Case Closed Essay
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 marks a watershed in American history. Had JFK not been killed, the Vietnam War and the “war on poverty” might have never happened as we know them, and his assassination is often thought to mark the beginning of the end of public trust in government. Yet the cause of his death is still highly controversial. According to the Warren Commission, JFK was shot by a lone gunman, but according to the later House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), he was the victim of a Mafia conspiracy.
Hundreds of books have been written on the JFK assassination, and all but a few have argued that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy involving high government officials. Those that reject a conspiracy altogether are so rare that they tend to get more attention. In that category, Case Closed by Gerald Posner has received unprecedented publicity and high praise. Posner presents perhaps the most convincing case yet in support of the non-conspiracy version of the JFK assassination. But how convincing is it? Has Posner finally closed this extraordinary case? To answer this question, it is useful to first review a
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The officially planned and published motorcade route through Dealey Plaza did not include the street where the assassination actually occurred. The route was changed at the last minute to go directly past the Texas School Book Depository, where the apparent sniper’s nest was found. The sharp turn almost directly below the sniper’s window on the sixth floor required the motorcade to slow down below the minimum speed required by Secret Service security regulations for an open vehicle carrying the President.
The famous Zapruder film shows Kennedy’s head moving slightly forward, and then snapping violently back and to the left at the instant of the head shot. It also shows Jackie Kennedy climbing back on the rear of the car to retrieve a fragment from her husband’s skull, which she still had in her hand a few minutes later at Parkland Hospital. Over fifty witnesses, including virtually all in the immediate vicinity of the so-called “grassy knoll” in Dealey Plaza, have said that a shot or shots came from behind the foliage-covered wooden fence on the knoll, to Kennedy’s right front. Photos and films show two policemen with guns drawn, along with many bystanders, running toward the fence immediately after the shooting in an obvious attempt to apprehend the shooter.
The doctors who treated Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas held a press conference shortly afterward in which they stated plainly and repeatedly that Kennedy’s head and neck wounds were the result of shots from the front. Virtually all of them have maintained since then that Kennedy had a small bullet wound in his throat about a half centimeter in diameter that appeared to be an entrance wound, and that a large hole in the lower rear (occipital) portion of his skull, slightly to the right of center, was blasted out in what appeared to be an exit wound.
An intense argument erupted at Parkland Hospital between the Dallas County Medical Examiner, who insisted that the autopsy be done in Texas, and federal agents, who wanted the autopsy to be done in the Washington, DC area. In prevailing, the federal agents blatantly violated the law, because Texas state law required the autopsy to be done in Texas, and no federal law superseded the state law — not even for the President of the United States. The armed federal agents were so concerned about the autopsy location that they used the persuasive power of their firearms to overrule the Justice of the Peace, who had ruled against them.
The conclusion of the autopsy was that Kennedy was hit from the rear only. However, the autopsy has been widely and heavily criticized by forensic experts, including many who accept its conclusions. It was performed by military pathologists with virtually no forensic experience. The chief pathologist destroyed his original autopsy notes, and even the copy he made has disappeared. Routine procedures such as tracing bullet paths through the body and sectioning the brain were not performed. Such procedures would have determined the direction of the shots, which should have been the primary objective of the autopsy. The pathologists claimed that they were unaware of the neck wound until after the autopsy because an emergency tracheotomy had been performed directly over it at Parkland Hospital. The brain itself, which was supposed to have been preserved and sectioned, has mysteriously disappeared. Several of the doctors who treated Kennedy at Parkland Hospital have publicly disputed the autopsy conclusions.
Lee Harvey Oswald
The official suspect was Lee Harvey Oswald, but of course he never had his day in court. Oswald joined the U.S. Marines at age seventeen and became a radar operator with at least a secret clearance at Atsugi Air Base in Japan, a known CIA operations center, where the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was based. Although Oswald openly and regularly espoused Communism as a marine at the height of the cold war, the Marines did not seem to care. One day Oswald defected to the Soviet Union, boldly announcing his intention to divulge everything he knew to the Soviets. He stayed for a couple of years and got married, then he came back home with his wife. He was welcomed back hospitably by the U.S. government, which even paid his travel expenses back. He was never prosecuted for treason. After his arrest for the Kennedy assassination, he was questioned intensively for many hours without legal representation, despite his pleas for such. Supposedly, no notes or recordings of the interviews were kept. A couple of days after his arrest, Oswald were shot by Jack Ruby on national television.
Jack Ruby was a tough night club operator with strong ties to both organized crime and the Dallas police force. It was said that he would not let a cop be charged for a drink in his club, and he was well known by many of them. When Oswald was moved from the Dallas police headquarters to the county jail, Ruby somehow penetrated a secure area of the building and shot Oswald, who died a short time later. Ruby had arrived at the building about five minutes before Oswald was to be escorted out, despite the fact that the move had been delayed by nearly an hour from the officially scheduled time. After the incident, Ruby repeatedly requested to be taken to Washington, DC so that he could safely expose the grand conspiracy that he claimed to be a part of, but his request was denied. He died of cancer about three years later.
The Warren Commission concluded that a single bullet had penetrated both Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally, who was sitting in front of Kennedy in the same car. This “single-bullet theory” was necessary to support the conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin, because Oswald couldn’t have fired two shots fast enough to cause those wounds, plus he supposedly fired only three shots, and the other two were accounted for. The bullet that supposedly caused those wounds was found on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital in virtually pristine condition.
Posner does Herculean historical and scientific research that seeks to disprove all of the popular books in recent years that paint the Kennedy assassination as a massive conspiracy involving such groups as Castro Cubans, the CIA, the KGB, or organized crime. The book=s best chapter is not speculation on who pulled the trigger but on the aftermath, JFK’s last, traumatic hour of life spent in Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital. The sorrowful chapter described the bedlam there as world renowned doctors tried everything in their power to save their dying president’s life and the collective feeling of gloom that encircled the planet when he was finally pronounced dead. Case Closed describes the extraordinary courage of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the surrealistic horrors that she endured during the ambush in Dallas. The chapter reemphasizes the irony of a once powerful, vibrant President brought down by one of the lowest men of the last century.
Posner on Lee Harvey Oswald
He was an extremely disturbed sociopath — a man whose life was careening out of control, who had never had any success at almost anything that he had done, who felt at the end of his life that he had no option but to break out of it with a dramatic act. The only thing he was successful at in the 24 years he was here was, unfortunately, the assassination of President Kennedy. Lee Harvey Oswald did not hate President Kennedy. What he did hate was the system and what Kennedy stood for. He despised America. He despised capitalism. When he eventually had the opportunity to strike against Kennedy, it was that symbol of the system that he was going after. Just three weeks after joining the Marines, he’s trained in the use of an M-l rifle. He shoots on a rifle range [a score of] 212, which means he qualified for the second-highest position in the Marine Corps, that of a sharpshooter.
Near the end of his stay in the Marines in 1959, after being court-martialed twice and his morale was low, he went back to re-qualify himself in the range — still shot a 191, and still qualified as a marksman. That meant that he could hit a 10-inch target eight times out of ten from 200 yards away. Oswald entered the Marines with such high hopes, but it quickly unravels for him. Just a year after entering, he wounds himself with a pistol that he does not suppose to have, and as a result, he’s court-martialed. Then he’s put on KP duty for a very long stint. He’s very dissatisfied with it.
Eventually, he attacks the sergeant whom he believes is responsible for his long KP service in a bar and challenges him to a fight. Then he’s court-martialed a second time. This time, he’s put into the brig, and this has an effect on him. The brig is very hard, and when he comes out, he’s now an embittered person. He has failed at yet another thing in life. He’s failed at the Marines. Now he hates the Corps and he hates the government behind it. There is evidence of Oswald planning to defect to Russia for quite a considerable time before he leaves the Marines. He’s saving up his money. He makes an application for a passport near the end of his service. He applies to travel to a university in Finland, because it gives him an excuse to go up to Helsinki, where he will apply for a Soviet visa. He’s been in contact with Japanese communists. … He’s talking to fellow Marines about doing something famous. He applies for a passport. He fills in applications for his travel and early exit from the Marines. Eventually he heads over to Helsinki, where he obtains a visa to the Soviet Union. Much of his travel plans were actually aided by Japanese communists, who he was in discussions with, and who gave him the best advice on how to get to Russia as smoothly as possible.
The evidence that the shot came from the rear is both in Kennedy’s clothes — the threads are pushed inward on the back of the jacket and on the shirt, indicating the direction of the bullet — as well as in the residues of copper. That showed the bullet still had its jacket on it when it was going into him. The skin shows an abrasion around the wound, which is typical of that type of entrance wound. You can see also the skin part pushed in. Both Kennedy’s body and the clothes confirmed the direction of the bullet. Most people think the president is grabbing for his throat. His hands come up like this. But actually it’s an instinctive response called Thorburn’s Position, and his hands come up in front of his chin. They’re much higher than the throat. The elbows are flexed out. They’re locked in that position. He is not reaching for his throat. Remember, Kennedy’s wrapped into a back brace. It’s wrapped right underneath his breast all the way down and wrapped around his legs. You can’t tell from that seizure where he’s going to move in the car. But then something happens. Out the right side of his head, an explosion takes place. On the enhanced Zapruder film, you can see a cloud, a red mist of brain and blood tissue moving forward. It’s almost a jet effect. As that propels out his head, it has much more force than the force of the bullet moving in and it shoots him in the opposite direction. It shoots out to the right front and left, violently.
Two things as the president’s brain is destroyed, he goes into a neuromuscular seizure. His body starts to stiffen up. At the same time that the wound explodes out the right front side of his head and as that blood and brain tissue moves out, it forces him in the opposite direction, the jet effect, back and to the left, violently. The X-rays and the autopsy photographs are conclusive. Kennedy is only hit by two shots, fired from the rear.
The computer analysis shows Kennedy and Connally in their exact positions in the Zapruder frame, in three-dimensional space. It lines up the seven wounds and shows that a single bullet went on a straight-line trajectory, right through both of them. The computer technicians used reverse projection to go from the wounds on Kennedy and Connally and determined where the assassin had to be located to inflict those wounds. A cone is splayed out from the wound, and shows that the only area almost centers on the southeast corner, sixth floor, Texas School Book Depository.
Posner theory about the Magic Bullet:
Critics claim that the bullet came through President Kennedy, hesitated for a second and a half in mid-air, deciding where to go, then made a right turn, went over and hit Governor Connally in the right shoulder, came out of his right nipple, made another right turn to move over and hit Governor Connally’s wrist. Then when it came out of here, decided “Where should I go?” and made a left turn, a 90-degree turn, and went into his thigh. Four government commissions all concluded that’s absolutely false, that, in fact, it was a straight line right through the two men. The bullet on the stretcher at Parkland Hospital isn’t pristine. It’s slightly damaged. There’s no question that a single bullet could inflict all seven wounds on both the president and the governor and emerge in very good condition as it slowed, as it moved through the two men. It moved fast enough to break bone, but not fast enough to deform the bullet. …
There are two pieces of evidence that show when the governor is hit by one bullet. One, the right front of his jacket of his suit, his lapel, flies up as the bullet passes through him right at frame 224. Within a sixth of a second, by frame 226, his hat is flipping up in front of his face as he holds on to it, the bullet having passed through his wrist, and the wrist instinctively reacting to the bullet. The neutron activation settled the question of whether the fragments removed from Governor Connally’s wrist, on the day of the assassination attempt, came from the bullet found on the stretcher at Parkland Hospital. It concluded it absolutely came from the same bullet. There are two conclusive pieces of evidence. One is that the governor’s right front of his jacket, his whole lapel, flaps up at the moment the bullet passes through him. The second is that, within a sixth of a second, three frames, the governor’s hat is flying up in front of his face as the wrist, which has been injured by a bullet, reacts to that injury, and then flips right down in front of him. The X-rays and the autopsy photographs are conclusive. Kennedy is only hit by two shots, fired from the rear.
Evidence and Witnesses:
The House Select Committee on Assassinations used sound experts to listen to a Dallas police Dictabelt. They concluded with a 95 percent certainty that there was a fourth shot fired at Dealey Plaza, and it came from the grassy knoll. The National Academy of Sciences reviewed their work and found a multitude of errors and omissions. The most serious of which was that at the time that the Select Committee experts thought the shots were, [it] actually, [was] one minute after the assassination had actually taken place. Dealey Plaza is a veritable echo chamber, and it makes it very difficult sometimes to analyze the acoustic testimony. However, by looking at the statements of a witness who gave an opinion as to the source of the shots, we can see certain trends. Eighty-eight percent of the 179 witnesses who expressed an opinion said there were three shots and three shots only. The largest group that identified a location, 28 percent, said they came from the book depository. Only four witnesses, 2 percent of all the witnesses at Dealey, heard shots coming from more than one location.
The man with the best perspective in Dealey Plaza and the best vantage point turned out to be a construction worker, Howard Brennan, who was 93 feet away from the sixth floor of the depository, right across the street, leaning against a concrete divider.
He watched a young man who he later described as Oswald does the shooting. Shots one, two, and three; in horror, Brennan hit the ground after the third shot, still looking up. He saw the shooter with a smirk on his face slowly draw the rifle back into the window of the depository, and disappear from his line of sight. Brennan has been criticized for having lousy eyesight. As a matter of fact, some say that he was nearsighted, and couldn’t have seen Oswald. This is absolutely false. His eyesight at the time was excellent, although he did use glasses afterwards and he was far-sighted — just the opposite. But he was able to see Oswald very clearly in the sixth floor.
He did not pick Oswald out of a line-up that night, Friday night, with the Dallas police, saying, “It looks like the same man, but I’m not sure.” We later found out the reason why: He told the Warren Commission, “I could have picked out Oswald without any question. That was the man I saw in the sixth-floor window. But I was afraid for my own life, because I thought there might be others involved in a plot to kill the president. I was the only one that could finger the shooter, and that they might come after me as a result.” And he stayed quiet that evening. Regarding a purported shooter from the grassy knoll, there is not a single contemporaneous statement made by any witness identifying a gun, a flash of light or the sighting of another shooter on that knoll on the day of the assassination.
The witnesses who now described a second shooter have come forward years after the event to give this dramatic testimony. The only evidence given on the day of the assassination that looks suspicious was that four men described a puff of smoke from the knoll, which some critics say must have been gun smoke. However, when you go back to those witness statements, they didn’t describe it as gun smoke at all. They called it either exhaust fumes from a police motorcycle or smoke from a steam pipe that was nearby.
In the minutes before the assassination, there were a number of witnesses in Dealey Plaza who later claimed to have seen more than one gunman, or another person on the same floor where Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to be.
Carolyn Walther said that she saw somebody hanging out of the building of the Texas School Book Depository with a submachine gun. Arnold Rowland said that he looked up and saw an elderly black man together on the same floor with Oswald. Johnny Powell said that he was an inmate in the sixth floor of the jail right across the street from the depository, and looked over and saw two men fiddling with the gun.
But all these stories have significant problems. Powell, in the jail, couldn’t even see out, the mesh was so dirty, and there’s a question as to whether he was even there. Rowland couldn’t even see up into the window from the angle that he was standing at in the street. In addition, he probably confused one of the black men who were on the fifth floor underneath Oswald. As for Carolyn Walther, her astounding story of somebody hanging out of the depository with a machine gun, which no one else saw — she returned to work within minutes of the assassination, and said she simply forgot about it, and told her story years later for the first time.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, continues to inspire interest ranging from well-meaning speculation to bizarre conspiracy theories and controversial filmmaking. But in this landmark book, reissued with a new afterward for the 40th anniversary of the assassination, Gerald Posner examines all of the available evidence and reaches the only possible conclusion: Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. There was no second gunman on the grassy knoll. The CIA was not involved. And although more than four million pages of documents have been released since Posner first made his case, they have served only to corroborate his findings. Case Closed remains the classic account against which all books about JFK’s death must be measured.
Gerald Posner (1993), Case Closed published by Random House.