When is JFK Seen Reacting to the Single Bullet?

Too Late, Too Early, or Just Right?

By Dave Reitzes
It's more than a little ironic. The argument for conspiracy used to be that Gov. John Connally didn't react quickly enough in the Zapruder film to have been struck by the same bullet that struck the President. Failure Analysis Associates laid this argument to rest in 1992, when it was observed for the first time that the Governor's jacket lapel is thrust violently outward at frame 224 — the obvious result of a bullet strike just prior to the exposure of that frame.

So then a new argument arose: that JFK reacts too quickly to have been struck by the same bullet that struck Connally.

First, despite the practically incontrovertible photographic evidence, let's finish off the old argument. Is it true that John Connally shows no reaction for a good half-second or so after being shot? No.

To determine the point of Connally's reaction, the Itek corporation had five photo analysts study Z frames 222-240. All five "concluded independently that somewhere between 223-226 there are signs of the beginning of a significant change in the governor's position and appearance."

One analyst noted: "I . . . observe what I would consider an involuntary and unusual motion of [Connally's] right hand and arm at 225. Before 225, his hand is hidden from Zapruder's view, down below the edge of the door. At 225-226 it can be seen to travel repidly upward until it is about level with his chin in 228. From 228-230 he flips his hat rapidly. At 229 it appears upside down in his hand with the thin edge of the brim extending toward Zapruder. By 230 the hat has flipped so that one can now see into it. This all takes place within less than 1/3 of a second so it would appear to be somewhat unusual."

Readers can verify this for themselves with the animated GIF posted here:


A few frames later, an even more obvious change occurs in the Governor's appearance, which led many in the past to believe he was not struck until that point. Connally himself selected Z 234 as the most likely point of impact; the most dramatic change occurs in Z 237-238. Dr. John Lattimer has theorized that this was the result of Connally's first attempt to take a breath with his rib shattered and lung collapsed.

The primary objection to the Z 223-224 hypothesis is that if the President had been struck at Z 223-224, he could not possibly be seen reacting to a shot as early as frame 225.

In "Hasty Judgment," Michael Griffith writes:

If Connally was in fact hit at frame 224, then this missile could not have struck President Kennedy. Why? Because it is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, that this same bullet could have caused JFK to react the way he does in frame 225. In the Zapruder film Kennedy is seen to be clearly reacting to a wound by frame 225. In this frame his right arm is at his chest and is bent sharply inward. His left arm is at about the level of his diaphragm. Together, his arms appear to be in somewhat of a football-like blocking position. If a missile transited Connally at frame 224, it would have gone through Kennedy at almost the exact same fraction of a second, between frames 223 and 224, or during 224 alone (as Posner opines). But Kennedy could not have stopped waving his right hand, begun to move his left hand, and brought his right arm to his upper chest, all in less than two frames (or in less than 1/9th of a second). Ballistics expert Dr. Roger McCarthy has argued that it would have taken a minimum of 200 milliseconds, or right around four frames, for Kennedy to react, even involuntarily, as we see him doing in Z225:

Mr. CHESLER. Now, what I'd like to do is, is move to the very next frame, 225. How much time elapsed on that day between time frame 224 was filmed and the time that frame 225 was filmed?

Dr. McCARTHY. About 56 milliseconds. This camera is running at a shade more than 18 frames/second, so between any 2 frames there's about an 18th of a second or 56 thousandth of a second. . . .

Mr. CHESLER. Now, Dr., based upon that, do you have a conclusion or an opinion as to when the President was hit with the bullet — how much before this point?

Dr. McCARTHY. Yes, as I think Dr. Piziali accurately indicated, there is a latency or a delay of about 200 milliseconds between the time that a message is delivered by either traumatic shock to the spine or by your mind to a muscle before you can get movement. You've experienced that every time you've ever grabbed something hot. You've known it was hot and were burned because of the delay, because you couldn't get — let go or move fast enough to avoid the damage. You knew it, and you just couldn't make your body move fast enough. There's nothing wrong with you; it takes about a fifth of a second to get all the hardware up to full power — to get the muscles to move.

Mr. CHESLER. Now, Dr., if, then, the President was hit 200 milliseconds before the movement on [frame] 225, how many frames back in the film would that be?

Dr. McCARTHY. That would be at 221 at a minimum [i.e., at the latest, and notice this is just based on timing it from a reaction at Z225]

Mr. CHESLER. And at 221 he's behind the sign, is that correct?

Dr. McCARTHY. Yes.

Mr. CHESLER. Alright. If he was hit at 221 and the Governor was hit at 224 according to the prosecution, then could they have been hit by the same bullet?

Dr. McCARTHY. No. (63:235-236, emphasis added)

Other experts opine that the fastest possible reaction time could have been as little as .10 to .12 seconds. Two experts I consulted said such a speedy reaction was theoretically possible but they indicated that a slightly slower response was more probable under the circumstances. In any case, .10 seconds equates to 2.1 Zapruder frames. So, if we assume Kennedy reacted in .10 seconds, this means the bullet could have struck him no later than Z222.9. The earliest time given by WC supporters for the alleged magic-bullet, lapel-flipping strike is Z223.19. Thus, Kennedy's Z225 reaction could not have been in response to the same missile that allegedly struck Connally at Z224.

Note Griffith's concession that a physical reaction such as the one he describes could occur in as short a time span as two frames.

Griffith's concession is justified. While human reaction times tend to require hundreds of milliseconds, "One of the fastest [neural feedback] loops is from arm sensors to spinal cord and back out to arm muscles: it takes 110 milliseconds for feedback corrections to be made to an arm movement." (William H. Calvin, "The unitary hypothesis: A common neural circuitry for novel manipulations, language, plan-ahead, and throwing?" in Tools, Language, and Cognition in Human Evolution, edited by Kathleen R. Gibson and Tim Ingold. Cambridge University Press, pp. 230-250, [1993].)

So there could already be a reaction of a subject's arms in as early as 110 milliseconds, the equivalent of two Zapruder frames. But, of course, with JFK and Gov. Connally shot between 223 and 224, we should not be able to discern a significant reaction before frame 226. While only a few milliseconds later, this would still be too late.

However, an experiment cited by conspiracist Milicent Cranor demonstrates that even less time may be required.

Cranor summarizes a study published in the British journal, Brain (Brown P, Rothwell JC, Thompson PD, Britton TC, Day BL, and Marsden CD. New observations on the normal auditory startle reflex in man. Brain 1991; 114:1891-1902):

Auditory Stimulus Response Times in Milliseconds (m/s)

The following figures come from a study by Brown et al, published in the British journal, Brain. The authors tested the latency period (time it takes to respond) of the auditory startle reflex in 12 healthy volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 80 years. While relaxing in a chair, the subjects were randomly treated about every 20 minutes to a tone burst of 124 decibels, the equivalent BANG! of a car backfire 20 feet away. The average latency period of the relevant muscle groups in milliseconds:

Neck: 58 m/s (range 40-136 m/s)
Paraspinal muscles: 60 m/s (range: 48-120 m/s)

Forearm Flexors: 82 m/s (range: 60-200 m/s)

Forearm Extensors: 73 m/s (range 62-173 m/s)

Thumb: 99 m/s (range 75-179 m/s)

Back of Hand: 99 m/s (range 72-176 m/s)

The authors concluded:

"The most generalized startle response to the standard sound stimulus employed consisted of eye closure, grimacing, neck flexion, trunk flexion, slight abduction of the arms, flexion of the elbows and pronation of the forearms. There was considerable variation in the degree to which this response was expressed, and in some subjects only eye closure and flexion of the neck was apparent."

[See Cranor, "Neurology and Jiggle Analysis"]

The experiment demonstrated that, in response to an auditory stimulus, quantifiable physical reactions can be observed occurring most quickly in muscles the shortest distance from the brain: in the neck as quickly as 40 milliseconds (less than one Zapruder frame), in the paraspinal muscles as quickly as 48 milliseconds (less than one Zapruder frame), in the forearm flexors as quickly as 60 milliseconds (slightly more than one Zapruder frame), in the forearm extensors as quickly as 62 milliseconds (slightly more than one Zapruder frame), in the thumb as quickly as 75 milliseconds, and in the back of the hand as quickly as 72 milliseconds.

Hit the start button above to see frames where Kennedy and Connally are hit by the Single Bullet. Note that Kennedy's hand is moving downward between Zapruder Frames 224 and 225. Connally's torso hunches between 224 and 225, and both men have shocked expressions on their faces.
This means that it is possible for JFK and Gov. Connally, if struck between frames 223 and 224, to display quantifiable reactions originating in the men's necks and paraspinal muscles — and, depending on how many milliseconds elapsed between the shot and the exposure of frame 224, possibly even their forearm flexors, forearm extensors, and hands — as early as frame 225.

This is consistent with an older citation from conspiracist Josiah Thompson: "The fastest reflex action known to science — the startle response — takes place over an interval of 40 to 200 milliseconds. Beginning with an eyeblink in 40 milliseconds, the response wave [can move] the head forward in 83 milliseconds, and then continues downward reaching the knees in 200 milliseconds." (SSID, p. 93, citing Robert S. Woodworth and Harold Schlosberg, Experimental Psychology, p. 184). Thompson points out that the startle reflex is much faster than the "hot stove" reflex, described in Dr. McCarthy's testimony.

One other point must be made. It is Michael Griffith's presumption that JFK's reaction in frame 225 involves the President's arms: "In this frame [Kennedy's] right arm is at his chest and is bent sharply inward. His left arm is at about the level of his diaphragm. Together, his arms appear to be in somewhat of a football-like blocking position."

What if Kennedy's arms had not yet begun reacting to a shot in Z 225? What if, as many (myself included) have observed, the height of his right arm were the result only of a continuation of the downward waving motion visible just prior to JFK's disappearance behind the Stemmons street sign?

Harrison Livingstone's Killing the Truth contains a lengthy segment of HSCA consultant Dr. Robert Luis Piziali's testimony from Failure Analysis Associates' 1993 mock trial of Oswald. Piziali comes out firmly in support of the Dealey Plaza scenario of a missed shot circa Z 160 ("fired sometime up to 166," he states) and a second shot at Z 223-224. Of Connally, he describes the lapel flip, and of the President, he says:

If we now look at President Kennedy from before the sign. Notice the arm. Notice that he's waving to the crowd. His hand is up around his face, his elbow slightly elevated off the side of the car. You can see it right there as he continues behind the sign. You'll see his hand is still up by his face. As he emerges from the sign, you'll see that his hand is in a down position. As he was waving, he's now bringing it down. You can see that's his right hand right there. If we go to the next frame you will actually notice that the hand drops slightly. If we go back and forth, see the — the shiny part of the back seat of the car? You'll see his hand is still coming down from the wave. He has not yet reacted to the bullet that's gone through his body. If we now move on, what we'll see is in the next frame, there's his arm at the frame I was just talking about. Now watch it again. The elbow still hasn't jerked. Now the elbow jerks up. Okay, so it's a few frames later when you actually watch the elbow pop up. That is the President's first sign of reaction to being shot. (Livingstone, p. 214)
Thus Kennedy's reaction to the passage of the bullet near his spine is actually only visible at Zapruder frame 226. This is more than ample time for a reaction to a bullet hitting him at frame 223.

The old conspiracy-oriented argument was that Gov. Connally did not react quickly enough for a shot to have struck him at the same time as JFK. The new argument is that Kennedy reacts too quickly to have been struck at 223-224.

Such arguments arose much too quickly and have lingered much too long. They are both just plain wrong.

Return to Kennedy Assassination Home Page