trachea, there was a tracheotomy wound the best I can remember, but I didn’t dissect or remove these organs.
Mr Oser :
Your Honor, I would ask Your Honor to direct the witness to answer my question. I will ask you the question one more time: Why did you not dissect the track of the bullet wound that you have described today and you saw at the time of the autopsy at the time you examined the body? Why? I ask you to answer that question.
Col. Finck :
As I recall I was told not to, but I don’t remember by whom.
Mr Oser :
You were told not to but you don’t remember by whom?
Col. Finck :
Right.
Mr Oser :
Could it have been one of the Admirals or one of the Generals in the room?
Col. Finck :
I don’t recall.
Mr Oser :
Do you have any particular reason why you cannot recall at this time?
Col. Finck :
Because we were told to examine the head and the chest cavity, and that doesn’t include the removal of the organs of the neck.
Mr Oser :
You are one of the three autopsy specialists and pathologists at the time, and you saw what you described as an entrance wound in the neck area of the President of the United States who had just been assassinated, and you were only interested in the other wound but not interested in the track through his neck, is that what you are telling me?
Col. Finck :
I was interested in the track and I had observed the conditions of bruising between the point of entry in the back of the neck and the point of exit at the front of the neck, which is entirely compatible with the bullet path.
Mr Oser :
But you were told not to go into the area of the neck, is that your testimony?
Col. Finck :
From what I recall, yes, but I don’t remember by whom.

(Ibid., pp.114–8)

This Edition

The transcript has been formatted in valid HTML to make it accessible to search engines and web browsers.

One or two trivial adjustments have been made for clarity. The original typescript uses the terms ‘Q.’ and ‘Mr. Oser’, and ‘A.’ and ‘The Witness’. These have been standardised as ‘Mr. Oser’ and ‘Col. Finck’. The context makes it more appropriate to employ Finck’s military title than his medical title.

A scan of the original typescript in PNG format can be found at http://www.maryferrell.org/showDoc.html?docId=1300#relPageId=1.

Top of the page

Website created by Lab 99 Web Design: http://www.lab99.com/

22 November 1963

This website uses cookies. Find out more.