Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Deny Shooting President Kennedy?
Oswald’s Statements While in Custody
Lee Harvey Oswald was held in custody for just under two days between his arrest and his murder by Jack Ruby in the basement of the main Dallas police station. Oswald’s interrogation sessions lasted at least eleven hours, during which time he was questioned by officials from the Dallas police, the FBI, the Secret Service and even the Post Office.
Unfortunately, the Dallas police did not consider it worth their while to obtain a tape recorder, and none of the shorthand secretaries who worked in the Dallas police headquarters were called upon to transcribe the defendant’s replies to his questioning.
Some, but not all, of those who questioned Oswald later put down their memories on paper. The existing notes and memos, which can be found in Appendix XI (pp.598–636) of the Warren Report, cover only a small part of Oswald’s questioning. Probably the most suspicious absence from the existing record is Oswald’s account of exactly where he was and what he was doing when the assassination occurred. It is inconceivable that he was not questioned thoroughly about this, yet only a couple of vague remarks have made their way into the record (see Lee Harvey Oswald’s Alibi).
Oswald also made several comments, some of which were recorded on tape, to reporters and to his relatives.
Oswald Denied Shooting JFK and Tippit
He repeatedly denied any involvement in the two murders of which he was accused: those of President Kennedy and, about 40 minutes later, Officer J.D. Tippit.
The following examples have been taken from Mae Brussell’s article, ‘The Last Words of Lee Harvey Oswald’, which unfortunately does not include citations. Brussell seems to have made at least one trivial error. She quotes Seth Kantor as reporting that Oswald stated “I am only a patsy” at 7:50pm on 23 November. Kantor’s notebook contains the words “I’m just a patsy”, and gives the time as 7:55.
It has been possible to corroborate the gist of some of Oswald’s reported statements, but because no recordings or transcripts were made of his interrogation sessions, many of the remarks quoted here may not be verbatim:
The only thing I have done is carry a pistol in a movie … I didn’t kill anybody … I haven’t shot anybody.
(When arrested at the Texas Theatre at about 1:50pm on 22 November 1963)
I didn’t shoot Pres. John F. Kennedy or Officer J.D. Tippit.
(Interrogation at police station, 2:25 to 4:04pm, 22 November 1963; corroborated by FBI agents James Hosty and James Bookhout [Warren Report, p.613])
I didn’t shoot anyone … I never killed anybody.
(To reporters when being taken to an identification parade, 6:30pm, 22 November 1963)
I’m just a patsy.
(Recorded by Seth Kantor, a journalist, in his notebook at 7:55pm, 22 November 1963: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.20, p.366)
I don’t know anything about what you are accusing me [of].
(When having his fingerprints taken and the paraffin test on his skin, 8:55pm, 22 November 1963)
- Oswald :
- Nobody has told me anything except that I am accused of murdering a policeman. I know nothing more than that, and I do request someone to come forward to give me legal assistance.
- Reporter :
- Did you kill the president?
- Oswald :
- No. I have not been charged with that. In fact, nobody has said that to me yet. The first thing I heard about it was when the newspaper reporters in the hall asked me that question. … I did not do it. I did not do it. … I did not shoot anyone.
(In front of reporters, 11:20–11:25pm, 22 November 1963)
I didn’t shoot John Kennedy. … I didn’t even know Gov. John Connally had been shot. … I don’t own a rifle. … I didn’t tell Buell Wesley Frazier anything about bringing back some curtain rods. … I did carry a package to the Texas School Book Depository. I carried my lunch, a sandwich and fruit … I had nothing personal against John Kennedy.
It’s a mistake. I’m not guilty.
(To his wife, Marina, 1:10–1:30pm, 23 November 1963)
If you ask me about the shooting of Tippit, I don’t know what you are talking about. … The only thing I am here for is because I popped a policeman on the nose in the theater on Jefferson Avenue, which I readily admit I did, because I was protecting myself. … I haven’t shot a rifle since the Marines. … American people will soon forget the president was killed, but I didn’t shoot him. … I did not kill President Kennedy or Officer Tippit. If you want me to cop out to hitting, or pleading guilty to hitting a cop in the mouth when I was arrested, yeah, I plead guilty to that. But I do deny shooting both the president and Tippit.
Can We Trust Oswald’s Denials?
Oswald’s denials cannot be taken at face value, of course. He would hardly be the first murderer to deny the charges against him. Several of Oswald’s other reported comments show that he was not entirely honest with his questioners.
Oswald repeatedly denied owning a rifle, and he lied about never having lived in Neely Street in Dallas (ibid., p.610), where the photographs of him holding a rifle were taken. He provided unconvincing justifications for the several incriminating items that were in his possession when he was arrested:
- the pistol with which he was accused of shooting J.D. Tippit: “I carried a pistol with me to the movie because I felt like it, for no other reason” and “You know how boys do when they have a gun, they just carry it”;
- and the bullets in his pocket: “I just had them in there.”
He contradicts himself in some of the other remarks he is reported to have made:
- In one interview, he agrees with Detective Roger Craig, who claimed to have seen Oswald leave Dealey Plaza in a car driven by an unidentified person, presumably an accomplice. In a later interview, Oswald is reported to have stated that he travelled alone, by bus and taxi, a method consistent with his official role as a lone assassin (Warren Report, p.621).
- He appears at first to deny, and later to admit, that he had visited Mexico City. For the denial, see ibid., p.601. There is, however, reason to doubt that Oswald had actually admitted to being in Mexico City. The only account of this was the testimony of the postal inspector, Harry Holmes (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, p.303). The earlier accounts of Holmes (Warren Report, p.633) and every other person who interrogated Oswald do not mention this admission. It is certain that a man calling himself Lee Oswald paid several visits to the Soviet and Cuban diplomatic compounds in Mexico City about seven weeks before the assassination. At least some of those visits, however, were made by an impostor. Documentary proof of Oswald’s presence ought to exist, but does not. Although every non–Hispanic visitor to the diplomatic compounds was photographed, no such photograph of Oswald has yet been produced. It is generally assumed that the real Oswald was also there, but the lack of photographic evidence leaves open the possibility that he was not. Oswald’s impersonation in Mexico City is an important incident in the JFK assassination story, and his presence or absence is a question that is still unresolved.
Oswald’s Behaviour After the Assassination
Certain aspects of Oswald’s behaviour immediately after the assassination are consistent with the notion that he had in fact shot President Kennedy, and that his denials were untruthful:
- He was one of the first employees to leave the Texas School Book Depository.
- He appears to have travelled straight to his rented room, in order to retrieve a pistol and ammunition.
On the other hand, the reason Oswald gave for leaving the TSBD, that his foreman told him that there would be no more work that day, was corroborated by one of his colleagues, Charles Givens (see Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, p.355). The official description of Oswald’s journey from the TSBD is not that of a criminal who was desperate to flee the scene of the crime:
- He walked several blocks, and got on a bus that was heading straight back toward Dealey Plaza.
- When the bus got stuck in traffic, he got off and walked a short distance to a taxi rank.
- Rather than jump into the first available taxi, he offered to let another person take the taxi.
- Rather than instruct the taxi driver to drop him off at his rented room, Oswald got out some distance away and covered the last few blocks on foot.
The Warren Report’s account of Oswald’s journey (Warren Report, pp.156–160) is not necessarily accurate, however. Some of the witnesses to the bus section of the trip are of limited credibility, and the timing of the journey is dubious. For a critical review of the Warren Commission’s version of the bus episode, see Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact: the Warren Commission, the Authorities, and the Report, Vintage, 1992, pp.75–83.
Oswald’s retrieval of his pistol shortly after the assassination is difficult to explain as the action of someone with no connection to the assassination, although the nature of that connection is a matter for speculation. Perhaps he had committed the crime, and he wanted to be able to defend himself from arrest. Perhaps he had not committed the crime, and his background gave him reason to suspect that he had been set up. If Oswald had committed the crime, however, it is strange that he did not already have his pistol on him.
The Denials and Oswald’s Motive
According to the official interpretation of the assassination, Oswald’s motive for committing the crime was his desire to become famous. In the words of Senator Richard Russell, one of the Warren Commissioners, “he was a general misanthropic fellow … he had a desire to get his name in history and all” (see Richard Russell and the Warren Report).
If Oswald genuinely had been motivated by a desire to get his name in the history books, he could be expected to boast about his crime rather than repeatedly deny that he was responsible. Perhaps he changed his mind after he was arrested.
Oswald’s Involvement in the JFK Assassination
The reason why Lee Harvey Oswald denied any involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy becomes clear when we examine the facts of the case.
The Rifle and Bullet Shells on the Sixth Floor
A rifle, three empty bullet shells, and one intact bullet were discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Although the origin of the shells was undetermined, a ballistics expert linked them to the rifle, and the rifle was plausibly linked to Oswald, who worked in the building (see the Basic Facts of the JFK Assassination).
Every other facet of the evidence, however, suggests that Oswald had not played an active part in the shooting: he did not bring the rifle into the bulding; he left no incriminating fingerprints; at the same time as a gunman was seen on the sixth floor of the TSBD, Oswald was seen on either the first or second floor; he was not a good enough marksman; and he almost certainly did not fire a rifle on the day of the assassination.
The Presence of the Rifle in the TSBD
There is no credible evidence that the rifle was brought into the building by Oswald. If he had carried the rifle to work, he must have done so on the morning of the assassination. Three witnesses saw him before and during his arrival that day; all three denied that he had been carrying a rifle.
Oswald’s Fingerprints at the Crime Scene
Oswald was supposed to have handled several heavy cardboard boxes when constructing his sniper’s nest by the south–easternmost window. The boxes were tested for fingerprints within a short time of the assassination. Oswald left no incriminating fingerprints on the boxes, or indeed on the rifle.
Oswald in the Texas School Book Depository
There was no credible eye–witness evidence that placed Oswald on the sixth floor during or immediately before the assassination. Several witnesses in the street below saw one or two men behind one or more of the windows. One witness gave a description that matched Oswald, but was unable to identify Oswald when face to face with him shortly afterwards. Other witnesses described someone who did not look like Oswald. A TSBD employee, Carolyn Arnold, saw Oswald elsewhere in the building at the same time as a gunman was seen on the sixth floor.
Oswald was not a good enough marksman to have achieved two hits out of three shots in a short space of time, using a rifle that was in poor condition. Expert shooters from the US Army and the FBI attempted to duplicate Oswald’s feat using the same rifle in much easier conditions, and were unable to do so.
Oswald’s Paraffin Tests
The notion that the JFK assassination was the work of a lone assassin has been discredited for many years. The severe implausibility of the single–bullet theory proves that President Kennedy was shot by more than one gunman. There is no good reason to disbelieve Lee Harvey Oswald’s denials that he was one of those gunmen.