Friday, 27 January 2017

Two shooters, no conspiracy. It seems the JFK assassination anomalies may have been explained by a ballistics expert in 1992!

The last book I read about the Kennedy assassination was David S. Lifton's massively-detailed 920-page monster, Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, first published in 1981. I think I probably read a new edition of it in the early '90s, quite possibly bought for the plane-ride back from being a member of the BBC news team in Little Rock, Arkansas covering Clinton's 1992 election victory. As far as I remember, Lifton's main focus was on alterations supposedly made to Kennedy's skull (skullduggery?) between the hospital he was first taken to in Dallas after the shooting and the site of the autopsy in Bethesda - alterations which, Lifton alleged, had been made to cover up the number of shooters involved. All I clearly remember now is that I finished the book convinced that (a) there was indeed something odd about the various accounts of how the bullets from Oswald's rifle had behaved, (b) there probably had been another shooter, and (3) there was no conspiracy - Oswald acted alone.

Yes, I know. That's impossible. If the bullets that struck the President came from more than one direction, there had to be a conspiracy. Logic 101. Unable to resolve this paradox in my own mind, I decided not to give it any more thought. As a reformed conspiracy nut, the five or six books I'd read about the assassination by that time felt like quite enough. Yes, there were unresolved anomalies regarding the evidence - and these had been ruthlessly exploited for 30 years by lefties who simply couldn't bear the thought that their beloved leader had been murdered by someone from their own end of the political spectrum, rather than by their natural enemies - i.e. the CIA, Organised Crime, Big Oil, Cuban exiles, the FBI and (probably) LBJ. As far as I was concerned, the fact that there were evidential anomalies did not necessarily mean that sinister reactionary forces were covering up the truth: there could just have been a cock-up somewhere along the line - or a whole series of them.

Now I discover that I decided to stop being interested in the Kennedy assassination at the exact point where someone published a book offering up a theory that - if true - explained the anomalies (or most of the them, at least). I only found out by reading Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, a 2011 work by Bill James, better known in the States for a series of books in which he uses statistics to re-examine long-accepted "wisdom" about the efficacy of standard baseball team tactics. In Popular Crime, the author applies his talent for questioning settled opinion to his other passion: true crime. The result it one of the most enthralling crime books I've ever read - I got through all 520 pages last week in what seemed like an eye-blink. Apart from some background sleuthing regarding the Boston Strangler, James's research rests mainly on a carefully studying true crime books and applying his analytical skill to the expounded theories.

Just to check I hadn't downloaded a pup, I read the chapter on the murder of six-year old JonBenét Ramsey. I'd once read a bestselling book by a detective who'd worked the case, which concluded that JonBenét's mother had accidentally killed her daughter and that her husband had helped cover up the deed. The allegations struck me as outrageously biased and - with the one exception of the handwriting on the bizarrely lengthy ransom note - utterly baseless. I was pleased to find that Bill James had reached the same conclusion. I then went back to his account of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's baby. I'd read Ludovic Kennedy's account of the case, The Airman and the Carpenter, shortly after it was published in 1985, in which the former BBC journalist, Liberal election candidate, euthanasia enthusiast and miscarriage of justice campaigner (he was right about Timothy Evans), sought to exonerate Bruno Hauptmann, the man executed for the Lindbergh crime. It was the first of Kennedy's crime books I'd read since his classic Ten Rillington Place - and I thought it was a load of contentious tosh. Here's what Bill James had to say about it: "This is the most dishonest book I have ever read, bar none. Virtually every word of the book is a lie, a con, or a deception of some sort."

Convinced by these proofs of Bill James's trustworthiness, I moved on to the chapter on Kennedy, which, according to one reviewer, "justifies the price of the book on its own". It does indeed. James singles out two works for praise: 1993's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK by Gerald Posner ("a systematic rebuttal of the specious material which forms the bulk of the other 200-plus books") - and Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK by Howard Donahue and Bonar Menninger, published in 1992. Donahue was a Baltimore ballistics expert who became involved in the case thanks to an invitation by CBS to take part in a recreation of the crime in 1967: by the simple expedient of performing the feat himself, Donahue proved that Oswald could have fired three shots at Kennedy within the available time. But the theory Donahue went on to develop was that Oswald in fact fired only two shots: the first missed, the second hit President Kennedy and Governor Connally. Kennedy was then hit a second time by a bullet which hadn't been fired by Oswald - but, Donahue concluded, there was no proof of a conspiracy. To repeat the point - that's impossible: two shooters = conspiracy. 

So how did Donahue square the lone gunman/no conspiracy circle? Reacting to the shots fired by Oswald, one of the secret service agents in the car following the Kennedy limo grabbed an AR-15 rifle which had been placed on the floor at his feet for just this sort of eventuality. As the car he was in speeded up, the agent bumped back into his seat and accidentally fired a shot: in all the confusion, he might not even have realised what he'd done. That bullet hit Kennedy in the head, disintegrating after impact - something a bullet from an AR-15 would do at that range, but which a bullet from Oswald's Mannlicher rifle definitely wouldn't. I won't go through the evidence as presented by James - but it sounds compelling. Such a scenario would fit the way Kennedy reacted to being shot, the nature of his wounds, and the testimony of witnesses close to the limo who reported that a gunshot sounded as if it was extremely close to them, and the testimony of those who claimed to smell gunsmoke as the President's car passed by them -  which they would not have done had all the bullets come from Oswald's gun (remember, this was Texas - these people were used to being around guns). The bullet allegedly fired by the agent might not have been the fatal bullet - but it probably was.

Two shooters. No conspiracy.

I'm not sure if I have the stamina to download and read Mortal Error - the ballistics evidence, in particular, is apparently presented in exhaustive detail. The agent named by Donahue in the book denied the allegations, and may very well be entirely innocent of the charge. But, as I've become a convinced believer in cock-up rather than conspiracy over the years, Donahue's account (or at least, Bill James's version of it) has a convincing ring to it. Oh damn - I'm going to have to plough through Donahue's book, aren't I! And Case Closed sounds like a must-read as well.

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