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Bedrock Evidence in the Kennedy Assassination

by Josiah Thompson

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What kind of questions can the photo record from Dealey Plaza answer and what questions can it not answer?

Obviously, this record can only answer questions concerning what happened in Dealey Plaza that November day so many years ago. It cannot help untangle the ever-growing morass of conspiracy theories trumpeted in tabloid style by people who know little and care less about what actually happened that day. Nor, by itself, can the photo record tell us the complete story of what happened. The photo record is accidental and for that reason fragmentary. Many of the photographers were amateurs and limited by their equipment. Accordingly, the photo record from Dealey Plaza can be used to limit the parameters of speculation concerning what happened while, at the same time, confirming or disconfirming specific facts.

Marilyn Sitzman was standing on the pedestal steadying the position of her boss, Abraham Zapruder. She was then in a position to observe what happened and was never questioned by the Warren Commission. With this in mind, I carried out a tape-recorded interview with her in the fall of 1966.

There were no dramatic surprises in what Sitzman told me. She did, however, mention one new fact. There was a young black couple sitting on a bench just to her right eating their lunch out of paper sacks and drinking cokes. Just after Kennedy was hit in the head, the young black couple threw down their cokes and recoiled in the direction away from Elm Street. They ran back along the sidewalk into the gap between the stockade fence and the pergola and disappeared.

Figure 26. Press photo of bench with lunch bags being examined by two plainclothes officers on afternoon of November 22nd. (view enlarged version)

This black couple have never been identified. If their presence near the bench described by Sitzman could be confirmed it would impeach the claim that a shooter was either in that location or in line with it behind the stockade fence.

Richard Trask discovered an 8" by 10" print in the files of the The Dallas Morning News taken by press photographer Johnny Flynn on the afternoon of November 22nd. It shows two plainclothes detectives going through lunch bags left on a bench immediately adjacent to the pedestal on which which Zapruder and Sitzman stood. The photo is of such high resolution that one can discern the time shown on one of their watches; it was 2:17 PM. One of the detectives is Clinton L. "Lummy" Lewis.

The fact that a black couple was close to Sitzman at this location during the shooting may possibly also explain the identity of the indistinct dark shape given the name "black dog man" which appears near the end of the concrete wall in Willis 5 and other photos. It is perfectly plausible that either one or both of the young people might have moved forward ten or fifteen feet to better view the motorcade. If so, the mystery surrounding this shape may also dissipate with Trask's find. It is precisely this kind of detailed corroboration that the photo record from Dealey Plaza can provide.

Admittedly, placing a young couple at this location does not advance our knowledge of what happened in Dealey Plaza a great deal. The information contained in other parts of the photo record from Dealey Plaza does.

James Altgens took one of the most famous photographs of the assassination from his position midway down Elm Street. As a professional press photographer, Altgens got his exposure and focus just right. The result is a photograph of incredible detail which has been determined to be coincident with Zapruder frame 255. Of great importance is the fact that the Altgens photo shows the windshield of the limousine undamaged at this point.

Altgens also took a second photograph, seconds later after the limousine headed into the darkness of the underpass. It shows the tell-tale damage to the windshield just to the side of rear-view mirror where a later FBI investigation found the windshield cracked but not penetrated. Lead residue was found on the interior surface of the windshield. From this comparison of photos, it is possible to infer that the windshield was hit from the rear by a bullet fragment at some time after Zapruder frame 255. This fact establishes a parameter for any attempted reconstruction of the crime.

Figure 27. Cropped Altgens photo taken at Z-255. Note undamaged windshield. (view enlarged version)

Figure 28. Enlarged Altgens photo taken at Z-255. Note undamaged windshield. (view enlarged version)

Figure 29. Second Altgens photo. Note damage to windshield (arrow). (view enlarged version)

Figure 30. Lead on inner surface and cracks on outer surface of windshield. No hole. (view enlarged version)

However, the most dramatic results of studying the photo record from Dealey Plaza may come from new insights into the timing and character of the wounds to the President.

Many years ago, I concluded that the President had been struck twice in the head within approximately one-ninth of a second between Zapruder frames 312 and 314. The first shot pushed his head forward approximately two inches between frames 312 and 313. The second shot bowled him over backwards and to the left.

Although it remained a remarkable coincidence that two shots would arrive on their target from different locations and distances within one-ninth of a second, this conclusion was compelled by what I measured on sequential frames of the Zapruder film. Using two points on the back of the limousine, I measured the distance between these points and the back of the President's head. Between frames 312 and 313, this distance increased dramatically by two inches. The only way to explain this extraordinary acceleration of the President's head was to suppose he had been hit by a bullet fired from the rear.

Figure 31. Z-312. Note no smear.

Figure 32. Z-313. Note horizontal smear.

In the years since those measurements were made, I've learned I was wrong. Z312 is a clear frame while Z313 is smeared along a horizontal axis by the movement of Zapruder's camera. The white streak of curb against which Kennedy's head was measured is also smeared horizontally and this gives rise to an illusory movement of the head. Art Snyder of the Stanford Linear Accelerator staff persuaded me several years ago that I had measured not the movement of Kennedy's head but the smear in frame 313. The two-inch forward movement was just not there.

Since that time, David Wimp has made extremely careful measurements on the film. He has determined that the upper bodies of the President and all other occupants of the limousine begin moving forward at about Z308. Except for the President, all the others keep moving forward until at least Z317. The President, of course, is bowled over backward and to the left. This retrograde motion begins at about Z314.

Figure 33. David Wimp GIF showing movement of occupants of limousine Z-308 through Z-317. (click to view animated sequence)

Why do everyone else in the limousine shift forward at Z308? We can see that the driver, William Greer, turned around and looked into the back seat just before this happened. Did he tap the brake pedal with his foot when he turned? We cannot know for certain but such a tap would explain fully what we see in the film. And why does the President jerk backward and to the left just after Z313? Because his head took a bullet fired from the right front.

If the President was struck in the head by a bullet from the rear, when did this happen? As we see, there is no longer any evidence that it happened between Z312 and Z313. Did it happen before Z312? The film indicates "No." Did it happen after Z313? By Z333 Kennedy's body is so low in the limousine that his head could not have been hit by a bullet from the rear. Hence, if Kennedy's head was hit by a bullet from the rear it must have occurred in the twenty frames that succeeded Z313. Once again, the Zapruder film may help us answer the question. By a close study of the film, Keith Fitzgerald has observed a number of clues in the sequence of frames following Z327 that a second hit to the head occurred here. It is too early to say that this has been confirmed but this may well be the case.

The observational studies mentioned above show what still can be learned from a careful examination of the films and photos from Dealey Plaza. A shot at Z313 from the right front and a second shot from the north end of Elm Street at Z328 would match exactly what the acoustics evidence tells us. By combining the acoustics evidence with the self-authenticating record of the films and photos taken in Dealey Plaza, we may be on our way to laying down a time-line for the event.

The efforts of those who sought to show the Zapruder film was a fake have produced unanticipated results. The failure of their effort has disclosed a region of evidence in the case which is incontrovertibly genuine. This evidence, in turn, can be used to test the authenticity of other evidentiary elements. In the photographic record from Dealey Plaza, we have available to us a single fabric of self-authenticating evidence which can be used as bedrock for reconstructing the event.

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