Wecht and the Rockefeller Commission

by Magen Knuth

Cyril Wecht is one of a tiny handful of forensic pathologists who has examined the medical evidence in the Kennedy assassination and thinks there was a conspiracy. He indeed has been on a now 30-year plus crusade to convince the world that a cabal – and not a lone gunman – killed Kennedy.

So when the Rockefeller Commission, in 1975, tackled the issue of what the medical evidence showed about Kennedy’s wounds, they of course talked to Wecht.

When the Commission issued its report, Wecht went ballistic. He charged the Commission with misrepresenting him. For example, he told the New York Times that “if that transcript shows in any way I have withdrawn or revised my thoughts of the Warren Report, I’ll eat the . . . transcript on the steps of the White House” (“Doctor Says Rockefeller Panel Distorted His View on Kennedy,” June 11, 1975, pg. 3A). And further “Believe me, I hammered this point [of two gunman] and made it perfectly clear. . . It is utterly reprehensible and despicable but also a great compliment that they would consider my testimony that much of a threat” (ibid.).

Further, the Times wrote that “Dr. Wecht denies the statement by the report that he ‘testified that the available evidence all points to the President being struck by two bullets coming from the rear, and that no support can be found for theories which postulate gunmen to the front or right front of the Presidential car.’ Dr. Wecht said that was a ‘flagrant’ misrepresentation of what he told a commission attorney, Robert Olsen, in a five-hour interview on May 7” (ibid).

Similar fulminations appeared in the Dallas Morning News. An article in that paper quoted Wecht as saying that the “crux and primary thrust of my testimony . . . is that the Warren Commission’s single-bullet theory is wrong and that the available medical, physical and photographic evidence all point to the fact that the assassination was carried out by two gunmen” (“Distortions Charged,” June 13, 1975). Wecht further claimed that his statements were “grossly misrepresented and deliberately distorted” to give the appearance that he supported the Warren Commission conclusions (Ibid and quoted in Shaw, Cover-Up, 29). The article recorded one partial concession on Wecht’s part saying that “he may have testified that the available evidence does not support theories of a gunman to the right or right front of the president” (Ibid, emphasis added).

Wecht didn’t limit his attacks on the Commission to newspapers, but carried it into medical periodicals.

The official Rockefeller Commission report ignored that completely and took one sentence out of context to support their view that there were no shots fired from the front of the President. The fact that the Government is hiding evidence that could prove or disprove the contention that Kennedy was shot from the front as well as the rear does not prove that the wasn’t shot from the front. And it certainly doesn’t prove that there was only one assassin (Rankin, Ken. “A Civilian M.D. in on the Kennedy Autopsy says more than one gun killed J. F. K Part 1: The Evidence,” Physician’s Management Oct. 1975: 21).

Ken Rankin claims, “according to Dr. Wecht, the Commission deliberately misrepresented his testimony by taking one minor point out of context and ignoring the basic thrust of his statements” (ibid).

Further, in the Journal of Legal Medicine Wecht argued that “The great bulk of my testimony was directly to the opposite effect [of the conclusions of the Warren Commission]” (“Why is the Rockefeller Commission so Single-Minded About a Lone Assassin in the Kennedy Case?,” Journal of Legal Medicine, July/Aug 1975: 23; “Distortions Charged,” Dallas Morning News, June 13, 1975; and quoted in Shaw, Cover-up, 29). In the same article, Wecht said that “the Commission or its staff deliberately sought to misrepresent my testimony” (Ibid).

Almost three decades later, when Wecht’s book, Cause of Death (1994) was published, he was still fussing and fuming.

The Rockefeller Commission took it a step further and said that I, Cyril Wecht, had told them that all of the shots could have come from the back of the motorcade and that I had no evidence whatsoever of any CIA participation. But then the Rockefeller Report stated that this was all I had testified to. This was a vicious lie and a deliberate attempt to misrepresent my views. In my extensive interview with Mr. Olsen, I had repeatedly spelled out significant problems with the Warren Commission’s theories and conclusions, but not one word of this was mentioned (41).

Wecht’s claims have become the conventional wisdom among conspiracists. In 2002, eye doctor and conspiracist, Gary Aguilar was complaining on the Internet about “the Commission’s chicanery” in regard to Wecht’s testimony.

What the Rockefeller Commission Report Actually Said

So what exactly did the Rockefeller Commission say about Wecht and his testimony. The discussion occupies just four brief paragraphs.

Dr. John K. Lattimer of New York and Dr. Cyril H. Wecht of Pittsburgh were also interviewed. Each of them has studied in detail the autopsy photographs, x-rays, and other materials, as well as the motion pictures of the assassination, and has published the results of his findings.

. . .

Dr. Wecht testified that the available evidence all points to the President being struck only by two bullets coming from his rear, and that no support can be found for theories which postulate gunmen to the front or right front of the Presidential car.

In a 1974 article written by Dr. Wecht and an associate, an article which was made an exhibit in his testimony, Dr. Wecht stated that “if any other bullet struck the President’s head, whether before, after, or simultaneously with the known shot, there is no evidence for it in the available autopsy materials.” He testified that on the autopsy photographs of the back of the President’s head, there was something above the hair line which he could not identify at all, and he thought it was possible that this was an exit wound. He stated that the other autopsy photographs and the autopsy x-rays provided no support to that possibility, but he thought it was possible that the physicians who performed the autopsy could had have missed finding such a wound.

Dr. Wecht said that there was some question about the backward and leftward movement of the President’s head and upper body after Frame 313, but he also said that a neuromuscular reaction could occur within about one-tenth of a second (Report of the U.S. President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States. 1975. pg 263-4).

Interestingly, the Commission’s account of Wecht’s statements isn’t as anti-conspiracy as Wecht publicly claimed. He is quoted, for example, as holding out for the possibility of an exit wound in the back of Kennedy’s head.

Evaluating Rockefeller Commission Statements

Let’s take these statements one at a time.

The 1974 Wecht Article

The article the Commission Report refers to is entitled, “The Medical Evidence in the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” published in Forensic Science in 1974. On page 127 of the article, Wecht makes the claim that the Commission quotes in its report.

A Shot from the Front or Right Front

The Report claims, “Dr. Wecht testified that the available evidence all points to the President being struck only by two bullets coming from his rear, and that no support can be found for theories which postulate gunmen to the front or right front of the Presidential car” (263 emphasis added).

As we have seen, the New York Times wrote that “Dr. Wecht denies the statement by the report that he ‘testified that the available evidence all points to the President being struck by two bullets coming from the rear, and that no support can be found for theories which postulate gunmen to the front or right front of the Presidential car’” and “Dr. Wecht said that was a ‘flagrant’ misrepresentation of what he told a commission attorney” (“Doctor Says Rockefeller Panel Distorted His View on Kennedy,” June 11, 1975, pg. 3A).

Was Wecht flagrantly misrepresented or taken out of context? Let’s look at the transcript of his testimony before the Commission (Archives Document Record #180-10107-10237 Agency File #002422).

Mr. Olsen: Now, I’m going to ask you whether you have an opinion, based upon a reasonable medical certainty, as to whether any shots were fired at the President from the front or right front that struck him.

Dr. Wecht: No. With reasonable medical certainty, I could not say that a shot had been fired from the front (79).

. . .

Mr. Olsen: Based upon the same background of your training and experience, and the examination involved, and the materials, do you have an opinion as to whether the shot striking the President from the right front or front can be excluded, to a reasonable medical certainty?

Dr. Wecht: With reasonable medical certainty, based upon evidence that has been made available, I would say that it can be excluded, but not beyond a reasonable doubt (80).

When Olsen asked, “That is, when I say that, there is no such evidence, you are agreeing with me?” Wecht responded, “I am saying that there is nothing of a definitive nature that leads to a shot coming from the right front” (73).

When asked by Olsen, “And on the basis of your studies, up to and including that examination, you concluded that there was no medical evidence which would support a theory that a shot fired at the President, or that had struck the President, coming from the front, or the right front,” Wecht responded, “Yes, that is correct, that there was no evidence made available to me, or that I had in some other way seen or known about, as a matter of concrete fact, that would permit me to substantiate such a conclusion” (37).

Wecht also claims in his article, “The Medical Evidence in the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” which he submitted as a Commission exhibit, that “the available evidence, assuming it to be valid, gives no support to theories which postulate gunmen to the front or right-front of the Presidential car [emphasis added]. The wound . . . [could] only have been fired somewhere to the rear of the President” (127).

In another article Wecht used virtually identical language: “I have stated that the available evidence, assuming it to be valid, gives no support to theories that postulate gunmen to the front or right-front of the Presidential car” [emphasis added] (“Why is the Rockefeller Commission so Single-Minded About a Lone Assassin in the Kennedy Case?,” Journal of Legal Medicine, July/Aug 1975: 22). In that same article, he also wrote, “the available medical evidence shows that all shots were fired from the rear” (Ibid, 24).

And finally, a different New York Times article claims that “after seeing the items, Dr. Wecht conceded that the autopsy pictures and X-rays ‘strongly support’ the Warren Commission’s conclusion that President Kennedy was struck in the head and body by bullets fired from the rear” (“Mystery Cloaks Fate of Brain of Kennedy,” Aug. 26, 1972, pg. 57).

Did the Report flagrantly misrepresent Wecht on this issue?

Possible “Exit Wound” in the Hairline

The Report claimed that Wecht testified about something unidentified that autopsy physicians could have missed. The House Select Committee on Assassinations Forensic Pathology Panel determined this was a piece of brain tissue, although Wecht would have had no way of knowing this when he testified in 1975.

Wecht does testify about this starting on page 38 of the testimony. He concludes that “it could be a small wound of exit. . . [but] I think it is not a very likely possibility” (42).

When Mr. Olsen asked Wecht, “Is there any evidence at all – that you saw, at all, from the x-rays, that would support a proposition that that would be an exit wound?,” Wecht replied, “No, nothing of a definitive nature” (43).

Wecht does also claim that he thinks it is possible that the autopsy physicians missed the unknown “exit wound”(42-3).

The Neuromuscular Reaction

The Report claimed that Wecht questioned the movement of the President’s head and upper body, but did remark that a reaction could occur within one-tenth to one-half of a second.

In his testimony, Wecht questions “why it is only a neuromuscular reaction in that direction [slightly forward movement and then to the back]?” (57). He continues, “The truth is, they don’t know . . . [and] that people generally move in the direction in which the missile is traveling” (57).

Wecht also testifies that the neuromuscular response of a person to a gun shot could be in as little as one-tenth of a second to as long as one half of a second (119 and 115).

Mr. Olsen: Is it you testimony, Dr. Wecht, that it would be unreasonable to hypothesis [sic] that it would take more then a half second for the President to show signs of being struck by a bullet in the region of his neck?

Dr. Wecht: Yes, medically, medically unreasonable (115).

Mr. Olsen: In other words, you feel that an element of certainty on that score, that is that the outer limit of the reaction time being a half a second, that the element of certainty of that is greater than the element of certainty with respect to whether President Kennedy was struck in the head by a tangential bullet from the front or right front?

Dr Wecht: Yes (116).

Mr. Olsen: It wouldn’t be unreasonable to hypothesis [sic] a reaction within that tenth of a second?

Dr. Wecht: I think it is unlikely, but it would not be unreasonable – I would say, within the realm of possibility (119).

Here Wecht is addressing a neuromuscular reaction caused by a bullet passing close to the spine, but a bullet that destroys the brain should certainly produce an equal or greater reaction.

Two Gunmen

Wecht claims, “The crux and primary thrust of my testimony . . . is that the available evidence all point to the fact that the assassination was carried out by two gunmen” (“Distortions Charged,” Dallas Morning News, June 13, 1975).

He claimed in another article, “Believe me, I hammered this point [of two gunman] and made it perfectly clear” (“Doctor Says Rockefeller Panel Distorted His View on Kennedy,” June 11, 1975, pg. 3A).

Throughout his testimony, Wecht implied a second gunman, particularly when he discussed bullet trajectory. It may be that, at least in his opinion, the thrust of his testimony was that there were two gunman, but in the 184 pages and five and a half hours of testimony, nowhere does Wecht explicitly claim that there had to be or were two gunman.

Why did the Commission Ignore some of Wecht’s Testimony?

Wecht claims that the Commission ignored his testimony because “it lay outside its [the Commission’s] purposes of investigating only the question of CIA involvement” (“Why is the Rockefeller Commission so Single-Minded About a Lone Assassin in the Kennedy Case?,” Journal of Legal Medicine, July/Aug 1975: 23).

There may be a better explanation. While Wecht did make claims contradicting the Warren Commission findings, particularly in the area of bullet trajectory, these are the areas in which Wecht is not an expert. Therefore, the Commission did not publish his findings. They only used testimony in which Wecht was a qualified expert and chose to ignore other testimony, not because it lacked bearing on CIA involvement, but because he was not an expert in that area. For instance, on the issue of bullet trajectory, Wecht claims that the trajectory would be wrong for a shot from the sixth floor. When pressed on evidence of this conclusion, he falters.

Dr. Wecht: . . . I do not believe that the downward trajectory required for the bullet to hit the President in the back would have been sufficiently great enough to permit that bullet having been fired from the 6th floor. . . .

Mr. Olsen: Where did you arrive at and from what evidence did you take the calculation that the downward angle [possible word missing] the wound in Governor Connally’s back or chest is 25 degrees?

Dr. Wecht: Based upon the measurements of the location [possible word missing] the hole in his back and the hole in the front of his chest below the right nipple and then an angle through his body and the determination made, the kind of thing we do routinely in shooting cases.

Mr. Olsen: Who made that calculation?

Dr. Wecht: I made the observations originally on examination of materials and review of the records, and then Bob Smith and I together made the calculations.

Mr. Olsen: Did you have available to you any photographs of Governor Connally’s back?

Dr. Wecht: I don’t think there were any photographs of Governor Connally’s back.

Mr. Olsen: Did you have any photographs of Governor Connally’s chest?

Dr. Wecht: Not that I recall.

Mr. Olsen: What else did you rely on to make your measurement?

Dr. Wecht: The descriptions, I think, from the surgeons and the testimony for the Warren Commission about where the holes were located and the measurement in Connally’s suit jackets (130-1).

When Wecht was questioned about why he felt that CE 399 could not have caused the wounds of both Connally and Kennedy, it becomes clear that he knows little about bullet velocity and the effects different velocities have.

Mr. Olsen: Have you ever made calculation as to how much a bullet with a velocity of 1750 feet or thereabouts per second would be deflected by cartilage of the nature and the thickness that is in the tracheal ring?

Dr. Wecht: No, I have not (151).

. . .

Mr. Olsen: Well, let me ask you again, then, Doctor, have you ever in your training or experience ever had occasion to experiment with, conduct studies of, or familiarize yourself with the studies of others dealing specifically with the possible degree of deflection of a high velocity bullet by a tracheal ring?

Dr. Wecht: No, I have not conducted such a study. I have seen bullets deflected by the trachea but not the specific velocity bullet such as you have included in your hypothetical question (153).

. . .

Mr. Olsen: Have you ever performed any experimentation with 6.5 millimeter ammunition manufactured by the Western Cartridge Company and having the characteristics of the bullet that were involved in the Kennedy slaying?

Dr. Wecht: No, I have not conducted research, myself (62).

. . .

Mr. Olsen: You have no judgement, then, I take it, as to what velocity of the bullet would have been at the time that it exited from Connally’s chest?

Dr. Wecht: No, not specifically (69).

. . .

Mr. Olsen: Do you know whether the velocity of the bullet at the time that it exited Connally’s chest would have been more or less than 1,000 feet per second?

Dr. Wecht: No, I do not know. I think that it would have been more. I cannot not see it dropping down to less than 1,000 feet at that point, but I do not know.

Mr. Olsen: You have performed no experimentation that would qualify you to express on opinion on that?

Dr. Wecht: No, I have not (70).

Wecht then later admits that his calculations on the trajectory could have substantial error.

Mr. Olsen: Dr. Wecht, in the light of your testimony a few minutes ago about the substantial possibility of error in assuming the correctness of the wound of entrance from the photographs at the National Archives, isn’t it true that the calculated angles that you arrived at here in this article may be subject to very substantial error?

Dr. Wecht: Yes, that is a possibility. This is, however, what we concluded based upon the measurements that were made (120).

. . .

Mr. Olsen: Suppose that the actual point of entry of the bullet was one inch higher on the body then was revealed by your calculations from the photograph at the National Archives. What change would this effect in the downward angle as calculated in your article?

Dr. Wecht: If it were one inch higher, it could make a change of a few degrees.

Mr. Olsen: How many?

Dr. Wecht: Oh, around maybe five degrees roughly – well, more than that.

Mr. Olsen: Let’s just say three centimeters.

. . .

Dr. Wecht: Well, it could be as high as ten or twelve degrees. (122)

Based on Wecht’s calculations, he hypothesized what would happen to the bullet after it left the President’s neck.

Dr. Wecht: The best that we can hypothesize within the realm of reason is that the shot with a slight deflection caused possibly by the tracheal ring or by the inner aspect of the clavicle or by the edge of the transverse process of the vertebra with a slight upward deflection of five to seven degrees, nothing more dramatic than that, we postulated that the bullet that exited from the President’s neck continued in a straight line, removing a portion of its downward trajectory, half or more of the downward trajectory, approximately, and then continued on in a straight line from back to front and from right to left, passing between the Governor and Mrs. Connally and then exiting out over the top and to the side, somewhat, of the left shoulder of the driver of the automobile, passing out of the car completely, over the left side of the car, with the windows rolled down (143-4).

. . .

Mr. Olsen: Are you saying that the bullet would have been deflected upward? In order to have missed anybody in the car–

Dr. Wecht: Right (145).

While Wecht claims that the bullet must have been deflected to miss Connally and support his theory, he testifies that there is no way that the bullet could have been deflected in such a way that it hit Connally upon exit (135). He makes this claim based on his opinion that Connally and Kennedy were lined up perfectly, with Connally directly in front of Kennedy. Even when Mr. Olsen points out to Wecht that Connally’s jump seat was six inches in from the car door, Wecht still claims that Kennedy and Connally were perfectly lined up (138).

He clearly is not an expert when it comes to high velocity bullets. His calculations have substantial error and often times he relies on the testimony of the physicians he later claims to have no confidence in. He has medical expertise and uses this expertise to claim that there could not be shots from the right or right front based on the medical evidence. Once outside the realm of medical evidence, Wecht argues that a shot from the 6th floor window is not possible for at least Kennedy’s neck wound, but he clearly has no real proof as to why. His calculations are flawed and he has no specific training with high velocity bullets. What Wecht claims as a conspiracy buff was not relevant to the objectives of the Commission and can be found in his article, “The Medical Evidence in the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” (Forensic Science, vol. 3 1974. Pg. 105-128), and in his other publications.

Two Cyril Wechts

The crux of the issue is that there are two Cyril Wechts. First, there is Wecht the reputable forensic pathologist. Then there is Wecht the assassination buff.

The first Wecht usually comes to conclusions very close to (if not identical to) those of other reputable forensic pathologists. The second Wecht repeats assassination factoids and bogus trajectory analysis.

Wecht’s testimony to the Rockefeller Commission appears to have been the precursor of his testimony to the House Select Committee. Before the Select Committee, he repeated his “trajectory analysis” supposedly showing that a shot from the Sniper’s Nest hitting both Kennedy and Connally was impossible. But the Select Committee had a man named Thomas Canning plotting the trajectory. Canning, on loan from NASA, was literally a rocket scientist, and the members of Congress believed him and not Wecht on this issue.

No doubt Wecht was sincerely convinced that he gave the Rockefeller Commission a huge amount of convincing evidence of conspiracy. But when one soberly examines his testimony and the Commission’s account of it, it’s obvious that they paid close attention to and correctly quoted him on matters of which he had real expertise, and pretty much ignored his uninformed conspiracist blather.

Which is what anybody should do when confronting the testimony of the good doctor.