Former Los Angeles detective of O.J. Simpson trial fame, Mark Fuhrman has written several books, including "Silent Witness" about Terri Schiavo and "Murder in Brentwood," about the case that thrust him into the national spotlight. In "A Simple Act of Murder," Fuhrman examines the death of President John F. Kennedy, and why so many theories about the shooting still abound.
CHAPTER 1: A National Tragedy
The teacher slapped him with the back of her hand. No hesitation, no warning."Don't you ever say that!" she yelled at the boy. The teacher never apologized for hitting him, and no one felt an apology was needed. For the next few days, the afternoons I usually spent playing basketball or army were spent sitting on the floor in front of a black-and-white Zenith television. I had no understanding of politics. I had never read PT-109 or Profiles in Courage. I didn't know anything about the Kennedy family and didn't even understand what they meant when they called him "rich." I thought everybody lived pretty much like we did. Even if I didn't know or understand anything about the man, he was my president, and I was pulled into the drama of his violent death. One afternoon, sitting just a couple of feet from our television, I watched carefully as the assassin walked in front of the cameras. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw my mom ironing our uniforms for school the next day. Turning back toward the television, I saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed by Jack Ruby.
I turned back toward my mom.
"We killed him," I said.
I had forgotten I said that, but talking with my mom just a couple years ago about the JFK assassination, she asked me if I remembered what I said when Ruby shot Oswald. I didn't remember, but when she described the moment in detail, so many memories and emotions came rushing back. What exactly did I mean when I said, "We killed him"? Was I voicing suspicions that the government had murdered Oswald to shut him up? Did I think there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy? Maybe the seed of doubt was planted those first few days and grew in my mind somewhere.
Now that Oswald was dead, there would be no trial. The FBI was preparing a report on its massive investigation, and the Texas Attorney General's Office planned its own inquiry. Two separate congressional committees were being formed to look into the assassination. Just after Oswald's murder, some were already talking about a possible conspiracy. To quiet these suspicions and keep the separate inquiries from turning into a political nightmare, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed a seven-man panel to investigate the assassination, presided over by Chief Justice Earl Warren and including senators Richard Russell and John Sherman Cooper, representatives Gerald Ford and Hale Boggs, former CIA director Allen Dulles, and John McCloy, former head of the World Bank.
Within days of its investiture, the Warren Commission was being urged by Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to issue a statement that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. While they refused to make any public statement about the guilt or innocence of the only suspect, the commissioners apparently saw their task as presenting the evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the President and dispelling rumors that Oswald might have been part of a larger conspiracy. Relying first on the investigative reports of the FBI, the Secret Service, and Texas law enforcement, the Warren Commission went on to conduct its own investigation. The Commissioners analyzed the information gathered by other agencies, called witnesses for hearings and depositions, and performed tests and reenactments to fill what they saw as holes in the evidentiary fabric. The Warren Commission was a political body, created by politicians, made up of politicians, with the responsibility, in the view of its members, of resolving a political problem: fears that the President of the United States might have been assassinated through some conspiracy or even as part of a coup d'état. But the commissioners were all busy men. Most of them attended only a small fraction of the hearings, and their participation in those hearings was minimal. Supporting the commissioners was a staff of fifteen lawyers, led by J. Lee Rankin, the former solicitor general. The legal staff was divided into two groups, senior counsel and assistant counsel. Since the senior lawyers were busy with their own private law practices, almost all of the work was done by the seven assistants, bright young lawyers who had graduated at the tops of their classes at prestigious law schools but had little or no experience in criminal investigations. They worked under intense pressure
to gather all the necessary information and write it up into a publishable report before the presidential elections. On September 24, 1964, the Commissioners presented Lyndon Johnson with the "Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy," or the Warren Report. The first thing the President said was, "It's heavy." Then he gave it to one of his aides to read. And that was just the 888-page report. Shortly afterwards, 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits were published. The Warren Commission had been established in order to squelch rumors about a possible conspiracy, yet the vast public record it created had the opposite effect. Even before the Warren Report was published, several writers, mostly European, had speculated that Kennedy's assassination was the fruit of a conspiracy. Once the Commission's report and hearings were published, several American writers published books critical of its findings. Edward Jay Epstein's Inquest, Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment, Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After the Fact, and Josiah Thompson's Six Seconds in Dallas (to name only the earliest and most prominent criticisms) all raised troubling questions about the basic facts of the assassination. Some of the questions had to do with evidence, such as the bullet found on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital that was alleged to have caused a series of wounds to both Kennedy and Texas governor John B. Connally, who was riding in front of Kennedy in the presidential limousine. This became known as the single bullet theory, and the bullet responsible was called the Magic Bullet. Others raised questions about the rifle linked to Oswald: it seemed inadequate to the task and impossible for him to have fired as quickly as the shots appeared in the amateur film of the assassination taken by Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder. In addition to these, and other, questions about the evidence, there was talk of other gunmen and claims of a well orchestrated cover-up to frame Oswald. The Warren Commission had made public all the testimony and evidence, but by keeping many records classified, it only fueled the suspicions. The government could not ignore these accusations for long. Less than two years after the report was issued, the medical team from the President's autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital was asked by the Justice Department (under Attorney General Robert Kennedy) to authenticate the X-rays and photographs held at the National Archives. During the autopsy the doctors had seen the X-rays during a brief search for a bullet they believed was still lodged in the President's body, but they were denied access to this important evidence while writing their reports. Earl Warren had viewed the photographs and X-rays before deciding that his commission should not make use of them, for fear that they would then have to become part of the public record. During the Justice Department inquiry, the doctors concluded that the X-rays and photographs were authentic. Yet they still weren't released to the public.
On March 1, 1967, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison announced that he had solved the JFK assassination and arrested a prominent local citizen on charges of being part of the conspiracy. Garrison might have been something of a loose cannon, yet he seemed to be on to something. Lee Harvey Oswald had spent several months in 1963 in his native city of New Orleans, where he was engaged in pro-Castro political activities. There were several possible connections between Oswald and members of the anti-Castro movement, even the FBI and CIA. While Garrison made a long series of dramatic allegations in the press, the case he eventually presented in court was weaker than expected. After only forty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted the defendant, Clay Shaw. In later interviews, the jury members stated that they believed Garrison had made a compelling case for a conspiracy, even if he hadn't proved Shaw's involvement in the plot.
Meanwhile, questions concerning the medical evidence did not go away. In 1968 Attorney General Ramsey Clark (who had taken over the post when Bobby Kennedy decided to run for president) convened a panel of four doctors who had not participated in the autopsy or been connected to the Warren Commission to review the medical evidence. The Clark Panel examined photographs, X-ray films, documents, and other evidence to "evaluate their significance in relation to the medical conclusions recorded in the Autopsy Report." The panel confirmed the findings of the autopsy doctors and the Warren Commission and made an inventory and description of the evidence. As the years passed the controversy over the JFK assassination continued.
Growing up, I followed the case, listening to the criticism, reading the books, and asking some of the same questions myself. Was Oswald a good enough marksman to have made those shots with a cheap Italian army surplus rifle? Could he have fired three shots so quickly? Why were the government investigations shrouded in so much secrecy? What were they afraid of? Were they trying to hide something? The one question I kept coming back to was the single bullet theory and the "Magic Bullet," Commission exhibit 399. This 6.5-millimeter bullet, found on the stretcher used to transport Governor Connally into surgery, was supposed to have entered Kennedy's back, gone through his neck, entered Connally's back, shattered one of his ribs, entered his arm and shattered a wrist bone, then wounded his leg. Yet the bullet appeared undeformed. I didn't buy it. And I wasn't alone. By the 1970s, there was no escaping speculation that there had been some kind of conspiracy. In fact, it became almost socially ignorant to believe otherwise. I was a patriot. I never doubted the draft or Vietnam. I enlisted in the Marines, just like Oswald. Yet I never connected JFK's assassination with larger motives, like war, politics, or crime. I never thought about who could be responsible -- the CIA, the Mafia, Fidel Castro. I remained curious about the JFK assassination, not engaging in deep and serious study, like many of the independent researchers, but casually reading articles and books that crossed my path. Then I saw the Zapruder film.
On March 6, 1975, Geraldo Rivera showed the Zapruder film on Goodnight America, a late-night talk show. Watching the film, I saw the assassination with my own eyes for the first time, and felt for a moment as I had twelve years before. Something was very wrong. All my instincts told me that someone other than Oswald had done the shooting. Maybe Oswald had been involved somehow, or maybe he was an innocent patsy, set up to take the fall. At this moment I became convinced that the JFK assassination was the work of a conspiracy. I read the Warren Report and found mistakes in its investigation and holes in its arguments. On August 4, 1975, I joined the Los Angeles Police Department and began my law enforcement career. I was twenty-three, incredibly naive, but also very stubborn and opinionated, particularly about two issues -- patriotism and the JFK assassination. My colleagues shared these opinions. They were all patriots, yet they all believed there had been a conspiracy. This paradox of being deeply patriotic and convinced of a conspiracy in the assassination of our President was never resolved, because it was never really challenged. During my twenty years on the force, in countless conversations during stakeouts or over beers after work, I never once heard another cop say he believed Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. In those dozen years following the JFK assassination, we lived through a long national nightmare. We saw Bobby Kennedy shot down, and Martin Luther King Jr. We experienced political, if not military, failure in Vietnam. First Vice President Spiro Agnew left office in the face of corruption charges, and then President Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. This led to an atmosphere of cynicism about our leaders and a corresponding loss of hope. Former Warren Commissioner Gerald Ford had become president. In 1975 he appointed Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to head a commission charged with investigating the domestic activities of the CIA. As part of that investigation, the Rockefeller Commission appointed a medical panel to reexamine the JFK autopsy materials. The Rockefeller Panel confirmed the previous official findings.
More congressional investigations followed. Later in 1975 a Senate select committee chaired by Idaho senator Frank Church was convened to investigate the federal intelligence agencies. Church created a subcommittee, chaired by Senator Richard Schweiker, whose purpose was to investigate the performance of intelligence agencies in the investigation of the JFK assassination. The Schweiker subcommittee report, released in May 1976, documented the failure of the FBI, the Secret Service, and the CIA to examine the possibility of a conspiracy. Meanwhile, the Church Committee had uncovered several CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. In some of these plots the Agency had been conspiring with high-ranking Mafia members to assassinate the Cuban leader. Belief in a conspiracy reached an all-time high. By the time the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was established in September 1976, a Gallup poll was reporting that 80 percent of the American people believed President Kennedy had been the victim of a conspiracy. The HSCA was charged with answering the questions about Lee Harvey Oswald's guilt and the possibility of a conspiracy. (The HSCA also investigated the possibility of a conspiracy in the assassination of Martin Luther King.) After two years of investigation and hearings, the HSCA determined that "President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy." While the Committee did not identify any conspirators, it suggested that the Mafia and/or anti-Castro Cubans had been involved. Because the HSCA's charter had run out, it recommended that the Justice Department continue the investigation.
The Justice Department conducted two scientific studies to evaluate the acoustic evidence that the HCSA used to come to its conclusion. In 1980 the FBI concluded that the HSCA's experts had neither proven that the sounds on the recording were gunshots nor shown that they originated in Dealey Plaza, where the assassination took place. Two years later a panel convened under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Dictabelt had been recorded in another location minutes after the assassination. Later independent studies have both confirmed and contradicted the findings of the HSCA sound analysts, leaving the matter in dispute.* Throughout the 1980s, the assassination controversy simmered, with no real breakthroughs on either side. At this point, assassination critics moved away from close examinations of the physical evidence and witness testimony to speculate about possible conspirators. Much of this speculation was fueled by the enormous amount of information generated by the previous government investigations and declassified documents. Robert Blakey, chief counsel of the HSCA, wrote a book stating what he could not get the Committee to agree upon -- that President Kennedy had been killed by the Mafia. Several other books, including David Scheim's Contract on America: The Mafia Murder of President Kennedy and John Davis's Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, made similar claims. Other authors blamed the CIA, anti-Castro Cubans, right-wing Texans, Corsican hit men, and the South Vietnamese. The critics had much new material to work with. Not only had the HSCA generated volumes of hearings and findings, but a flood of documentation concerning the CIA, the FBI, the Warren Commission, the Kennedy family and JFK's presidency, the Mafia, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and other highly charged subjects provided a great deal of information relating to the assassination. Still, the one piece of evidence that would blow the case wide open (or close it shut) remained elusive. In the early 1990s, two vastly different works showed that the JFK assassination remained a hotly contested issue, with no resolution in sight. Oliver Stone's film JFK, released in late 1991, portrayed the assassination as a coup d'état by the U.S. armed forces and the CIA, with Lyndon Johnson's complicity, to eliminate John F. Kennedy so that he would not pull American troops out of Vietnam. Many argued that the film was wildly inaccurate, and Stone himself admitted to taking a certain artistic license with the facts. Still, in numerous media appearances and interviews, Stone accused elements of the U.S. government of murdering the President and then covering up their crime. Whether all of Stone's claims were accurate or not, his film reinvigorated the assassination controversy and introduced the basic questions of a possible conspiracy to a generation of Americans who were not even alive at the time. As a result of the renewed attention, and Stone's repeated demands that all the government records pertaining to the assassination be made public, in 1992 the federal government established the Assassinations Records Review Board (ARRB) to review the documents still sealed thirty years after the assassination. The ARRB decided to release nearly all the documents pertaining to the Warren Commission and also made a more comprehensive collection of documents from outside sources. Literally millions of pages of documents were made available, yet some still remained classified. In 1993 a book was published that made the most comprehensive and, to the minds of some, convincing case for Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin. Gerald Posner's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK even made a strong argument for the single bullet theory. Posner's book was praised by defenders of the Warren Commission and attacked by its critics, just as Stone's movie had been praised by the critics and attacked by the defenders. These two polemics revealed how divided and antagonistic the debate over a conspiracy had become and how even the basic facts of the assassination were in question. And so today we find ourselves lost in a fog of unresolved argument. A Gallup poll conducted in 2003 found that 75 percent of Americans still believe that President Kennedy was assassinated as the result of a conspiracy. Meanwhile, defenders of the Warren Commission continue to make a case for the guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone. You might say that people believe what they want to believe, but that's taking the easy way out. We need to determine, beyond any reasonable doubt, who killed John F. Kennedy and how it happened. Although the questions provoked by his assassination and its subsequent investigations can still be debated, at some point we need to come to a conclusion. Otherwise, the nightmare continues, the wounds remain unhealed, and the controversy perpetuates itself, with no end in sight. This book is an effort to try to clear away some of the fog that surrounds the JFK assassination so that we can see it for what it is -- a simple act of murder.
At 12:30 P.M. on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy was riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza when someone shot him, causing bodily trauma that resulted in his death. This is a fact. Whatever we might feel about the tragedy, there is only one series of events that led to it. Either Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible or he was not. If he was responsible, he either acted alone or was part of a larger conspiracy. These are the questions this book tries to answer by examining the relevant evidence and arriving at logical conclusions. This is how murders are solved. And the JFK assassination, as traumatic as it has been, is like any other murder. A human being was killed intentionally and with malice. The suspect or suspects left clues that if gathered and analyzed correctly, will lead to their identity and establish a reasonably accurate hypothesis of how the murder occurred. The JFK assassination presents a unique challenge to the investigator. Usually in a murder case there's not enough information. In this case, there is too much. Some 450 books have been written. Half a dozen government investigations have generated literally millions of pages -- their final reports and published testimony alone number in the thousands of pages, and supporting documents are measured in cubic feet. Every year, as researchers write more books, papers, and Internet postings, the amount of information increases. There is no way a single human can read, much less make sense of, all the available material. At first I worried about how I would ever be able to wrap my brain around it all. Then I began to see that for all the speculation, false leads, misinformation, and very interesting but irrelevant material, little of this information is actually evidence. When you focus on the evidence, a great deal of the information on the JFK assassination becomes peripheral. Too many researchers have tried to solve this case backwards, by first identifying a suspect and then coming up with a scenario in which that person is responsible for the assassination. That's not the way murders are solved. Instead, a homicide detective starts at the crime scene and moves out from there, listening to the evidence and following where it leads him. Although there are all sorts of issues over which we might never agree -- like whether JFK was a great president or nothing more than a charming playboy -- the question of who killed him can be answered, even at this late date. The murder of Lee Harvey Oswald deprived us of a trial that might have determined whether he had a role in the crime and/or any possible conspiracy. And all the subsequent controversy has made it difficult to sift through the available information and decide what is fact and what is fiction. Still, I believe it is possible and necessary to solve this case. There are some mysteries in life that can never be solved. But murder is simple. Even this one.