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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

"JFK: Destiny Betrayed" Misleads on JFK's Head Wound, Part Three

Screen shot from JFK: Destiny Betrayed

Oliver Stone's so-called documentary, JFK: Destiny Betrayed, misleads viewers on the opinions of Parkland Hospital doctors and Bethesda witnesses regarding JFK's head wound. Here is an excerpt from a transcript: (11:47 in episode two)

Dr. Gary Aguilar: The Warren Commission heard testimony from a number of witnesses, including Parkland doctors by the way, and including a Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, that the right rear quadrant of the head was missing.

Whoopi Goldberg: Hill was the only Secret Service agent to run to the presidential limousine during the shooting. He later said there was blood and brain tissue hurling back over the trunk of the car. And as he approached the president, he saw a large wound in the rear of the skull, which he could see through with no brain there.

Douglas Horne: The two FBI agents at the autopsy, Frank O'Neill and James Sibert, they reported what they heard during the autopsy, what they heard the pathologists say, specifically Dr. Humes. They were interviewed by Arlen Specter in early 1964. He proceeded to write very unfavorable comments about them in a summary memo for the record. We know with confidence why he didn't like what they had to say -- because they were providing evidence that the single-bullet theory could not be true.

Whoopi Goldberg: This was as far as the investigation would go. Neither Sibert nor O'Neill were asked to testify for the Warren Commission, and their written notes became classified. In 1997, their depositions were taken by the Assassination Records Review Board.

Douglas Horne: Both Sibert and O'Neill were shown the photographs of the back of JFK's head, the autopsy photographs that are the most controversial. And they both said that they didn't see anything like that at the autopsy. O'Neil had said "it looks like it's been doctored. I don't mean the photo's been doctored, it looks like the head has been put back together by embalmers and then photographed." That is what he said under oath. Sibert did not remember drawing a diagram of the wound for the House committee, so he drew a new one for the Review Board. and it's one of our most important wound diagrams. And it shows what can only be an exit defect in the right rear of the skull.

Sibert: There was a piece about the size of a 3x5 card that was missing.

Whoopi Goldberg: In 1979, the House Select Committee Report stated that 26 people present at the autopsy in Bethesda all disagreed with the Parkland doctors' descriptions of Kennedy's head wound.

Oliver Stone: When you went through the declassified affidavits that the House Select Committee prepared, what did you find about the alleged differences between the Parkland and Bethesda witnesses on this issue?

Dr. David Mantik: Not only were we allowed to see their statements, but we were allowed to see the sketches where they had drawn the big hole on the back of the head. And this was totally opposite of what the House Select Committee had told us.

Dr. Gary Aguilar: When the Assassination Records Review Board came along, out comes those witness statements, out come the diagrams, and lo and behold, it turns out that the witnesses at the autopsy all agreed with the doctors at Dallas that the defect involved the rear of the head. And the summary statement basically misrepresented that truth. They basically lied about what was there.

Dr. Aguilar claims that Clint Hill "saw a large wound in the rear of the skull which he could see through with no brain there." Here is an excerpt from his statement from November 30, 1963:

Given the fact that Hill was rather busy trying to help Jackie Kennedy back to her seat, it seems clear that Hill didn't have time to do a forensic examination. His description above is hardly at odds with what happened. He also told National Geographic that there was "a gaping hole above his right ear about the size of my palm." (from Inside the U.S. Secret Service 2004)

They were partners and yet their memories differ. This is not out of the ordinary -- witnesses frequently give differing accounts. It is a good illustration of why we needn't rely on non-medical witnesses for the evaluation of JFK's wounds when the autopsy x-rays and photographs are available for examination.

As for the doctors at Parkland Hospital, it is important to remember that they were trying frantically to resuscitate President Kennedy. It was not their job to examine wounds. A lot of people were in Trauma Room 1 and JFK was in there for less than twenty minutes. Here is a excerpt from testimony before the ARRB by Dr. Peters: (emphasis added)

Jeremy Gunn: Now, I am approaching this as a layperson, which may be good or may be bad. I would have imagined myself if I had seen President Kennedy in Trauma Room 1 and this part of the skull — the part that's within Line 1 of Dr. Boswell — if this were missing, I would imagine it would be noticeable to me as a layperson that there is severe damage to the skull. Is — would that be a misperception on my part?

Dr. Peters: Depends on which angle you approached him.

Dr. McClelland: From the front you might not —

Dr. Peters: right.

Dr. McClelland: — think that.

Dr. Peters: That's right.

Jeremy Gunn: So none of you made observations that would — or maybe the question is: Did any of you see any appearance of damage by looking just at the scalp and just at the hair that would suggest that that much of the skull was missing, or were you even in the position to be able to —

Dr. Jones: Well I think you could see the top part of the head reasonably well. He had a very thick bushy head of hair —

Dr. Peters: Yeah.

Dr. Jones: — and it was difficult to see down through the hair.

Dr. Baxter: All —

Dr. Jones: I didn't see any indentation of the skull or anything like half of the top of the head was missing.

Dr. Baxter: All matted with blood. Unless you were up there and directly examining it, I don't think anybody could make a statement from what I saw. I mean it was just one mass of blood and hair.

Dr. Peters: I was amazed when I saw the first x-ray of the skull — the lateral skull of the extent of the fragmentation of the skull. I did not appreciate that I think because a lot of it was covered by scalp at the time we worked on him. We were doing a resuscitation, not a forensic autopsy.

The problem with this segment in JFK: Destiny Betrayed is that we are dealing with human beings and their imperfect memories. The Parkland doctors saw this mass of matted hair and blood for a very short period of time. As you can expect, their recollections are all over the map and there is no unanimity of opinion.

The same goes for other witnesses like Secret Service agents, technicians at the autopsy, and other observers at Bethesda. Over time, their recollections change, and you can imagine that 30+ year old memories can tend to be erratic. John McAdams mentions this in his book, JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy: (page 28)

Since there are often different elements to the testimony of any witness, the odds are pretty good that most witnesses will be wrong about something. Thus even if you select random witnesses or the best witnesses, you can get a majority that support some wrong conclusions if you pick and choose among the elements of their testimony.

Here is an article that Dr. Aguilar has written about the various Parkland and Bethesda witnesses. John McAdams noted that Aguilar is "massively selective in the testimony he uses and quite tendentious in how he interprets it."

Here are some examples;

Jerrol Custer: He was an x-ray technician who told David Lifton that "he exposed, and returned to the morgue, X-rays showing that the rear of the President's head was blown off." Yet, here is his drawing for the ARRB of the head wound:

The wound is on the right side of Kennedy's head and excludes occipital bone.

Richard Lipsey: He was an aide to General Wehle and was present at the autopsy. Aguilar claims Lipsey corroborates the back of head wound witnesses, but it is not clear why. Lipsey told the HSCA that "one bullet entered the back of the head and exited resulting in part of the face and head being blown away." Here is his diagram:

His positioning of the head wounds is quite consistent with the autopsy.

Chester Boyers: He was the chief petty officer in charge of Bethesda's Pathology department. An HSCA staff record of a phone call reported that "In regard to the wounds Boyers recalls an entrance wound in the rear of the head to the right of the external occipital protuberance which exited along the top, right side of the head towards the rear [sic] and just above the right eyebrow." Once again, this sounds quite consistent with the autopsy x-rays and photographs.

John Stringer: He was the autopsy photographer. Aguilar quotes David Lifton asking Stringer, "In other words, the main part of his head that was blasted away was in the occipital part of the skull?" Stringer answers, "Yes. In the back part." Most of that interview is somewhat confusing. Here is what Stringer told the ARRB:

Stringer was also asked about his review of the autopsy x-rays and photographs in 1967:

Edward Reed: He was an x-ray technician at Bethesda. Aguilar quotes him telling Lifton that skull wound was "more posterior than anterior." Reed was interviewed by the ARRB:

General Philip Wehle: He was commanding officer of the military district of Washington, D.C. This is a very strange witness for Aguilar. He quotes Wehle saying he "noticed a slight bruise over the right temple of the President but did not see any significant damage to any other part of the head. He noted that the wound was in the back of the head so he would not see it because the President was lying face up." So, he didn't really see anything. According to the HSCA: "he did not see any damage to the top of the head, but said the President had a lot of hair which could have hidden that."

Even the diagrams used in JFK: Destiny Betrayed show different locations of the head wound:

But who am I to blather on? Here is Loftus' own summary of her findings, as published in her memoir, Witness for the Defense (1991): "As new bits and pieces of information are added into long-term memory, the old memories are removed, replaced, crumpled up, or shoved into corners. Memories don't just fade...they also grow. What fades is the initial perception, the actual experience of the events. But every time we recall an event, we must reconstruct the memory, and with each recollection the memory may be changed -- colored by succeeding events, other people's recollections or suggestions...Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but subjective, interpretive realities."
As a result, I'm forced to reject the primacy of the Parkland witnesses. Their statements have been erratic from the get-go, and have only grown more erratic over time. Those holding them up as a "smoking gun" in the JFK case both misrepresent the location of the wound described by the bulk of these witnesses, and the consistency of these witnesses as a whole. There's just no "there" there.

JFK: Destiny Betrayed never acknowledges the issue of human memory. The so-called documentary series is quick to credit the ARRB with discoveries that supposedly buttress conspiracy - but is not capable of admitting that the ARRB itself warned people about the issues of memory:

The deposition transcripts and other medical evidence that were released by the Review Board should be evaluated cautiously by the public. Often the witnesses contradict not only each other, but sometimes themselves. For events that transpired almost 35 years ago, all persons are likely to have failures of memory. It would be more prudent to weigh all of the evidence, with due concern for human error, rather than take single statements as “proof” for one theory or another.

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