Conspiracy theorists thrive on witness accounts. They can produce seemingly voluminous testimony of shots from the Grassy Knoll, of Jack Ruby in Dealey Plaza watching the assassination, of wounds to Kennedy's body that radically contradict the Warren Commission's version of the shooting, of Oswald being in places the Warren Commission said he could not have been associating with very suspicious people.
Ordinary citizens in contrast to social scientists and law enforcement professionals find witness testimony highly compelling. And why not? Here are sober looking, apparently honest ordinary citizens saying things with full sincerity. They wouldn't be lying, would they?
To evaluate witness testimony, we have to keep a few rules in mind.
Discount Tellers of Tall Tales
With the Kennedy assassination, as with other historical events and criminal cases, the vast majority of witnesses are telling the truth as they know it. But not all of them are. Around any celebrated event there gather some people who have especially good stories to tell often stories that don't pass muster when examined by serious historians.
Since these folks have especially "interesting" stories to tell, they are likely to be favorites of authors who don't care too much whether the witness is telling the strict truth or who find the witness' account so convenient in making their case that they aren't inclined to question it. This kind of witness is very much in evidence in conspiracy books and videos. For example:
It's striking that this is only a very partial list!
- Jean Hill, a woman who told of seeing a Grassy Knoll shooter, of seeing Jack Ruby in Dealey Plaza, and of being waylaid and intimidated by phony "Secret Service agents" in the minutes following the assassination.
- Roger Craig, who testified to seeing Oswald flee the scene in a Rambler station wagon with an accomplice, to seeing a Mauser recovered in the sixth floor of the Depository, and to have witnessed a confrontation in Dallas Policy headquarters that implicated Ruth Paine in the assassination.
- Beverly Oliver, who claims to have seen Oswald and Ruby together in the Carousel Club, and to have photographed the assassination in Dealey Plaza (with the FBI confiscating the film).
- Ed Hoffman, who claimed to have seen a Grassy Knoll shooter.
- Charles Crenshaw, doctor at Parkland Hospital, who claimed that President Johnson called while Lee Oswald was being treated and demanded that a confession be extracted.
- Robert Morrow, who claims to have been a CIA agent, and to have supplied weapons for the shooters in Dealey Plaza.
- John Elrod, who claimed to have shared a cell in the Dallas jail with Lee Oswald.
- James Files, who claims to have been the Grassy Knoll shooter in Dealey Plaza.
- Gordon Novel, who claimed to be a CIA agent, first worked with the Garrison investigation and then turned into a Garrison suspect.
- Judyth Vary Baker, a fellow employee of Oswald's at the Reily Coffee Company in the summer of 1963, claims to have been Oswald girlfriend, and involved with him in a secret bioweapons project that intended to kill Castro but ended up killing Kennedy.
- Richard Case Nagell, who claimed to have worked for the CIA and the KGB, and to have had "foreknowledge" of the JFK assassination.
- Robert Knudsen, Navy photographer who claimed to have photographed Kennedy's autopsy.
- Tosh Plumlee, claims to have been part of a CIA "abort team" sent to Dallas to stop the assassination.
- Tom Tilson, who claims to have seen a man with a gun (presumably a Grassy Knoll shooter) scramble down the slope behind the Knoll in the minutes following the assassination.
- Madeleine Brown, who claimed to have been LBJ's lover, and to have attended a very suspicious party on the eve of the assassination.
- Gordon Arnold claimed to have been on the Grassy Knoll during the shooting, to have heard a shot whiz past his left ear, and to have been confronted by a man who confiscated his camera.
- Marita Lorenz who told of a "caravan" of cars driving assassins from Miami to Dallas on the eve of the assassination.
- Marty Underwood, the fellow in charage of Lyndon Johnson's international security arrangements, who told all kind of tall tales, including some repeated in Gus Russ's book Live by the Sword.
Watch For Selectivity
It might seem obvious that if we eliminate witnesses who are making up tall tales that we could believe the others. And if all truthful witnesses agreed with each other, then we should indeed believe any truthful witness we see.
Alas, truthful witnesses don't always agree with each other. "Truthful" doesn't necessarily mean "accurate." Quite often, their accounts are all over the place. So by simply picking certain truthful witnesses, and ignoring other truthful witnesses, one can usually support one's pet theory.
- Mark Lane's video "Plot to Kill JFK : Rush To Judgment" shows viewers several witnesses who believed they heard shots from the Grassy Knoll. Lane never tells his viewers that a majority of witnesses who had an opinion about the direction of the shots thought they came from the direction of the Depository, rather than the Knoll.
Gary Aguilar has produced a compendium of witnesses from Parkland Hospital and the Bethesda Naval Hospital (where Kennedy's autopsy was done) who testified to the back of Kennedy's head being blown out presumably by a shot from the front. For Aguilar, these witnesses show that the autopsy photos and x-rays (which show Kennedy being shot from behind) are faked. But Aguilar is highly selective in how he quotes his witnesses. He stresses testimony that fits his theory, and ignores testimony from the same witnesses that contradicts it.
Witnesses Make Wild and Wacky Statements
Anybody who reads the unfiltered and unselected witness testimony will quickly find that even honest sober witnesses have wild, wacky, and often downright bizarre elements in their testimony. Consider, for example:
Sometimes, it's easy to see how the witness might have been wrong. Jack Franzen, for example, probably saw reporters and photographers leaving the various press cars (several cars behind the Presidential limo), and perhaps also got a glance of Agent Hickey in the follow-up car brandishing an AR-15. Millican may well have seen someone like Malcolm Summers hit the ground and assumed he had been shot.
- J.C. Price, who thought that Kennedy and Connally were in different cars in the motorcade, and that a final shot was fired at the motorcade as much as five minutes after the first shots.
- Sam Holland, who thought that after Kennedy was shot Jackie "jumped up and tried to get over in the back seat to him."
- Bill Newman, who thought that the President, after the first shot rang out, "jumped up in his seat" and "was standing up."
- Austin Miller, who thought the sound of shots during the shooting came from inside the President's limo.
- Mrs. Joseph Eddie Dean, who said that after the first shot she saw Kennedy "reach to the back of his neck" before slumping down.
- Jack Franzen, who said he saw Secret Service agents in the car behind the presidential limousine"unloading from the car,
some with firearms in their hands . . . ."
- Marvin Faye Chism, who said:
The President's wife immediately stood over him, and she pulled him up,
and lay him down in the seat, and she stood up over him in the car. The
President was standing and waving and smiling at the people when the shot
happened. . . . The two men in the front of the car stood up, and then
when the second shot was fired, they all fell down and the car took off
just like that. (Decker Exhibit 5323, 19H472)
- A. J. Millican, who testified that:
Just after the President's car passed, I heard three shots come from up
toward Houston and Elm right by the Book Depository Building, and then
immediately I heard two more shots come from the Arcade between the Book
Store and the Underpass, and then three more shots came from the same
direction only sounded further back. (Decker Exhibit 5323, 19H486)
Millican also testified that: "A man standing on the South side of Elm Street, was either hit in the
foot, or the ankle and fell down." (ibid.)
But in other cases, heaven knows where the witness got that piece of testimony.
Cop Drove Cycle Up Grassy Slope: A Mass Delusion?
About a minute after the shooting, motorcycle officer Clyde Haygood, who was far back in the motorcade, reached the point on Elm Street in front of the Grassy Knoll, and tried to jump the curb with his cycle and ride up the grassy slope. He was unable to jump the curb and parked his cycle in the street, got off, and ran up the Knoll toward the corner of the Triple Underpass and the Stockade Fence.
So what did the witnesses say? Several said he drove the cycle part way up the slope!
All this would be sufficient to cause one to believe that indeed a cop rode his cycle up the grassy slope, except for the fact that both Clyde Haygood's testimony and copious photographic evidence from Dealey Plaza shows he did no such thing.
- James Simmons said a motorcycle cop "drove up the grassy slope toward the Texas School Book Depository Building, jumped off his motorcycle and then ran up the hill toward the Memorial Arches."
- Nolan Potter said that he noticed a policeman drive his motorcycle up the slope towards the Texas School Book Depository Building.
- Sam Holland said a motorcycle cop "tried to ride up the embankment on his motorcycle and it tuned over about halfway up the embankment." Holland reported he then saw the officer "run on over to the fence with the gun in his hand." (Source: Mark Lane video "The Plot to Kill JFK: Rush to Judgment")
- Curtis Freeman Bishop, according to an FBI report "recalls seeing a motorcycle policeman drive up the grassy slope near the Texas School Book Depository Building."
- Lee Bowers said he saw a cop who "rode a motorcycle up the incline coming up from the lower portion of Elm Street, and he rode perhaps two-thirds of the way up or more before he deserted his motorcycle." (Source: Mark Lane video, "The Plot of Kill JFK: Rush to Judgment")
Tricks Memory Plays
If witness perceptions are often problematic, the problems are multiplied by the issue of memory. Even assuming absolutely accurate intitial perceptions, over time witness accounts come to have less and less of the literal truth, and more and more things that have been added as witnesses think about what happened, talk about it, and hear about it.
A Scholarly Perspective
Dennis Ford and Mark Zaid are two assassination researchers who have read the scholarly literature on witness testimony and applied it to the Kennedy assassination witnesses. Their essay, "Eyewitness Testimony, Memory, and Assassination Research" is "must" reading for any researcher.
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