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John F. Kennedy assassination

Related subjects Recent History

President Kennedy with his wife, Jacqueline, and Texas Governor John Connally in the presidential limousine shortly before his assassination
President Kennedy with his wife, Jacqueline, and Texas Governor John Connally in the presidential limousine shortly before his assassination

The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States, took place on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, USA at 12:30 p.m. CST (18:30 UTC). John F. Kennedy was fatally wounded by gunshots while riding with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in a Presidential Motorcade. The ten-month investigation of the Warren Commission of 1963–1964, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) of 1976–1979, and other government investigations concluded that the President was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. This conclusion was initially met with widespread support among the American public, but polls conducted after the original 1966 Gallup poll show a majority of the public hold beliefs contrary to these findings. The assassination is still the subject of widespread speculation and has spawned numerous conspiracy theories, though none of these theories has been proven.

Background of the visit

Kennedy had chosen to visit Dallas for three main reasons: to help generate more campaign funds in advance of the November 1964 presidential election; to begin his quest for re-election; and, because the Kennedy-Johnson ticket barely won Texas (and had lost Dallas) in 1960, to mend political fences among several leading Texas Democratic Party members who appeared to be fighting politically amongst themselves. The basic decision on the November trip to Texas was made at a meeting of President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally on June 5, 1963. The trip also included a first stop in Houston for a 3,200-person dinner for senior Congressman Albert Thomas, who was considering not seeking re-election. On September 26, 1963, the two daily Dallas newspapers confirmed plans of the November visit.

There were concerns about security, because as recently as October 24, 1963, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, had been jeered, jostled, struck by a protest sign, and spat upon during a visit to Dallas. The danger from a concealed sniper on the Dallas trip was also of concern. President Kennedy had mentioned it the morning he was assassinated, as had the Secret Service agents when they were fixing the motorcade route. The motorcade route was described in both Dallas newspapers on November 19, 1963, and a map of the route was published on November 21, 1963.

It was planned that Kennedy would travel from Love Field airport in a motorcade through downtown Dallas (including Dealey Plaza) to give a speech at the Dallas Trade Mart. The car in which he was traveling was a 1961 Lincoln Continental, open-top, modified limousine. A presidential car with a bulletproof top was not yet in service in 1963, although plans for such a top were presented in October 1963.


The route taken by the motorcade within Dealey Plaza (north is toward the almost direct-left)
The route taken by the motorcade within Dealey Plaza (north is toward the almost direct-left)

Just before 12:30 p.m. CST, Kennedy’s limousine entered Dealey Plaza and slowly approached the Texas School Book Depository head-on. Nellie Connally, wife of the governor, turned around to Kennedy, who was sitting behind her, and commented, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you," which President Kennedy acknowledged.

When the Presidential limousine turned and passed the Depository and continued down Elm Street, shots were fired at Kennedy; the great majority of witnesses recalled hearing three shots. There was hardly any reaction in the crowd to the first shot, many later saying they thought they had heard a firecracker or the exhaust backfire of a vehicle. President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, sitting beside his wife in front of the Kennedys in the limousine, both turned abruptly from looking to their left to looking to their right. Connally immediately recognized the sound of a high powered rifle. "Oh, no, no, no", he said as he turned further right, and then started to turn left, attempting to see President Kennedy behind him.

Elm Street seen from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository
Elm Street seen from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository

According to the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations, as President Kennedy waved to the crowds on his right, a shot entered his upper back, penetrated his neck, and exited his throat. He raised his clenched fists up to his neck and leaned forward and to his left, as Mrs. Kennedy put her arms around him in concern. Governor Connally also reacted, as the same bullet penetrated his back, chest, right wrist, and left thigh. He yelled, "My God, they are going to kill us all!"

The final shot took place when the Presidential limousine was passing in front of the John Neely Bryan north pergola concrete structure. As the shot was heard, a fist-size hole exploded out from the right side of President Kennedy's head, covering the interior of the car and a nearby motorcycle officer with blood and brain tissue.

Polaroid photo by Mary Moorman taken a fraction of a second after the fatal shot (detail)
Polaroid photo by Mary Moorman taken a fraction of a second after the fatal shot (detail)

Secret Service agent Clint Hill was riding on the left front running board of the car immediately behind the Presidential limousine. Sometime after the shot that hit the president in the back, Hill jumped off and ran to overtake the limousine. After the president had been shot in the head, Mrs. Kennedy climbed onto the rear of the limousine, though she later had no recollection of doing so. Hill believed she was reaching for something, perhaps a piece of the president's skull. He jumped onto the back of the limousine, pushed Mrs. Kennedy back into her seat, and clung to the car as it exited Dealey Plaza and sped to Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Others wounded

Governor Connally, riding in the same limousine in a seat in front of the President, was also critically injured but survived. Doctors later stated that after the governor was shot, his wife pulled him onto her lap, and the resulting posture helped close his front chest wound (which was causing air to be sucked directly into his chest around his collapsed right lung).

James Tague, a spectator and witness to the assassination, also received a minor wound to his right cheek while standing 270 feet (82 m) in front of where Kennedy was shot. The injury occurred when a bullet or bullet fragment struck a nearby curb.

Aftermath in Dealey Plaza

The Presidential limousine was passing a grassy knoll on the north side of Elm Street at the moment of the fatal head shot. As the motorcade left the plaza, police officers and spectators ran up the knoll and from a railroad bridge over Elm Street (the Triple Underpass), to the area behind a five-foot (1.5 m) high stockade fence atop the knoll, separating it from a parking lot. No sniper was found. S. M. Holland, who had been watching the motorcade on the Triple Underpass, testified that "immediately" after the shots were fired, he went around the corner where the overpass joined the fence but did not see anyone running from the area.

Lee Bowers, a railroad switchman sitting in a two-story tower, had an unobstructed view of the rear of the stockade fence atop the grassy knoll during the shooting. He saw a total of four men in the area between his tower and Elm Street: a middle-aged man and a younger man, standing 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 m) apart near the Triple Underpass, who did not seem to know each other, and one or two uniformed parking lot attendants. At the time of the shooting, he saw "something out of the ordinary, a sort of milling around", which he could not identify, but he did not see a gunman. Bowers testified that one or both of the men were still there when motorcycle officer Clyde Haygood ran up the grassy knoll to the back of the fence. In a 1966 interview, Bowers clarified that the two men he saw were on the opposite side of the stockade fence from him, and that no one was behind the fence at the time the shots were fired.

Howard Brennan sitting across from the Texas School Book Depository. Circle "A" indicates where he saw a man fire a rifle at the motorcade
Howard Brennan sitting across from the Texas School Book Depository. Circle "A" indicates where he saw a man fire a rifle at the motorcade

Meanwhile, Howard Brennan, a steamfitter who was sitting across the street from the Texas School Book Depository, notified police that as he watched the motorcade go by, he heard a shot come from above, and looked up to see a man with a rifle make another shot from a corner window on the sixth floor. He had seen the same man minutes earlier looking out the window. Brennan gave a description of the shooter, which was broadcast to all Dallas police at 12:45 p.m., 12:48 p.m., and 12:55 p.m.

As Brennan spoke to the police in front of the building, they were joined by Harold Norman and James Jarman, Jr., two employees of the Texas School Book Depository who had watched the motorcade from windows at the southeast corner of the fifth floor. The two reported that they and a third companion, Bonnie Ray Williams, heard three gunshots come from directly over their heads, and that plaster fell from the ceiling. Norman also heard the sounds of a bolt action rifle and those of cartridges dropping on the floor above them.

Estimates of when Dallas police sealed off the entrances to the Texas School Book Depository range from 12:33 to after 12:50 p.m.

Of the 104 earwitnesses in Dealey Plaza who are on record with an opinion as to the direction from which the shots came, 56 (53.8%) thought that they came from the direction of the Texas School Book Depository, 35 (33.7%) thought that they came from the area of the grassy knoll or the Triple Underpass, 8 (7.7%) thought the shots came from a location entirely distinct from the knoll or the Depository, and 5 (4.8%) thought they heard shots from two locations.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald, reported missing to the Dallas police by his supervisor at the Depository, was arrested an hour and 20 minutes after the assassination for killing a Dallas police officer, J.D. Tippit, who had spotted Oswald walking along a sidewalk. He was captured in a nearby movie theatre. Oswald resisted, attempting to shoot the arresting officer with a pistol, and was forcibly restrained by the police. He was charged with the murders of Tippit and Kennedy later that night. Oswald denied shooting anyone and claimed he was a patsy. Oswald's case never came to trial because two days later, while being escorted to an armored van for transfer from Dallas Police Headquarters to the Dallas County Jail, he was shot and killed by Jack Ruby.

Carcano rifle

A 6.5 x 52 mm Italian Carcano (sometimes improperly called a Mannlicher-Carcano) M91/38 bolt-action rifle was found on the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository by Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman and Deputy Sheriff Eugene Boone soon after the assassination of President Kennedy. The recovery was filmed by Tom Alyea of WFAA-TV. This footage shows the rifle to be a Mannlicher-Carcano, and it was later verified by photographic analysis commissioned by the HSCA that the rifle filmed was the same one later identified as the assassination weapon. Against the Oswald backyard photographs, "one notch in the stock at [a] point that appears very faintly in the photograph" matched, as well as the rifle's dimensions.

A bullet found on Connally's hospital stretcher was ballistically matched to this rifle. The previous March, the rifle had been bought by Lee Harvey Oswald under the name "A. Hidell" and delivered to a post office box in Dallas. According to the Warren Commission Report, a partial palm print of Oswald was also found on the barrel of the gun.

Kennedy declared dead in the emergency room

The staff at Parkland Hospital's Trauma Room 1 who treated Kennedy observed that his condition was " moribund", meaning that he had no chance of survival upon arriving at the hospital. Dr. George Gregory Burkley, determined the head wound was the cause of death. Dr. Burkley signed President Kennedy's death certificate.

At 1:00 p.m., CST (19:00 UTC), after all heart activity had ceased and after a priest administered the last rites, the President was pronounced dead. "We never had any hope of saving his life", one doctor said. The priest who administered the last rites to Kennedy told The New York Times that the President was already dead by the time he had arrived at the hospital, and he had to draw back a sheet covering the President's face to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction. Kennedy's death was officially announced by White House Acting Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff at 1:33 p.m. CST (19:33 UTC). Governor Connally, meanwhile, was taken to emergency surgery, where he underwent two operations that day.

Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as U.S. President aboard Air Force One in Dallas
Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as U.S. President aboard Air Force One in Dallas

A few minutes after 2:00 p.m. CST (20:00 UTC), and after a confrontation between Dallas police and Secret Service agents, Kennedy's body was placed in a casket and taken from Parkland Hospital and driven to Air Force One. The casket was then loaded aboard the airplane through the rear door, where it remained at the rear of the passenger compartment, in place of a removed row of seats. The body was removed before a forensic examination could be conducted by the Dallas County coroner, which violated Texas state law (the murder was a state crime and occurred under Texas legal jurisdiction). At that time, it was not a federal offense to kill the President of the United States.

Vice-President Johnson (who had been riding two cars behind Kennedy in the motorcade through Dallas and was not injured) became President of the United States upon Kennedy's death. At 2:38 p.m. Johnson took the oath of office on board Air Force One just before it departed Love Field.


Drawing depicting the posterior head wound of President Kennedy. Made from an autopsy photograph
Drawing depicting the posterior head wound of President Kennedy. Made from an autopsy photograph

After Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, D.C., Kennedy's body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an immediate autopsy. The autopsy (about 8 to 11 p.m. EST on November 22) was followed by embalming and cosmetic funeral preparation (about 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.) in the morgue at Bethesda, in a room adjacent to the autopsy theatre. This was done by a team of private mortuary personnel, who made an unusual trip to the hospital for this procedure. The autopsy of President Kennedy performed the night of November 22 at the Bethesda Naval Hospital led the three examining pathologists to conclude that the bullet wound to the head was fatal, and the bullet had:

"[E]ntered Kennedy's head through a small hole in the scalp in the rear of the president's head, on the right hand side'.... [with a] final exit of this missile, or fragments of it, through a large lateral defect in the right parietal region of the skull over the right ear".

The report addressed a second missile which "entered Kennedy's upper back above the shoulder blade, passed through the strap muscles at the base of his neck, bruising the upper tip of the right lung without puncturing it, then exiting the front (anterior) neck", in a wound that was destroyed by the tracheotomy incision. This autopsy finding was not corroborated by the President's personal physician, Dr Burkley, who recorded, on the death certificate, a bullet to have hit Kennedy at "about" the level of the third thoracic vertebra (Image). Supporting this location along with the bullet hole in the shirt worn by Kennedy (Image) and the bullet hole in the suit jacket worn by Kennedy (Image) which show bullet holes between 5 and 6 inches (12.5-15 cm) below Kennedy's collar (Image). However, photographic analysis of the motorcade, including a new pre-assassination film released in 2006 (colour film), shows that the President's jacket was bunched below his neckline, and was not lying smoothly along his skin, so the clothing measurements have been subject to historical criticism as being untrustworthy on the matter of the exact location of the back wound. Dr. J. Thornton Boswell's face sheet diagram from the autopsy sheet is sometimes used to support a lower back wound (Image). However, in 1966 Boswell noted that this drawing was never intended to be scale-exact, and he re-drew it for the benefit of The Baltimore Sun on November 25, 1966, placing an X at the higher spot (Image). Boswell stated that his measurements of 5.5 inches(14 cm) from the ear and shoulder properly locate the wound, and these are inconsistent with a wound at the third thoracic vertebra. Moreover, all three Bethesda doctors authenticated for the HSCA autopsy photographs showing an entry wound at the level of C6 (the sixth cervical vertebra, at the base of the neck), which is the entry level as determined by the HSCA investigation on the basis of photographic and X-ray evidence from the autopsy.

Later federal agencies such as the Assassination Records Review Board criticized the autopsy on several grounds including destruction from burning of the original draft of the autopsy report and notes taken by Cmdr. James Humes at the time of the autopsy, and failure to maintain a proper chain of custody of all of the autopsy materials.


The President's body was then brought back to the White House and placed in the East Room in a closed casket for 24 hours but was privately and briefly viewed during this time by the Kennedy family and some close friends. The Sunday following the assassination, his flag-draped closed casket was moved to the Capitol for public viewing. Throughout the day and night, hundreds of thousands lined up to view the guarded casket.

Representatives from over 90 countries, including the Soviet Union, attended the funeral on November 25 (which was his son's third birthday). After the service, the casket was taken by caisson to Arlington National Cemetery for burial.

Recordings of the assassination

Dealey Plaza, with Elm Street on the right and the underpass in the middle
Dealey Plaza, with Elm Street on the right and the underpass in the middle

No radio or television stations broadcasted the assassination live because the area through which the motorcade was traveling was not considered important enough for a live broadcast. Most media crews were not even with the motorcade but were waiting instead at the Dallas Trade Mart in anticipation of Kennedy's arrival. Those members of the media that were with the motorcade were riding at the rear of the procession.

The Dallas police were recording their radio transmissions over two channels. A frequency designated as Channel One was used for routine police communications. A second channel, designated Channel Two, was an auxiliary channel, which was dedicated to the president's motorcade. Up until the time of the assassination, most of the broadcasts on this channel consisted of Police Chief Jesse Curry's announcements of the location of the motorcade as it wound through the streets of Dallas.

Looking south, with the pergola and knoll behind the photographer: the X on the street marks the position of the final head shot (photo taken in July 2006)
Looking south, with the pergola and knoll behind the photographer: the X on the street marks the position of the final head shot (photo taken in July 2006)

President Kennedy's last seconds traveling through Dealey Plaza were recorded on silent 8 mm film for the 26.6 seconds before, during, and immediately following the assassination. This famous film footage was taken by garment manufacturer and amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder, in what became known as the Zapruder film. Frame enlargements from the Zapruder film were published by Life magazine shortly after the assassination. The footage was repeatedly shown on television, starting in 1975, sometimes omitting the fatal head shot.

Zapruder was not the only one who photographed at least part of the assassination. A total of 32 photographers were in Dealey Plaza. Amateur movies taken by Orville Nix, Marie Muchmore, and Charles Bronson (not the actor) captured the fatal shot, although at a greater distance than Zapruder. Other motion picture films were taken in Dealey Plaza at or around the time of the shooting by Robert Hughes, F. Mark Bell, Elsie Dorman, John Martin Jr., Patsy Paschall, Tina Towner, James Underwood, Dave Wiegman, Mal Couch, Thomas Atkins, and an unknown woman in a blue dress on the south side of Elm Street. Still photos were taken by Phillip Willis, Mary Moorman, Hugh W. Betzner Jr., Wilma Bond, Robert Croft, and many others. The lone professional photographer in Dealey Plaza who was not in the press cars was Ike Altgens, photo editor for the Associated Press in Dallas.

An unidentified woman, nicknamed the Babushka Lady by researchers, might have been filming the presidential motorcade during the assassination because she was seen apparently doing so on film and photographs taken by the others.

Previously unknown, colour footage filmed on the assassination day by George Jefferies was released on February 20, 2007 by the Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas, Texas. The film does not include depiction of the actual shooting, having been taken roughly 90 seconds beforehand and a couple of blocks away. The only detail relevant to the investigation of the assassination is a clear view of Kennedy's bunched suit jacket, just below the collar, which has led to different calculations about how low in the back Kennedy was first shot (see discussion above).

Official investigations

Dallas Police

After arresting Oswald and collecting physical evidence at the crime scenes, the Dallas Police held Oswald at the police headquarters for interrogation. Oswald was questioned all afternoon about both the Tippit shooting and the assassination of the President. He was questioned intermittently for approximately 12 hours between 2:30 p.m., on November 22, and 11 a.m., on November 24. Throughout this interrogation Oswald denied any involvement with either the assassination of President Kennedy or the murder of Patrolman Tippit. Captain Fritz of the homicide and robbery bureau did most of the questioning, keeping only rudimentary notes. Days later he wrote a report of the interrogation from notes he made afterwards. There were no stenographic or tape recordings. Representatives of other law enforcement agencies were also present, including the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, and occasionally participated in the questioning. Several of the FBI agents present wrote contemporaneous reports of the interrogation.

During the evening of November 22, the Dallas Police Department performed paraffin tests on Oswald's hands and right cheek in an apparent effort to determine, by means of a scientific test, whether Oswald had recently fired a weapon. The results were positive for the hands and negative for the right cheek. However, because of the unreliability of these tests, the Warren Commission did not rely on the results of the test in making their findings.

Oswald provided little information during his questioning. Frequently, however, he was confronted with evidence which he could not explain, and he resorted to statements which were found to be false. Dallas authorities were not able to complete their investigation into the assassination of Kennedy because of interruptions from the FBI and the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby.

FBI investigation

The FBI was the first authority to complete an investigation. On November 24, 1963, just hours after Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered, FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, said that he wanted "something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin." On December 9, 1963, only 17 days after the assassination, the FBI report was issued and given to the Warren Commission. Then, the FBI stayed on as the primary investigating authority for the commission.

The FBI stated that only three bullets were fired during the assassination; the Warren Commission agreed with the FBI investigation that only three shots were fired but disagreed with the FBI report on which shots hit Kennedy and which hit Governor Connally. The FBI report claimed that the first shot hit President Kennedy, the second shot hit Governor Connally, and the third shot hit Kennedy in the head, killing him. In contrast, the Warren Commission concluded that one of the three shots missed, one of the shots hit Kennedy and then struck Connally, and a third shot struck Kennedy in the head, killing him.

Criticism of FBI

The FBI's murder investigation was reviewed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979. The congressional Committee concluded:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation adequately investigated Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the assassination and properly evaluated the evidence it possessed to assess his potential to endanger the public safety in a national emergency.
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a thorough and professional investigation into the responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination.
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President.
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation was deficient in its sharing of information with other agencies and departments.

The FBI has received added scrutiny by Kennedy assassination researchers because of the actions of FBI agent James Hosty. Hosty appeared in Oswald's address book. The FBI provided to the Warren Commission a typewritten transcription of Oswald's address book, in which Hosty's name and phone number were omitted. Two days before the assassination, Oswald went to the FBI office in Dallas to meet with Hosty, and when he found that Hosty was not in the office at the time, Oswald left an envelope for Hosty with a letter inside. After Oswald was murdered by Jack Ruby, Hosty's supervisor ordered Hosty to destroy the letter, and he did so by tearing the letter up and flushing it down the toilet. Months later, when Hosty testified before the Warren Commission, he did not disclose this connection with Oswald. This information became public later and was investigated by the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations.

Criticism of Secret Service

Sgt. Davis, of the Dallas Police Department, believed he had prepared stringent security precautions, in an attempt to prevent demonstrations like those marking the Stevenson visit would not happen again. But Winston Lawson of the Secret Service, who was in charge of the planning, told the Dallas Police not to assign its usual squad of experienced homicide detectives to follow immediately behind the President's car. This police protection was routine for both visiting presidents and for motorcades of other visiting dignitaries. Police Chief Jesse Curry later testified that had his men been in place, the murder might have been prevented, because they carried submachine guns and rifles to take out any attackers, or at least they might have been able to stop Oswald before he left the building.

Warren Commission

The Warren Commission presents its report to President Johnson
The Warren Commission presents its report to President Johnson

The first official investigation of the assassination was established by President Johnson on November 29, 1963, a week after the assassination. The commission was headed by Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States and became universally (but unofficially) known as the Warren Commission.

In late September 1964, after a 10-month investigation, the Warren Commission Report was published. The Commission concluded that it could not find any persuasive evidence of a domestic or foreign conspiracy involving any other person(s), group(s), or country(ies). The Commission found that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the murder of Kennedy, and that Jack Ruby acted alone in the murder of Oswald. The theory that Oswald acted alone is informally called the Lone gunman theory. The commission also concluded that only three bullets were fired during the assassination and that Lee Harvey Oswald fired all three bullets from the Texas School Book Depository behind the motorcade. The Commission also laid out several scenarios concerning the timing of the shots, but that the three shots were fired in a time period ranging from approximately 4.8 to in excess of 7 seconds.

The commission also concluded that:

  • one shot likely missed the motorcade (it could not determine which of the three),
  • the first shot to hit anyone struck Kennedy in the upper back, exited near the front of his neck and likely continued on to cause all of Governor Connally's injuries, and
  • the last shot to hit anyone struck Kennedy in the head, fatally wounding him.

It noted that three empty shells were found in the sixth floor in the book depository, and a rifle identified as the one used in the shooting – Oswald's Italian military surplus 6.5x52 mm Model 91/38 Carcano – was found hidden nearby. The Commission offered as a likely explanation that the same bullet that wounded Kennedy also caused all of Governor Connally's wounds. This single bullet then backed out of Connally's left thigh and was found on a stretcher in the hospital. This theory has become known as the " single bullet theory" or the "magic" bullet theory (as it is commonly referred to by its critics and detractors).

The Commission also looked into other matters beside who killed the President and criticized weaknesses in security, which has resulted in greatly increased security whenever the President travels. The unpublished supporting documents for the Warren Commission Report are due to be released by 2017. The Commission's unpublished records were initially sealed for 75 years (to 2039) under a general National Archives policy that applied to all federal investigations by the executive branch of government, a period "intended to serve as protection for innocent persons who could otherwise be damaged because of their relationship with participants in the case.”

Public response to the Warren Report

Almost immediately after the Warren Commission Report was issued, some began seriously questioning its conclusions. A multitude of books and articles criticizing the Warren Commission's findings have been written. The Commission's conclusions have also gradually but continually lost widespread acceptance from the American public and various prominent government officials. Yet subsequent reinvestigations by special panels on the Kennedy assassination have, with one exception – the HSCA's controversial Dictabelt evidence – come to the same main conclusions as the Warren Commission did in 1964.

Ramsey Clark Panel

In 1968 a panel of four medical experts appointed by Attorney General Ramsey Clark met in Washington, D.C. to examine various photographs, X-ray films, documents, and other evidence pertaining to the death of President Kennedy. The Clark Panel determined that Kennedy was struck by two bullets fired from above and behind him, one of which traversed the base of the neck on the right side without striking bone and the other of which entered the skull from behind and destroyed its upper right side. The chain of custody of the evidence on which the panel reached its conclusions has been called into question. Clark raised this issue with President Johnson. In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations subjected the photos and X-rays from the autopsy to scientific investigation by a panel of experts and concluded the materials were authentic. However, in contrast with this view, the Assassination Records Review Board said in 1998: "[T]he persons handling the autopsy records did not create a complete and contemporaneous accounting of the number of photographs nor was a proper chain of custody established for all of the autopsy materials."

Rockefeller Commission

The U.S. President's Commission on CIA activities within the United States was set up under President Gerald Ford in 1975 to investigate the activities of the CIA within the United States. The commission was led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and is sometimes referred to as the Rockefeller Commission.

Part of the commission's work dealt with the Kennedy assassination, specifically the head snap as seen in the Zapruder film (first shown to the general public in 1975), and the possible presence of E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis in Dallas. The commission concluded that neither Hunt nor Sturgis were in Dallas at the time of the assassination, and that the head snap did not necessarily imply a shot from the front.

House Select Committee on Assassinations

Fifteen years after the Warren Commission issued its report, a congressional committee named the House Select Committee on Assassinations reviewed the Warren Commission report and the underlying FBI report on which the Commission heavily relied. The Committee criticized the performance of both the Warren Commission and the FBI for failing to investigate whether other people conspired with Oswald to murder President Kennedy. The Committee Report concluded that:

"[T]he FBI's investigation of whether there had been a conspiracy in President Kennedy's assassination was seriously flawed. The conspiracy aspects of the investigation were characterized by a limited approach and an inadequate application and use of available resource." (footnote 12)

The Committee found the Warren Commission's investigation equally flawed: "[T]he subject that should have received the Commission's most probing analysis — whether Oswald acted in concert with or on behalf of unidentified co-conspirators the Commission's performance, in the view of the committee, was in fact flawed." (footnote 13)

The Committee believed another primary cause of the Warren Commission's failure to adequately probe and analyze whether or not Oswald acted alone arose out of the lack of cooperation by the CIA. Finally, the Committee found that the Warren Commission inadequately investigated for a conspiracy because of: "[T]ime pressures and the desire of national leaders to allay public fears of a conspiracy."

The committee concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots at President John F. Kennedy. The second and third shots he fired struck the President. The third shot he fired killed him. The HSCA agreed with the single bullet theory but concluded that it occurred at a time during the assassination that differed from what the Warren Commission had theorized. Their theory, based primarily on Dictabelt evidence, was that President Kennedy was assassinated probably as a result of a conspiracy. They proposed that four shots had been fired during the assassination; Oswald fired the first, second, and fourth bullets, and that (based on the acoustic evidence) there was a high probability that an unnamed second assassin fired the third bullet, but missed, from President Kennedy's right front, from a location concealed behind the grassy knoll picket fence.

Many years after the House Select Committee on Assassinations issued its report, the attorney G. Robert Blakey for the House Select Committee on Assassinations issued a statement to the news media calling into question the honesty of the CIA in its dealings with the Committee and the accuracy of the information given to it.

Response to the Dictabelt evidence

Blakey told ABC News that the conclusion that a conspiracy existed in the assassination was established by both witness testimony and acoustic evidence:

The shot from the grassy knoll is not only supported by the acoustics, which is a tape that we found of a police motorcycle broadcast back to the district station. It is corroborated by eyewitness testimony in the plaza. There were 20 people, at least, who heard a shot from the grassy knoll.

The sole acoustic evidence relied on by the committee to support its conclusion of a fourth gunshot (and a gunman on the grassy knoll) in the JFK assassination, was a Dictabelt recording alleged to be from a stuck transmitter on a police motorcycle in Dealey Plaza during the assassination. The evidence was presented by Mark R. Weiss and Ernest Aschkenasy, acoustical experts from Queens College, who would later become part of the 1974 panel that concluded that the 18½ minute gap in the Watergate tapes was because that section was erased.

After the committee finished its work, however, an amateur researcher listened to the recording and discovered faint crosstalk of transmissions from another police radio channel known to have been made a minute after the assassination. Further, the Dallas motorcycle policeman thought to be the source of the sounds followed the motorcade to the hospital at high speed, his siren blaring, immediately after the shots were fired. Yet the recording is of a mostly idling motorcycle, eventually determined to have been at JFK's destination, the Dallas Trade Mart, miles from Dealey Plaza.

Several years later, in 1981, a special panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) disputed the evidence of a fourth shot, contained on the police Dictabelt. The panel concluded it was simply random noise, perhaps static, recorded about a minute after the shooting while Kennedy's motorcade was en route to Parkland Hospital.

The NAS experts, headed by physicist Norman F. Ramsey of Harvard, reached that conclusion after studying the sounds on the two radio channels Dallas police were using that day. Routine transmissions were made on Channel One and recorded on a Dictaphone machine at police headquarters. An auxiliary frequency, Channel Two, was dedicated to the president's motorcade and used primarily by Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry; its transmissions were recorded on a separate Gray Audograph disc machine.

The conclusion by the NAS was then rebutted in 2001 in a Science and Justice article by D.B. Thomas, a government scientist and JFK assassination researcher. Thomas concluded the HSCA finding of a second shooter was correct and that the NAS panel's study was flawed. Thomas surmises that the Dictaphone needle jumped and created an overdub on Channel One. In response to Thomas's findings, Michael O'Dell concluded in his report that the prior reports relied on incorrect timelines and made unfounded assumptions that, when corrected, do not support the identification of gunshots on the recording.

In 2003, ABC News aired the results of their investigation of the assassination in a news-documentary program called Peter Jennings Reporting: The Kennedy Assassination — Beyond Conspiracy. Based on computer diagrams and recreations done by Dale K. Myers, ABC News concluded that the sound recordings on the Dictabelt could not have come from Dealey Plaza and that the Police Officer H.B. McLain was correct in his assertions that he had not yet entered Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination.

In 2005, an article in Science & Justice by Ralph Linsker, Richard Garwin, Herman Chernoff, Paul Horowitz, and Norman Foster Ramsey, Jr. re-analyzed the acoustic synchronization evidence, rebutting Thomas' 2001 argument as well as correcting errors in the 1982 NAS report, while supporting the NAS report's finding that the sounds alleged to be gunshots occurred about a minute after the assassination. Followup articles in Science & Justice have been published.

Sealing of assassination records

All of the Warren Commission's records were submitted to the National Archives in 1964. The unpublished portion of those records was initially sealed for 75 years (to 2039) under a general National Archives policy that applied to all federal investigations by the executive branch of government, a period "intended to serve as protection for innocent persons who could otherwise be damaged because of their relationship with participants in the case.” The 75-year rule no longer exists, supplanted by the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 and the JFK Records Act of 1992. By 1992, 98% of the Warren Commission records had been released to the public. Six years later, at the conclusion of the Assassination Records Review Board's work, all Warren Commission records, except those records that contained tax return information, were available to the public with only minor redactions. The remaining Kennedy assassination related documents are scheduled to be released to the public by 2017, twenty-five years after the passage of the JFK Records Act.

Several pieces of evidence and documentation are described to have been lost, cleaned, or missing from the original chain of evidence (e.g., limousine cleaned out at hospital, Connally's suit dry-cleaned, Oswald's military intelligence file destroyed in 1973, Connally's Stetson hat and shirt sleeve gold cufflink missing, etc.)

On May 19, 2044, the 50th anniversary of the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, if her last child has died, the Kennedy library will release to the public a 500-page transcript of an oral history about John F. Kennedy given by Mrs. Kennedy before her death in 1994.

Assassination Records Review Board

The Assassination Records Review Board was not commissioned to make any findings or conclusions. Its purpose was to release documents to the public in order to allow the public to draw its own conclusions. From 1992 until 1998, the Assassination Records Review Board gathered and unsealed about 60,000 documents, consisting of over 4 million pages. All remaining documents are to be released by 2017.

Assassination theories

A handbill circulated on November 21, 1963, in Dallas one day before the assassination of John F. Kennedy
A handbill circulated on November 21, 1963, in Dallas one day before the assassination of John F. Kennedy

An official investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), conducted from 1976 to 1979, concluded that Oswald assassinated President Kennedy as a result of a probable conspiracy. This conclusion of a likely conspiracy contrasts with the earlier conclusion by the Warren Commission that the President was assassinated by a lone gunman.

In the ensuing four decades since the assassination, theories have been proposed or published that detail organized conspiracies to kill the President. These theories implicate, among others, Cuban President Fidel Castro, the anti-Castro Cuban community, President Johnson, the Mafia, the FBI, the CIA, the masonic order and the Soviet Bloc – or perhaps some combination of these.

Others claim that Oswald was not involved at all. Shortly after his arrest, Oswald insisted he was a " patsy". Oswald never admitted any participation in the assassination and was murdered two days after being taken into police custody.

Some polls indicate a large number of Americans are suspicious of official government conclusions – primarily the Warren Commission's findings – regarding the assassination. A 2003 ABC News poll found that 70% of respondents suspected there was an assassination plot. These same polls also show that there is no agreement on who else may have been involved.

President's motorcade

The motorcade consisted of numerous cars, police motorcycles and press buses:

  • The pilot car, a white Ford sedan: Dallas Police Deputy Chief George L. Lumpkin, Dallas homicide detectives Billy L. Senkel and F.M. Turner, and Lt. Col. George Whitmeyer, commander of the local Army Intelligence reserve unit.
  • Three two-wheel Dallas police motorcycle officers under the command of Sgt. S. Q. Bellah.
  • Five two-wheel motorcycle officers.
  • The lead car, an unmarked white Ford police sedan: Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry (driver), Secret Service Agent Winston Lawson (right front), Sheriff Bill Decker (left rear), Agent Forrest Sorrels (right rear).
  • Two-wheel motorcycle officer Sgt. Stavis "Steve" Ellis.
  • The presidential limousine, known to the Secret Service as SS-100-X (with District of Columbia license plate GG 300), a dark blue 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible: Agent Bill Greer (driver), Agent Roy Kellerman (right front), Nellie Connally (left middle), Texas Governor John Connally (right middle), First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (left rear), President Kennedy (right rear).
  • Four Dallas Police motorcycle escorts, two on each side of the presidential limousine, flanking the rear bumper: Billy Joe Martin and Robert W. “Bobby” Hargis (left), and James M. Chaney and Douglas L. Jackson (right).
  • Halfback (a Secret Service code name), a black 1955 Cadillac convertible: Agent Sam Kinney (driver), Agent Emory Roberts (right front), Agent Clint Hill (left front running board), Agent Bill McIntyre (left rear running board), Agent John D. Ready (right front running board), Agent Paul Landis (right rear running board), Presidential aide Kenneth O'Donnell (left middle), Presidential aide David Powers (right middle), Agent George Hickey (left rear), Agent Glen Bennett (right rear).
  • 1961 light blue Lincoln four door convertible: Hurchel Jacks of the Texas Highway Patrol (driver), Agent Rufus Youngblood (right front), Senator Ralph Yarborough (left rear), Lady Bird Johnson (centre rear), Vice-President Lyndon Johnson (right rear).
  • Varsity (Secret Service code name), a yellow 1963 Ford Mercury hardtop: Joe H. Rich of the Texas Highway Patrol (driver), Vice Presidential aide Cliff Carter (front middle), Secret Service agents Jerry Kivett (right front), Warren W. "Woody" Taylor (left rear), and Thomas L. "Len" Johns (right rear).
  • White 1963 Ford Mercury Comet convertible: Texas Highway Patrolman Milton T. Wright (driver), Dallas mayor Earle Cabell and his wife Elizabeth, and Congressman Ray Roberts.
  • National press pool car (on loan from the telephone company), a blue-gray 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan: telephone company driver; assistant White House press secretary Malcolm Kilduff (right front); Merriman Smith, UPI (middle front); Jack Bell, AP; Robert Baskin, Dallas Morning News; Bob Clark, ABC News (rear).
  • First camera car, a yellow 1964 Chevrolet Impala Convertible: a Texas Ranger (driver); David Wiegman Jr., NBC; Thomas J. Craven Jr., CBS; Thomas "Ollie" Atkins, White House photographer; John Hofan, an NBC sound engineer; Cleveland Ryan, a lighting technician.
  • Second camera car: Frank Cancellare, UPI; Cecil Stoughton, White House photographer; Henry Burroughs, AP; Art Rickerby, Life magazine; Donald C. “Clint” Grant, Dallas Morning News.
President Kennedy's motorcade on Main Street in Dallas, seen from the second camera car
President Kennedy's motorcade on Main Street in Dallas, seen from the second camera car
  • Dallas Police motorcycle escorts H.B. McLain and Marion L. Baker.
  • Third camera car, a Chevrolet convertible: driver from the Texas Department of Public Safety; photographer Robert H. Jackson, The Dallas Times Herald; photographer Tom Dillard, Dallas Morning News; Jimmy Darnell, WBAP-TV, Fort Worth; Mal Couch, WFAA-TV/ABC ; James R. Underwood, KRLD-TV.
  • First car of Congressmen.
  • Second car of Congressmen.
  • Third car of Congressmen.
  • VIP staff car carrying a governor's aide and the military and Air Force aides to the president.
  • Dallas Police motorcycle escorts J.W. Courson and C.A. Haygood.
  • First White House press bus: Mary Barelli Gallagher, Jacqueline Kennedy's personal secretary; Pamela Turnure, Jacqueline Kennedy's press secretary; Marie Fehmer Chiarodo, the Vice President's secretary; Liz Carpenter, staff director for Lady Bird Johnson; Jack Valenti, in charge of press relations during President Kennedy's visit to Texas; Robert MacNeil, NBC News; and a few others.
  • Local press car with four Dallas Morning News reporters.
  • Second White House press bus.
  • Dallas Police motorcycle escorts R. Smart and B.J. Dale.
  • Chevrolet sedan: Evelyn Lincoln, the President's personal secretary; Dr. George Burkley, the President's personal physician.
  • 1957 black Ford hardtop: Two representatives from Western Union.
  • 1964 white Chevrolet Impala: White House Signal Corps officer Art Bales; Army Warrant Officer Ira Gearhart.
  • 1964 white-top, dark-body Chevrolet Impala.
  • Third White House press bus: staff and members of the Democratic Party.
  • 1963 black and white Ford police car.
  • Solo three-wheel Dallas Police motorcycle escort.

Reaction to the assassination

In North America and around the world, there was a stunned reaction to the assassination. Schools across the U.S. and Canada dismissed their students early, and 54% of Americans stopped their normal activities on the day. In the days following people wept, lost their appetite, found difficulty sleeping, and suffered nausea, nervousness, and sometimes anger.

The event left a lasting impression on many people. It is said that everyone remembers where they were when they heard about the Kennedy assassination.

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