Monday, September 15, 2008

Bullet analysis casts doubt on lone gunman in JFK assassination

by MICHAEL E. YOUNG / The Dallas Morning News

Use the latest scientific techniques to poke a hole or two in official findings on the Kennedy assassination and suddenly you have lots of new friends – and lots of enemies.

Forty-five years after President John F. Kennedy was killed in a Dallas motorcade, the details surrounding his death remain topics of endless debate for those who see conspiracies and those who disagree.

Cliff Spiegelman will testify to that.

The professor of statistics at Texas A&M University organized a six-member team that compared the composition of bullet fragments from the JFK shooting with other bullets from the same manufacturer.

The group found that those fragments weren't nearly as rare as the government's expert witness concluded in 1976, when Dr. Vincent P. Guinn determined that all five fragments came from two bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald. A third shot missed.

"The claim was made that those five fragments could only have come from two bullets," Dr. Spiegelman said. "Our research showed it could have been two or more.

"And if it is more than two, there is an increased likelihood that someone else provided one of them."

Many of the test bullets showed the same "chemical composition," and one matched fragments from the assassination bullets, he said.

Hence the title of the group's paper: "Chemical and Forensic Analysis of JFK Assassination Bullet Lots: Is a Second Shooter Possible?" The team was honored by the American Statistical Association with its 2008 Statistics in Chemistry award.

The study doesn't say there were two or more gunmen, only that the single-gunman theory can't be supported by science.

Naturally, that triggered "a bit of a buzz," said Gary Mack, curator of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

"The no-conspiracy folks, they accepted [Dr. Guinn's] analysis without too much questioning," Mr. Mack said. "But others wondered whether he knew what he was talking about. And the sharp ones were very skeptical that [the one-shooter findings] could be so definitive."

By allowing the possibility of multiple gunmen, the study quickly made the rounds on Internet sites and conspiracy bulletin boards.

"Do a search of 'Spiegelman and JFK' and see how many hits you get," Dr. Spiegelman said. "Depending on the day, it's somewhere between 50,000 and 90,000."

Many readers passed along their own theories.

A minister who had served in Central America told him that a former member of the mob confessed that he helped plan the assassination, Dr. Spiegelman said.

"I got a letter that said, 'Hey stupid, we had a coup. [Lyndon] Johnson did it.' "

A phone message from Australia promised to reveal the real killer only if Dr. Spiegelman called back.

And an elderly gent from West, Texas, said he found a weapon like Mr. Oswald's Carcano rifle in a hotel the day after the assassination. Would Dr. Spiegelman like to see it?

At the same time, others attacked details of the study, citing things like the bullets' manufacturer, mentioned at one point as Winchester, then as the Western Cartridge Co.

Stuart Wexler, a 32-year-old teacher from New Jersey, joined the team and provided the test bullets, acquired during a two-year search of eBay auctions, shooting sites and online newsgroups.

"Finding those bullets was incredibly tough," Mr. Wexler said. "There are a lot of Carcano rounds out there, but not a lot of Western Carcano rounds."

Yes, they were made by Western, which acquired Winchester in 1931, he said.

Even now, a year after the study's publication, Mr. Wexler is amazed at the response.

"There was a tremendous amount of buzz," he said. "Unfortunately, a number of the international headlines overstated our conclusions. Some of it was almost pure propaganda."

It reminded him of something he saw recently on the Onion, a satirical Internet site, in its summary of the news of 1963:

"Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons. President shot 129 Times from 43 Different Angles."

Source: Dallas Morning News

* * * * * *

[Editor's note: This is an old story. The scientific paper ("Chemical and Forensic Analysis of JFK Assassination Bullet Lots: Is A Second Shooter Possible?" by Cliff Spiegelman, William A. Tobin, William D. James, Simon J. Sheather, Stuart Wexler and D. Max Roundhill) published in The Annals of Applied Science in 2007 (Vol.1, No.2, 287-301) concluded:

"...The calculations above show that it is not possible from the compositional bullet lead analysis to conclude that there were only two bullets as the source of the five assassination fragments as Dr. [Vincent]Guinn testified [in 1979]. The answer could change dramatically depending upon assumptions. By reanalyzing the JFK bullet fragments to measure more elements, it may be possible to provide substantial evidence of more than two bullets as the source of the assassination fragments if there were, in fact, more than two bullets used. However, if bullets came from the same box, clear evidence of more than two bullets may not be present because many bullets in the same box typically have similar chemical compositions...Given the significance and impact of the JFK assassination, it is scientifically desirable for the evidentiary fragments to be reanalyzed." [emphasis added]

In short, a chemical reanalysis of the metallic composition of the bullet fragments from the Kennedy assassination might determine whether there were more than two bullets present among the fragments.

Of course, all of the other physical evidence recovered from the crime scene shows that only one rifle, Lee Harvey Oswald's 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano, was used in the slaying and that two of his three shots struck the occupants of the presidential limousine.

Thus, the 2007 Spiegelman et al report does not contradict the lone gunman theory, it only says that a further analysis of the compositional makeup of the Kennedy bullet fragments might show that the fragments came from more than the two known bullets. Might....

Considering the strength of the physical case against lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald in all other respects, I think it is doubtful that a further analysis will disprove what we already know to be scientifically true - three shots, two hits - though I remain open to and interested in any further analysis that can add to our knowledge of the case.

In the meantime, the continual resurrection of this 2007 story, recast as a significant advancement in our knowledge of the facts of the case and presented as if it casts serious doubt on Oswald's sole guilt
(especially ridiculous and unsupportable statements like: "...the single-gunman theory can't be supported by science..."), only feeds the public's insatiable appetite for the sensational. - DKM]


Raymond Grant said...

"Of course, all of the other physical evidence recovered from the crime scene shows that only one rifle, Lee Harvey Oswald's 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano, was used in the slaying. . ."
Dale, if I may call you that, several aspects of the head shot ballistics are not exactly a slam-dunk, the trajectory for one, the size of the entrance hole (6mm in the original autopsy, 8mm as apparently corrected by The Panel) for a second, but most significantly the behavior of the bullet once it entered the skull. A steel-jacketed round is specifically DESIGNED not to fragment, and the MCs have been demonstrated to break up, when they do, into a handful of relatively large pieces and perhaps a few grains here and there (as were found in Connally's wrist). But nothing like the "lead snowstorm" effect found in JFK's skull. An MC round tends to perforate without leaving a trail; the round that hit Kennedy's skull disintegrated & left a very discernible path. If it came from Oswald's rifle, would it be fair to say it MIGHT have acted a bit out of character? Still, I'm not the expert on the case that you are, so I speak to be instructed.
Take care,

Dale K. Myers said...

The 6mm autopsy figure you cited was the measurement obtained from the actual skull bone by pathologists Humes, Boswell and Fink. It wasn't 6.5mm (the actual diameter of the bullet) because the elasticity of the skull bone caused the bone to shrink slightly after the bullet penetrated the skull. This is a normal occurrence.

The 8mm figure you cited was the measurement obtained from a photograph of the scalp wound by the HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel.

It is true that a full metal jacketed bullet was designed not to fragment when passing through soft tissue at high velocity, or bone at low velocity.

However, the full metal jacketed round that struck the President's head made impact traveling at nearly 1800 feet-per-second, just 200 feet-per-second shy of the full muzzle velocity of Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, and immediately encountered dense skull bone. Further, the bullet hit the skull bone at an obtuse angle. Because of the angle, the speed, and the encounter with dense skull bone, the metal jacket surrounding the missile ruptured, exposing its lead core. The bullet and its exposed core continued to break up as it passed through the President's brain, leaving a trail of fine, dust-like fragments. Two large mangled fragments representing the nose and base of that full metal jacketed bullet were later found on the floor of the limousine.

By contrast, Governor Connally's right wrist radius bone (a less dense bone than skull bone) was struck sideways by a bullet traveling at just 1000-800 feet-per-second, a velocity much lower than the bullet that struck the President's head. The Connally wrist bullet was traveling slower because it had previously passed through the soft tissue of the President's neck and tumbled through the Governor's chest. Consequently, because of its slower speed, the side impact angle, and the reduced density of the wrist bone (as compared to skull bone) it encountered - this full metal jacketed bullet - dubbed the single bullet - suffered far less fragmentation.

Raymond Grant said...

Parenthetically, the 8mm figure is from the panel appointed by AG Ramsey Clark in 1967 to review the autopsy findings, and I believe they arrived at that result by measuring from an x-ray.

Some pathologists believe the elasticity of skull bone around a bullet wound can be compromised by the impact of the bullet (speed/jacket durability). I. e., a rifle round will tend to pulverize the area around the entry point & thus leave a wound larger than the bullet circumference, whereas a round from a handgun will have a low enough energy that the bone can snap back & leave a smaller hole.

In any case, these two arguments would seem to be at odds with each other. The skull is flexible enough to recover (somewhat) from the impact at the entry point, but inflexible enough that it causes a full metal jacket bullet to behave like hunting ammo. If a bullet leaves a hole smaller than itself, wouldn't it end up perforating? If it's going to fragment, wouldn't it do that at the point of impact?

Gerald Posner, in Case Closed, mentions the remarkable durability of the Mannlicher-Carcano round. The test firings conducted by The Warren Commission seem to back this up; in fact, I'm unaware of any test firings that show the bullet behaving as it does in JFK's skull.

Granted, most of the test information available on the web has to be taken with a grain of salt, as it appears on conspiracy theory blogs. Can you suggest any research that backs your bullet ballistics up?

The fragments found in the President's car were, as far as I know, devoid of any blood or brain tissue. Is this consistent with similar fragments that have passed through an actual person's head (say, in combat)?

Dale K. Myers said...

You’re right. The 8mm figure came from the Clark Panel in 1967. However, the panel reported that the 8mm figure was obtained from one of the lateral X-rays of the skull, later writing that the entrance wound was “a hole measuring approximately 8 mm in diameter on the outer surface of the skull and as much as 20 mm on the internal surface” as seen in profile. Obviously the 8mm figure could not have related to the width of the entrance hole since the lateral (side) X-ray would only have shown the depth and/or vertical length of the wound – which was described earlier by the original pathologists as “15 by 6 millimeters” in size. The HSCA Forensic Panel did not offer a dimension for the skull wound.

For information on the wounding characteristics of Mannlicher-Carcano rounds, I suggest
Larry M. Sturdivan’s excellent book, The JFK Myths (Paragon House 2005).

As to the fragments found in the limousine, human tissue was found on one of them – CE567 (the nose of the head bullet) – the only one ever tested for human tissue that I am aware of. The lab results can be found here.