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!

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.

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.

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. Defects in human memory make witness testimony unreliable

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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