Reasonable Doubt: An Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. By Henry Hurt. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $19.95

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In September 1964 a special commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, having investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, reported its conclusions: Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, murdered Kennedy; Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald two days later on national television, also acted alone. Few people who’ve gone into the matter believe that the Warren Commission came anywhere near the truth.

According to the Commission, Oswald fired from a sixth-floor window at a moving target (the Presidential limousine) approximately 200 feet away. Using a low-grade World War II bolt-action rifle with a misaligned scope, he got off three shots in 5.6 seconds. His line of sight was obscured by an oak tree until a split-second before the first shot was fired, so he had virtually no time to aim. Nevertheless, he scored two lethal hits out of three attempts.

This scenario is incredible. In many subsequent tests no expert marksman could duplicate Oswald’s alleged achievement under conditions of equal difficulty. And Oswald was not an expert marksman; he was a poor one, according to his Marine commander, colleagues, and test records. In fact, only a minority of experts could even get off three shots in the required 5.6 seconds using Oswald’s rifle. It is likely that no one in the world was capable of the feat of marksmanship attributed by the Commission to Oswald. It is, at least, obvious that Oswald was not capable of it.

This objection by itself disposes of the Warren Commission’s main conclusion. But there is much more.

- The Commission claimed that one bullet blasted Kennedy’s skull and was itself destroyed by the impact. Another missed the limousine altogether and was never recovered. The third, which has come to be known as the Magic Bullet, hit Kennedy in the back, turned upward while passing through his body, and exited through his neck, changed direction again in midair and entered Governor John Connally, smashed Connally’s rib, exited his chest, and finally shattered his wrist. This bullet (Commission Exhibit 399) was later found on a stretcher in the hospital where Kennedy and Connally were brought. It was in pristine condition, having suffered virtually no deformation or weight loss. All of this, like Oswald’s superhuman marksmanship, is a fiat physical impossibility.

- Every doctor who examined Kennedy before the official autopsy stated that the neck wound was an entrance wound, which means that he was shot from the front—i.e., not by Oswald.

- There is a fairly high-quality home movie of the assassination, which shows Kennedy’s head hurtling backward from the impact of a bullet. Notwithstanding sophistical attempts to explain it away as a bizarre neurological reaction, this head motion has made it unmistakably clear to the thousands of people who’ve seen the him that Kennedy was shot from the front.

- Most witnesses to the shooting, including police, looked or ran toward a grassy knoll in front of Kennedy, where the shots seemed to have come from—not toward the building at his rear where Oswald was supposedly firing.

Within two years of the Warren Report’s publication, Mark Lane, Sylvia Meagher, and others had exposed hundreds of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in it, and the number has risen during the last two decades. Moreover, the report and the investigation that preceded it were full not only of mistakes but also of misconduct. The autopsy notes were burned. The CIA withheld crucial information on Oswald’s background. The FBI harassed witnesses and falsified interview summaries. Commission counsel ignored or disparaged witnesses whose testimony did not fit the commission’s preconceived conclusions. Jack Ruby himself, who hinted at the existence of a conspiracy and pleaded for safe conduct to Washington so he could give further testimony, was refused.

Worse yet, since the Warren Report’s publication, the major government agencies have uniformly displayed what Henry Hurt, in “Reasonable Doubt”, describes as “appalling obdurateness” toward independent investigators. “Hardly a piece of useful evidence,” Hurt writes, “has come willingly from government coffers. Almost all of it has been fought for by researchers and lawyers who refused to accept the government’s simplistic explanations for withholding documents.” What’s most frightening about this chapter in American history is not that a President was assassinated by a conspiracy whose members and motives may never be known. (Though some people have made extremely plausible guesses: above all, Carl Oglesby in “The Yankee and Cowboy War.”) Leaders can be replaced in a functioning democracy. Nor is the most frightening thing that a commission of inquiry headed by a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court proved utterly biased and incompetent. Errors can be rectified in a functioning democracy. What’s most frightening is that government officials at all levels apparently regard citizen initiative as a threat to bureaucratic prerogative, as something to be deflected or damned down. So much for our functioning democracy.

“Reasonable Doubt" summarizes and updates the by-now classical critique or the Warren Commission Report. It also demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that “the government has never wanted to know any new information” about the JFK case that would distort the long-standing official version.” Hurt is thorough, accurate, judicious: it is hard to imagine a better introduction the whole subject or a more devastating indictment of official obfuscation. Equally deplorable, though barely mentioned by Hurt, is the history of thumbsucking on this question by the major media, especially “The New York Times” and CBS.

Hurt calls the Warren Commission’s investigation a “national disgrace,” but refrains from suggesting anything more sinister, and in particular professes himself agnostic about the nature of the assassination conspiracy. Carl Oglesby and others have shown, though, that considerations of means, motive, and opportunity point in one general direction: the clandestine right. Mapping this subculture—which included organized crime, parts of the Cuban exile community, and members of the CIA Operations Branch—was a prime achievement of the Warren Commission’s critics. Their collective efforts exposed an American heart of darkness which the rest of the political culture has yet to confront.

Hurt’s book does contain one sensational revelation, though he is careful not to exaggerate its credibility. For the first time, someone has confessed to participating in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. This person, a 59-year-old Mississippi man, is now seriously emotionally disturbed—institutionalized, in fact— But as Hurt shows, there is a core of verifiable detail to the man’s story that compels attention. Or would, if anyone except a dwindling bend of critics cared whether the events of November 22, 1963, signified an outburst of random violence or an attempted coup d’etat.


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George Scialabba