Gary L. Aguilar, MD and Kathy Cunningham
May 2003


Introduction – The Government’s Private Response to Public Doubts

The origins of the first publicly acknowledged review of the Warren Commission’s autopsy findings, that of the so-called Clark Panel in 1968, appear to trace to mid 1966. It was then that a powerful wave of criticism of Kennedy’s autopsy erupted and resonated with a receptive public.

The process seems to have gotten underway at the end of 1965 with the publication of a successful book entitled Whitewash.[133] Written by what some consider to be the patriarch of Warren skeptics, Harold Weisberg, his book devoted considerable attention to the Commission’s failure to properly explore Kennedy’s conflicted autopsy evidence. In June 1966 Mark Lane took aim at several autopsy-related matters in his book Rush to Judgment. It was so popular it was reprinted seven times in the first four months to meet demand. That same month the book Inquest was first published by Edward Epstein. The young academic challenged the integrity of the Commission’s work and proposed that the original autopsy report had been rewritten long after it was first submitted so as to exclude the possibility of conspiracy. Brisk sales led to Epstein’s book being reprinted five times by the end of 1966, as well as it’s being put out in French, Italian, Spanish and German translations. Commission defenders rushed to the breach.

Fletcher Knebel published a spirited response to Epstein’s challenge in Look Magazine’s  July 12, 1966 issue,  taking a swipe at Mark Lane along the way.[134] And touting the indisputability of the proof provided by the autopsy surgeons, Arlen Specter took direct aim at Epstein in an interview published by U.S. News and World Report on October 10, 1966. Suspicions didn’t die, however.

Reflecting continuing public doubts, the month after Specter’s interview appeared, Life Magazine took after Specter’s famous invention, the “Single Bullet Theory,” in an article entitled “A Matter of Reasonable Doubt.”[135] Philosophy professor Richard Popkin also weighed in on conflicts in the medical evidence in his erudite, 1966 book, The Second Oswald,[136] earning exposure in no less than the New York Review. Even New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury came to agree that an independent review of JFK’s autopsy evidence was warranted.[137]

The Justice Department Quietly Revisits Kennedy’s Autopsy

The Justice Department’s sensitivity to published doubts about the Warren Commission is not at all surprising. Such criticism was likely taken quite personally at Justice. For, as discussed, it was Justice’s investigative arm, the FBI, that had conducted the Warren Commission’s investigation in 1963 and 1964. And it was a Justice Department employee, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who had announced that Oswald had done it alone on the very night the President fell.

But prior to Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s formal and semi-public 1968 reinvestigation, files reveal that Justice had already discreetly completed two autopsy probes of its own. The first occurred in late 1966, the second in early 1967, the timing suggesting a possible link to published concerns. Perhaps predictably, the probes concluded the Warren Commission, and the Justice Department, had been right the first time. The bases for this determination were the findings of Department-selected reviewers whose own interests just happened to neatly coincide with the Justice Department’s: JFK’s original autopsy team.

The Justice Department’s agitation about unwanted public skepticism is apparent in a flurry of now-declassified memos that flew between former Commission staffers David Slawson and Wesley Liebeler, and then-Attorney General Ramsey Clark. In a once-secret memo dated 11/25/66, Clark laid out a plan: “We should carefully examine,” he ordered, “all the criticisms, hypotheses and suggestions contained in the existing body of literature concerning the President’s assassination and the work of the Warren Commission. The purpose is to inventory the contentions so we can evaluate their validity. I would like the task described above to be undertaken by a small group of lawyers within the (Justice) Department on an unpublicized basis ... .”[138]

Clark’s directive didn’t narrow the focus to JFK’s autopsy. It is apparent, however, that he was responding to a memo written just three days earlier by David Slawson who had advised a strategy of keeping the focus narrowed to the autopsy evidence. Slawson, then working under Clark at Justice, was worried about questions that were being raised about the autopsy at the New York Times, questions that he got wind of through Liebeler.

The Times’ Harrison Salisbury apparently wanted non-government pathologists to review the autopsy photographs and X-rays, a request that Slawson said the Kennedy attorney, Burke Marshall, had resisted. Salisbury’s ultimate goal, Slawson fretted in his memo, might be to have the Times endorse a wide-ranging reinvestigation.[139] “There is still a reasonable chance of spiking this thing,” Slawson added hopefully, “by a re-investigation limited to aspects of the autopsy. But if public opinion continues to develop as it has over the past few months we may soon be faced with a politically unstoppable demand for a free-wheeling re-investigation of all aspects.”[140] (emphasis added)

When Clark wrote back three days later ordering an unpublicized examination of all the criticisms, he might already have grasped how a narrow reinvestigation might succeed in “spiking” calls for a wider reexamination. For the record discloses that the Department’s, and so therefore Clark’s, private pursuit of JFK’s autopsy had not commenced with Slawson’s appeal to the Attorney General, but sometime earlier. Before Slawson had written his memo on November 22, 1966, but well after Weisberg, Lane and Epstein had published, Justice, assuredly with Clark’s approval, had already quietly arranged for the original autopsy team to conduct the first formal examination ever of JFK’s autopsy photographs and X-rays. That examination took place on November 1, 1966. Thus, despite published attention given to numerous Warren Commission flat tires, it was apparently only the squeaking wheels of Kennedy’s autopsy that the Justice Department felt the need to grease.

Unfortunately, as discussed below, there were obvious shortcomings with that first review. So Justice arranged for JFK’s team to take a second, again unpublicized, look at the same material on January 20, 1967. But using the original autopsy team to validate its own work was apparently not deemed entirely satisfactory, even at Justice. Ultimately, in 1968, an outside panel, the so-called Clark Panel, also examined the autopsy materials, though, as we shall see, this review was also arranged through the covert connivance of the Justice Department and one of JFK’s original autopsists.

Nevertheless, Slawson’s, and perhaps Clark’s, goal of “spiking” doubts with a limited hang out  must be considered to have been successful. By having Justice look into only the autopsy evidence, and then backstopping that with the Clark Panel’s exam of the same evidence, Justice successfully dodged the much-feared freewheeling re-investigation of all aspects of the case.

Besides revealing the maneuvering that stopped curiosity’s wheels from spinning too freely, declassified files also tell a fascinating tale of the extraordinary measures the Justice Department undertook to reaffirm, with help from JFK’s accommodating autopsy team, the original conclusions that the Justice Department and the military autopsists had reached in 1964. Even LBJ makes a cameo appearance in these records.

The First Re-examination of JFK’s Autopsy Evidence “Proves” that No Autopsy Photographs or X-rays are Missing

Signature page of signed Report of Inspection , signed November 10, 1966 by Humes, Boswell, Ebersole, and Stringer. Note that, compared with the unsigned document shown at right, this version of the affidavit contains the attestation that no autopsy photographs are missing. Memos from both LBJ and Attorney General Ramsey Clark reveal that Humes had described taking a photograph that is absent in the "complete" inventory. Subsequently, all signatories save Ebersole swore that images taken on the night of the autopsy were later missing.
(see ARRB MD #13)

As mentioned, the first examination of the autopsy evidence occurred on November 1, 1966. Nine days later, the signatories – pathologists James Humes, MD and J. Thornton Boswell, MD, radiologist John Ebersole, MD, and autopsy photographer John Stringer – signed off on their review in an affidavit entitled the “Report of Inspection by Naval Medical Staff on November 1, 1966 at National Archives of X-Rays and Photographs of Autopsy of President John F. Kennedy.”[141] The affidavit, really more of an inventory of the autopsy materials, is the first known catalog of Kennedy’s extant autopsy photographs and X-rays.

The Justice Department’s role in the process, however, was nowhere mentioned in the signed “Report of Inspection.” It came to light two months later, on January 26, 1967, when the pathologists signed a second Justice Department affidavit after they were shown the same autopsy materials for the second time. In the second affidavit, they admitted that they “first saw the photographs on November 1, 1966, when requested by the Department of Justice to examine, identify, and inventory them at the National Archives.”[142]

Unsigned signature page of an earlier version of the Report of Inspection, featuring three additional intended signatories.
(see ARRB MD #12)

Curiously, the signed inventory is not the only inventory bearing the names Humes, Boswell, Ebersole and Stringer names. A second, unsigned inventory turned up that listed three names that were apparently deleted from the signed version: James B. Rhodes, Deputy Archivist of the United States (sic), Marion Johnson of the National Archives, and, oddly, Carl Belcher, U. S. Department of Justice (sic).[143] (Belcher’s pivotal role in this process only became evident later.) But the longer list of names in the unsigned version is not the most important difference between the two inventories.

In the one that was signed on November 10, 1966, the concluding sentence reads, “The X-rays and photographs described and listed above include all the X-rays and photographs taken by us during the autopsy, and we have no reason to believe that any other photographs or X-rays were made during the autopsy.”[144] This key sentence, which was apparently added, is absent in the unsigned inventory. Moreover, it is very probably untrue.

“Complete” File of Autopsy Photographs and X-rays Affirm Original Autopsy Conclusions

A second examination of the autopsy materials, this one in January 1967, included Pierre Finck.
(see ARRB MD #14)

Although the 11/10/66 affidavit attested to completeness of the inventory, it did not address the key question of whether the photographs and X-rays supported the Warren Commission’s autopsy conclusions. Apparently to correct this deficiency, Justice moved again. It arranged for the second examination of the same material on January 20, 1967,  “for the purpose,” the autopsy team formally declared, “of determining whether they (the photographs and X-rays) are consistent with the autopsy report.”[145]

Humes and Boswell were brought back; Ebersole and Stringer were not. And this time Pierre Finck was recalled from duty in Vietnam for the re-examination. Not unexpectedly, the autopsists signed the second affidavit that declared that, “The photographs and x-rays [sic] corroborate … our autopsy report.”[146]

These two affidavits – the first an inventory and validation of the autopsy images, the second an assertion the inventoried images validated the original autopsy findings – apparently reflect the importance LBJ’s Attorney General, and perhaps even the President, attached to getting additional corroboration for the Warren Commission’s autopsy conclusions in the face of published criticisms, even if only the self-affirmations from JFK’s original pathologists.

Ramsey Clark to LBJ: A Missing Autopsy Photograph?

A phone call on January 21, 1967, 10 weeks after the inventory was signed, reveals the importance of Clark’s private proceedings. Clark had LBJ on the line. In the declassified, tape-recorded call, Clark reported, “Ah, we had the three pathologists that performed the autopsy on the evening of November 22nd come in. We had to bring Finck from Vietnam … They went into archives last night [sic, January 20, 1967] … Now, we’ve run into one problem last night [sic] that we didn’t know of. That is, there may be a photo missing. Dr. Humes … testified before the Warren Commission that this one photo [was] made of the highest portion of the right lung. The other two doctors don’t recall if such a photo was made. They do recall discussing the desired ability of making such a photo. But there is no such photo in these exhibits.”[147] Thus, 10 weeks after Humes and Boswell had signed an affidavit that said that none of JFK’s autopsy photographs were missing, Humes was apparently grousing about a missing autopsy photograph.

Memo written by President Johnson after speaking to Attorney General Ramsey Clark on the phone. In that call Clark alerted LBJ that "there may be a photo missing."
(see ARRB MD #68)

LBJ took the matter seriously. In the President’s own, once-secret, memo he memorialized Clark’s comments, quoting Clark to say that, “On the other matter, I [Ramsey Clark] think we have the three pathologists and the photographer signed up now on the autopsy review and their conclusion is that the autopsy photos and x-rays [sic] conclusively support the autopsy report rendered by them to the Warren Commission though we were not able to tie down the question of the missing photo entirely but we feel much better about it and we have three of the four sign an affidavit that says these are all the photos that they took and they do not believe anybody else took any others. There is this unfortunate reference in the Warren Commission report by Dr. Hinn to a picture that just does not exist as far as we know.[148] (emphasis added) Since the name “Hinn” appears nowhere else in the JFK saga, LBJ was certainly referring to Dr. Humes, who, in any case, was properly named by Clark himself.

While Clark’s call to LBJ is apparently the first official reference to a missing autopsy photograph, neither Clark’s recorded call nor LBJ’s memo are quite accurate. Before the Warren Commission, Humes did not describe just one missing image, but at least two: a photograph of the interior of JFK’s chest, and at least one more showing the entrance wound in skull bone. But Clark wasn’t particularly interested that one of JFK’s autopsy photos seemed to be missing. Rather, he felt much better about it after he had the autopsy team sign an affidavit saying all the images were there.

So, taken together, the two attestations declared that no autopsy photos were missing, and that the images support the original autopsy conclusions. But Ramsey Clark’s recorded call and LBJ’s memo prove that even in 1967, no less than the chief autopsy surgeon, the President and the Attorney General had specifically fretted that at least one autopsy photograph had gone astray. But with the pathologists’s signing off that the photo file was whole in 1966, there seemed little reason to pursue missing photographs. New files, however, have fanned the smoldering embers of the dispute. They have also revealed the exertions the Justice Department undertook to extinguish it.

JFK’s Entire Autopsy Team Swears Autopsy Photographs Are Missing

The upshot is that there is reason to doubt that the signers really believed no autopsy photographs were missing when they signed “their” affidavit. Instead, as we will see, it appears that Justice arranged for the principals to falsely affirm the integrity of autopsy evidence they knew to be incomplete. From both public and once-secret files, we have learned that each of JFK’s three pathologists and both autopsy photographers later repeatedly testified under oath that photographs they took on the night of the autopsy were missing from the official inventory they had signed off as complete in 1966.[149]

For example, in a once-secret memo, HSCA counsel, D. Andy Purdy, JD, reported that during an interview, chief autopsy photographer, "(John) STRINGER (sic) said it was his recollection that all the photographs he had taken were not present in 1966 (when Stringer saw the photographs for the first time.) [150] Among the missing pictures are those taken of the interior of JFK’s chest. None survive in the current inventory. Yet every autopsy participant who was asked recalled that photographs were taken of the interior of JFK’s body, as indeed they should have been to document the passage of the non-fatal bullet through JFK’s chest:

·         John Stringer told the HSCA he recalled taking “at least two exposures of the body cavity.” A. Purdy.[151]

·         James Humes, MD was reported in an HSCA memo to have, "... specifically recall(ed photographs) ... were taken of the President's chest ... (these photographs ) do not exist."[152] As already discussed, Humes had told the Warren Commission in 1964 that he had taken pictures of the interior of Kennedy’s chest.[153]

·         J. Thornton Boswell, MD, the second in command, backed up Stringer and Humes. The HSCA recorded that, "... he (Boswell) thought they photographed '... the exposed thoracic cavity and lung ...' but (he) doesn't remember ever seeing those photographs."[154]

·         Robert Karnei, MD, a Navy pathologist who assisted but was not a member of the official autopsy team, told the HSCA, "He (Karnei) recalls them putting the probe in and taking pictures (the body was on the side at the time) (sic)."[155]

Finally, regarding JFK’s still-controversial skull wound, In formerly secret testimony taken 24 years ago, Dr. Finck described to the Select Committee how he had photographed the beveling in JFK’s skull bone to prove that the low wound in occipital bone was an entrance wound. In the following exchange, Dr. Finck was being asked  by the Select Committee’s forensic consultants whether the official images were those Dr. Finck had claimed were missing.

Charles Petty, MD: "If I understand you correctly, Dr. Finck, you wanted particularly to have a photograph made of the external aspect of the skull from the back to show that there was no cratering to the outside of the skull." 

Finck: "Absolutely."

Petty: "Did you ever see such a photograph?"

Finck: "I don't think so and I brought with me memorandum referring to the examination of photographs in 1967... and as I can recall I never saw pictures of the outer aspect of the wound of entry in the back of the head and inner aspect in the skull in order to show a crater although I was there asking for these photographs. I don't remember seeing those photographs."

Petty: “All right. Let me ask you one other question. In order to expose that area where the wound was present in the bone, did you have to or did someone have to dissect the scalp off of the bone in order to show this?”

Finck: “Yes.”

Petty: “Was this a difficult dissection and did it go very low into the head so as to expose the external aspect of the posterior cranial fascia (sic - meant “fossa”)?”

Finck: “I don’t remember the difficulty involved in separating the scalp from the skull but this was done in order to have a clear view of the outside and inside to show the crater from the inside … the skull had to be separated from it in order to show in the back of the head the wound in the bone.”[156]

The Justice Department and JFK’s Autopsy Photographic File

At least part of the explanation for their signing off on the completeness of the photo file, however, can be inferred from the comment LBJ attributed to Clark, “we have [had] three of the four sign an affidavit.” The implication, of course, is that the signatories didn’t prepare the affidavit. Rather, “we” at the U.S. Justice Department did. And we gave it to them to sign. Justice was scarcely a disinterested party. And yet, perhaps predictably, released files show that Justice probably prepared this dubious, if reassuring, document. And that Justice continued a defensive vigilance over this aspect of the case.

Declassified memo of Carl Belcher of the Justice Department, revealing the Justice Department's orchestration of the inventory signing.
(see ARRB MD #49)

Its cover was blown by yet another declassified memorandum that was signed by the aforementioned Carl W. Belcher of the U.S. Justice Department. As noted, he was one of the names in the unsigned Report of Inspection. “On the afternoon of November 10, 1966,” Belcher wrote in the secret memo,  “I took the original and one carbon copy of the document entitled ‘Report of Inspection by Naval Medical Staff on November 1, 1966 at National Archives of X-Rays and Photographs of Autopsy of President John F. Kennedy’ to the Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, MD, where it was read and signed by Captain Humes, Dr. Boswell, Captain Ebersole and Mr. John T. Stringer. Certain ink corrections were made in the document before they signed it ... .”[157]

Belcher does not, however, claim that Justice had prepared the document for them to sign. But if the signatories had written the document themselves, Belcher would hardly have had to take it to them to correct and to sign. Moreover, there is little reason to doubt that Belcher was referring to this specific memo. For the signed Report of Inspection bears the “certain ink corrections” Belcher referred to, as well as the signatures of the four men he named, and only those four. They are listed in exactly the same order Belcher placed them in this memo.

Justice Department Arranges for JFK’s Pathologists to Validate Their Original Conclusions.

Though the 1966 “Report of Inspection” asserted no images were missing from the file of JFK’s autopsy photographs and X-rays, it didn’t say what they showed. It overlooked the central question of whether the “complete” file of autopsy evidence supported the original autopsy conclusions. As already discussed, that deficiency was corrected but two months later, on 1/26/67, with a second affidavit that was signed by Drs. Humes, Boswell and Finck.

Following a 5-hour examination conducted on the evening of January 20, 1967, the pathologists signed the second affidavit declaring, inter alia, “The undersigned physicians have been requested by the Department of Justice to examine the x-rays (sic) and the photographs for the purpose of determining whether they are consistent with the autopsy report.”[158] Again, the Justice Department’s fingerprints were left on this affidavit as well. In a once-secret memo written by Pierre Finck entitled, “PRIVLEGED COMMUNICATION” [sic], Finck reported on this document, observing that, “The statement had been prepared by Justice Dept. [sic] We signed the statement.”[159]

The Justice Department “statement” they had signed included the declaration, “The photographs and x-rays corroborate our visual observations during the autopsy and conclusively support our medical opinion as set forth in the summary of our autopsy report. It was then and is now our opinion that the two missiles which struck the President causing the neck wound and the head wound were fired from a point behind and somewhat above the level of the deceased.”[160]

In sum, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the U. S. Justice Department arranged for the original autopsy team to conduct both of the first two re-examinations ever done on JFK’s autopsy evidence. It also apparently wrote up both of the statements the autopsy team signed endorsing the integrity of the autopsy evidence and, in effect, endorsing the soundness of the Justice Department’s original no-conspiracy conclusions.

Justice Department Orchestrates the Creation of The Clark Panel

But as mentioned, the two self-validations of JFK’s autopsy team were apparently deemed insufficient answers to the skeptics. Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times wanted non-government pathologists to review JFK’s autopsy evidence. Salisbury got his wish, through the offices of an unexpected ally. One year later, on January 26, 1968, Kennedy pathologist J. Thornton Boswell wrote to petition the Justice Department.[161] In a letter to Ramsey Clark, Boswell said that, “As you are aware, the autopsy findings in the case of the late President John F. Kennedy, including x-rays and photographs, have been the subject of continuing controversy and speculation. Dr. Humes and I ... have felt for some time that an impartial board of experts including pathologists and radiologists should examine the available material.”[162] The New York Times reported that Boswell’s plea had worked; it led directly to the establishment of the Clark Panel.[163] Boswell’s common sense request certainly made a compelling case for the value of a second opinion. But was the letter Boswell’s idea?

In 1996, Boswell told the ARRB under oath that he was asked by the Justice Department to write the letter requesting independent review of the JFK autopsy.
(Boswell testimony to ARRB, p. 10)

Though Boswell’s signature is affixed to the request, behind him one again finds the Justice Department in motion. Under oath in 1996, Boswell told the Assassinations Records Review  Board [ARRB], “I was asked by … one of the attorneys for the Justice Department that I write them a letter and request a civilian group be appointed by the Justice Department, I believe, or the President or somebody. And I did write a letter to him, Carl Eardley.”[164] (As we will see, Justice’s Eardley was to play a recurring role in the Kennedy case, and a related role in the death of Martin Luther King.)

Noted Warren skeptic Harold Weisberg saw the signs of Boswell’s having been nudged more than thirty years ago. Commenting on Boswell’s letter, which he reproduced in his 1969 book Post Mortem, Weisberg wrote, “I am suggesting that Boswell’s letter was both inspired and prepared by the federal government.” “Strangely for a man with an office and a profession,” Weisberg reasoned, “[the letter] is typed and signed but on no letterhead, with no return address and, even more intriguing, on government-size paper, which is a half-inch smaller than standard.”[165] [It appears that after this episode Boswell became a Justice Department favorite. In JAMA, Boswell admitted that, “the US Justice Department … summoned me to New Orleans to refute Finck’s testimony, if necessary. It turned out it wasn’t necessary.”[166] Boswell’s New Orleans adventure is further explored below.] The man at Justice who was pulling Boswell’s strings was apparently no less than the Attorney General.

Skeptic Milicent Cranor has pointed out[167] that shortly after Justice had quietly completed reinvestigating and reaffirming JFK’s original autopsy findings in 1966 and 1967, Clark was still so fretful that he orchestrated yet another autopsy-related project in anticipation of what he feared was about to be published. Clark’s continuing concern was revealed by one of the individuals who Clark selected to sit on what later came to be called the “Clark Panel”: Russell Fisher, MD, the Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Maryland.

In a March 1977 Maryland State Medical Journal interview, Fisher reported that Ramsey Clark, “became concerned about some statements he’d seen in the proofs of” the not yet published book by Josiah Thompson, Six Seconds in Dallas. “[Clark] decided to get a panel of people together to look at [the autopsy evidence], independently of all other investigations … The result of this panel review was that we found some minor errors in [JFK’s autopsy] protocol, such as the site of the entrance wound as being just above the external occipital protuberance … .”[168] The Clark Panel Report was released “partly to refute some of the junk that was in [Thompson’s] book,” Fisher said.[169]

In summary, the U. S. Justice Department, whose investigative arm, the FBI, had ostensibly disproved conspiracy in the early 1960s, coordinated a process in the late 1960s that sought to validate the original autopsy findings, and so those of the Bureau, that were central to Oswald’s sole guilt. That process consisted of at least three parts: The first was obtaining the signatures of JFK’s autopsy team on a questionable affidavit that asserted that no autopsy photographs were missing. The second consisted of arranging for JFK’s autopsists to review the autopsy evidence again for the purpose of declaring that it supported their original autopsy findings. The third consisted of directing one of the pathologists to call for an independent examination of the X-ray and photographic evidence.

It is of considerable note that the government was moved to reappraise not as a consequence of any dogged digging by the mainstream media. Rather, it was the efforts of unknown skeptics who, with virtually no support from the mainstream press, managed to bring enough attention to the Warren Commission’s failings that even the normally torpid federal government sat up and took notice.

The Justice Department, J. Thornton Boswell, MD, and the Trial of Clay Shaw

Word of a fourth possible aspect of the Justice Department’s energetic campaign came belatedly from Drs. Finck and Boswell. It turned up in declassified files and in new testimony.

Pierre Finck testified for the defense in the Clay Shaw trial, but his testimony of an Army general in charge of the autopsy panicked the Justice Department and caused them to fly Dr. Boswell to New Orleans and prepare him to rebut his colleague.
(Finck's testimony at the trial is in 3 parts: Feb 24, Feb 24 part B, and Feb 25 )

In a declassified memo dated March 11, 1969, Pierre Finck meticulously recounted that on February 16, 1969 he had received a telephone call from  “E. F. Wegmann, a defense attorney for Clay Shaw,” who “defends the conclusions of the Warren Commission and wanted me to come to New Orleans to testify.”[170] After advising his superiors of the request, and after (inexplicably) notifying the Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Carl Eardley, Finck’s memo recounts that he then went to Eardley’s office and reviewed numerous documents pertaining to JFK’s autopsy.

After that, Finck reports, “Eardley called me … at home notifying me that he had a check and a D. C. Court Order for me to appear in the New Orleans court.” Finck then flew to New Orleans and met privately with Shaw’s defense team prior to taking the stand. Finck also said that the Assistant U. S. Attorney in New Orleans “called me at the hotel to offer his help.”[171] However, Finck’s damaging testimony was not exactly what Justice had hoped for when it had directed the elaborate choreography between the feds and Shaw’s defense team. Justice then rushed to the rescue. To refute Finck, it called Boswell in.

Both in JAMA and under oath to the ARRB, Boswell explained the rest of the story. He said that the Justice Department was “really upset” when Pierre Finck had testified that a general, and not chief pathologist Humes, was in charge of JFK’s autopsy. “So,” Boswell testified, “(Justice) put me on a plane that day to New Orleans.” “They (the Justice Department) … talked to me and tried to get me to agree that (Finck) was very strange … .”[172] Then, Boswell explained, “They showed me the transcript of Pierre (Finck’s) testimony for the past couple of days, and I spent all night reviewing that testimony.”[173] The Justice Department’s obvious purpose, Boswell admitted, was to prepare him “to refute Finck’s testimony.”[174]

Ultimately, however, Boswell was never called to the stand. Nevertheless it is worth asking, as ARRB’s counsel Gunn astutely put it to Boswell under oath in 1996, “What was the United States Department of Justice doing in relationship to a case between the district attorney of New Orleans and a resident of New Orleans?”[175] After all, Shaw was on trial in a state court on state, not federal, charges. It is of significant note that the Justice Department was so worried about Finck that it prepared to undermine the better credentialed, Army forensics specialist by sending in a compliant Navy generalist, someone who had already proven himself to be a willing Justice Department front during the creation of the Clark Panel.

One wonders if the reason Boswell was never called to the stand might have had to do with the fact that Finck, an expert in “unnatural death,” had been the man the general pathologists in the Navy had beckoned when JFK was wheeled into the morgue. Though as a general pathologist “J” Thornton Boswell was a qualified expert in “natural death” – heart attacks, lung disease, strokes and so on – he was no expert in unnatural death, such as gunshot murder. So despite Finck’s astounding sworn statements, his superior professional standing and his prior work as Boswell’s chosen consultant might have made Shaw’s defense team reluctant to try to impeach him with Boswell.

In any case, Boswell’s cooperative spirit won him official recognition. When Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, Boswell testified that he got yet another call from Carl Eardley. “J,” Eardley pled, “we got a problem down in Memphis … Would you go down there and supervise the autopsy?”[176] Apparently Justice was looking for qualifications other than expertise in unnatural death when it undertook to investigate the not very natural death of the famed civil rights leader.

Deficiencies in the Justice Department’s Reviews

Whether bad press was the actual prod for the Justice Department’s initial autopsy reinvestigations, which began before Liebeler, Slawson and Clark wrote their memoranda, is not yet clear from document releases. The results of Justice’s two early efforts, however, were predictable: the pathologists’ review found that they and the Warren Commission had been right the first time. Establishing the Clark Panel seems to have been necessary, as Slawson suggested, to address concerns that only government pathologists [in fact only the same government pathologists] had ever been allowed access to the autopsy materials. Nevertheless, there were aspects in these first two Justice Department reviews that merit attention given what would later be determined about JFK’s wounds.

1) The Location of the Fatal Wound of Entrance

As previously noted, the original 1963 autopsy report had said that the fatal bullet had entered JFK’s skull, “to the right and slightly above” the external occipital protuberance (EOP) – the bony midline prominence near the bottom of the skull in the back. In their 26 January, 1967 affidavit, which was based on an analysis of the photographs and  X-rays, JFK’s autopsists reported, “Due to the fractures of the underlying bone and the elevation of the scalp by manual lifting (done to permit the wound to be photographed), the photographs show the wound to be slightly higher than its actually measured site.” Also averred was that, “The x-ray films established that there were small metallic fragments in the head.”[177] This account contrasts markedly with the findings of all subsequent investigators.

Based on evaluations of presumably the same pictures and X-rays, the Clark Panel, the Rockefeller Commission and the HSCA later concluded that “the wound” – the entrance site of the fatal bullet in JFK’s head – was not just  “slightly higher” in the images, but 4 & ½ inches higher. This is scarcely a negligible discrepancy, given that the area of the back of the head in which it was concluded there had been a 4 & ½ inch error only measures, top-to-bottom about 5 &1/2 inches. Nowhere in either of the 1966 or 1967 reviews did JFK’s pathologists acknowledge there was a huge disparity between the wounds in their autopsy report and those in “their” pictures and X-rays. Moreover, on the question of the fragments in the X-ray, the pathologists failed to mention that the antero-posterior trail of fragments in the lateral X-ray are in an entirely different location than specified in their autopsy report.

2) The Trail of Bullet Fragments on JFK’s X-ray

That report describes the fragment trail as, “along a line corresponding with a line joining the above described small occipital wound and the right supra-orbital ridge - very near the bottom of the skull.”[178] The autopsy X-rays, which were examined by author Aguilar, radiologist Randall Robertson, coroner Cyril Wecht, and physician-physicist David Mantik at the National Archives, reveal that the line of fragments is at least 12-cm higher than the line described in the autopsy report. In fact, the trail is even significantly above the 4 &1/2 inch higher location accepted by the Clark Panel, the Rockefeller Commission and HSCA as the true wound of entrance.

3) The Location of JFK’s Skull Damage

There was another significant and unmentioned, perhaps even unrecognized, discrepancy in the pathologists’ review: the X-rays and photographs show that the skull damage extended well into the frontal bone. The frontal bone, however, was not reported damaged in the original autopsy report. That report described JFK’s skull and scalp defect as “a large irregular defect of chiefly the parietal bone but extending somewhat into the temporal and occipital regions. In this region there is an actual absence of scalp and bone ... .”[179] Nevertheless, a simple comparison between the wounds described in the autopsy report, and those visible in the X-rays and photographs, would have shown a conflict that a proper review could not have failed to have taken note of.

Though Ramsey Clark had indeed gotten Humes, Boswell, and Finck “signed up,” both Clark’s and LBJ’s memos hinted at a problem to come during the HSCA’s investigation: missing JFK autopsy photographs, to which we will later return. It is worth noting here, however, that Finck had not signed the first Justice affidavit certifying the completeness of the photographic file. In fact, he later impeached that affidavit during his HSCA appearance by swearing that photos he took of the internal and external aspects of JFK’s skull wound were missing. Ironically, the same fellows who had signed that affidavit certifying of completeness – Humes, Boswell and Stringer – later joined Finck in impeaching it. They also, independently and repeatedly, later swore autopsy photographs were missing.

Next: III. The Clark Panel

[133] Weisberg, Harold. Whitewash – the Report on the Warren Report. New York: Dell, 1965.

[134] The Warren Commission Report on the Assassination Is Struck by a New Wave of Doubt. Fletcher Knebel. Look Magazine, July 12, 1966, p. 66 ff.

[135] A Matter of Reasonable Doubt. Life Magazine, November 25, 1966, p. 38, ff.

[136] Popkin, Richard. The Second Oswald. New York: Avon Books, 1966.

[137] For a good compilation of Warren-critical books and articles from the period in question, see David Lifton’s Best Evidence, New York, Carroll & Graf, 1992,  p. 712, 716-717.

[138] Obtained by Kathy Cunningham. Memo from AAG Ramsey Clark to “Vinson, Sanders and Rogovin,” dated Nov. 25, 1966. Titled: “Warren Commission -- Re-evaluation of evidence”. Obtained at the LBJ Library by Randy Robertson.

[139] Although the “Liebeler memorandum” has not been published, author David Lifton discusses the memo in detail in Best Evidence, New York, Carroll and Graff, 1980, 1988 & 1992. While Slawson refers to the memo’s having been dated 11/16/66, Lifton claims it was written on 11/8/66.

[140] US Govt. Document: Agency: “DOJCOVIL” Record # 182-10001-10013. From DOJ - David Slawson - to Ramsey Clark.

[141] Reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold. Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 565 ff. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #13.

[142] Quotes taken from an untitled affidavit signed by James H. Humes, J. Thornton Boswell and Pierre Finck on January 26, 1967 and reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold, Harold. Post Mortem, p. 575. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #14. While this document describes an examination of the autopsy inventory performed on January 20, 1967, reference is made in this document to the fact that the first look the principals ever got of the autopsy photographs occurred on November 1, 1966, after a request by the Justice Department that they “examine, identify and inventory” the autopsy photographs.

[143] Inventory retrieved by Kathy Cunningham from National Archives. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #12. No identifying information accompanies the inventory, other than the following statement which is on a sheet preceding the inventory, “This is the inventory of the autopsy, x-rays, and photographs which is mentioned near the bottom of the first page of the report of Drs. Humes, Boswell, and Finck, dated Jan. 26, 1967 (sic). Please add it to the Burkley and Kennedy Letters you are checking with Mr. Richman. - 1/30/69”

[144] ARRB Medical Document #13, p. 11. In: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem, p.565-573.

[145] Quotes appear in an undated, untitled report signed by James H. Humes, J. Thornton Boswell and Pierre Finck, and reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold. Post Mortem, p. 575 – 576. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #14.

[146] ARRB Medical Document #14, p.5. Weisberg, Harold. Post Mortem, p. 576.

[147] Taped phone conversation between acting Attorney General Ramsey Clark and President Lyndon Johnson, 1/21/67, obtained from LBJ Presidential Library. Transcribed by Debra Conway, and available at:

[148] From a memo titled “President Johnson's Notes on Conversation with Acting Attorney General Ramsey Clark - January 26, 1967 - 6:29 P.M.,” obtained from the Lyndon B. Johnson Library. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #68.

[149] Floyd Reibe, the assistant autopsy photographer, was reported to have told the HSCA, "he thought he took about six pictures--'I think it was three film packs'--of internal portions of the body." In: David, Lifton, Best Evidence. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1980, p. 638.

[150] HSCA rec. # 180-10093-10429.  Agency file # 002070, p. 11. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #19, see p.11. [Stringer apparently was not satisfied with the explanation given him for the missing photos,  for the HSCA reported, “He (Stringer) noted that the receipt he had said some of the film holders (sic) had no film in one side of the cassettes.  He said the receipt said this happened in two or three of the film holders where one side only was allegedly loaded.  He said he could understand it if the film holders were reported to have poorly exposed or defective film but could not believe that there were any sides on the film holders which were not loaded with film...."

[151] HSCA rec. # 180-10093-10429.  Agency file # 002070, p. 2. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #19, see p.16. There are no photographs of the interior of Kennedy’s chest in the “complete” set of autopsy images at the National Archives. However every autopsy participant who was asked recalled that photographs were taken of the interior of JFK’s body, as they should have been to document the passage of the non-fatal bullet through JFK’s chest. Stringer told the HSCA he recalled taking “at least two exposures of the body cavity.”

[152] HSCA record # 180-10093-10429), Agency file # 002070, p. 17. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #19, see p. 7.

[154] Regarding J. Thornton Boswell, MD, the pathologist who was second in command after Humes, the HSCA recorded that, "... he (Boswell) thought they photographed '... the exposed thoracic cavity and lung ...' but (he) doesn't remember ever seeing those photographs." A. Purdy. HSCA rec. # 180-10093-10430.  Agency file # 002071-p. 6. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #26, see p.6.

[155] A. Purdy. HSCA, JFK Collection. RG #233, file #002198, p.5.

[156] HSCA interview with Finck, p.90-91. Agency File 013617. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #30, see p. 89-90. Evidence that these key documentary photographs of JFK’s fatal wound were indeed taken dates to the Warren Commission. During his Commission testimony, while discussing the beveling that was visible in the bone where the bullet entered, Commander Humes claimed, “This wound then had the characteristics of wound of entrance from this direction through the two tables of the skull.”

Arlen Specter: “When you say ‘this direction,’ will you specify that direction in relationship to the skull?”

Humes: “At that point I mean only from without the skull to within … and incidentally photographs illustrating this [beveling] phenomenon from both the external surface of the skull and from the internal surface were prepared.” (Warren Commission Vol.2:363)

 (Another witness supported Finck’s contention that he had worked with the photographer that night. Dr. Robert Karnei, MD, a Bethesda pathologist who was present during the autopsy, was interviewed by the HSCA. It reported, “He [Karnei] said he does ‘remember him [Finck] working with probes and arranging for photographs.’” - HSCA Agency File # 002198, p. 6.)

[157] From: Carl W. Belcher, Chief, General Crimes Section, Criminal Division, US Dept. of Justice, 11/22/66. Agency: DOJCIVIL, Record # 182-10001-100021. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #49, see p. 4.

[158] Attestation of examination of autopsy photographs and radiographs dated 1/26/67, signed by James Humes, MD, J. Thornton Boswell, MD and Pierre Finck, MD. In: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem. Published by Harold Weisberg in 1972, Frederick Maryland, p. 575-579. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #14, see p. 1.

[159] Document entitled “PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATION” (sic) retrieved from National Archives identified only by a cover sheet stating “Collection: HSCA (RG 233), obtained by Kathy Cunningham. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #32, see p. 2.

[160] Op. cit. at ref. #44, p. 579. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #14, see p. 5.

[161] Dr. Boswell’s 1/26/68 letter to Ramsey Clark is reproduced in Harold Weisberg’s book, Post Mortem, p. 574.

[162] US Govt. Document: Agency: “DOJCIVIL”, Record # 182-10001-10002. From J. Thornton Boswell, MD To: Ramsey Clark, Attorney General. In: In: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem. Published by Harold Weisberg in 1972, Frederick Maryland, p 574.

[163] New York Times, January 17, 1969, p. 17.

[164] Deposition of J. Thornton Boswell by ARRB, 2/26/96, p. 10. (Note, Boswell also told this same story in the May 27, 1992 issue of JAMA. Op. cit.)

[165] Harold Weisberg. Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland: 1975, p. 139. (First printing was in 1969. See p. 574 for a copy of Boswell’s letter.)

[166] JAMA, May 27, 1992, v. 267:2802. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #22, see p. 2802.

[167] Personal communication, 3/1/02.

[168] Blaine Taylor, The Case of the Outspoken Medical Examiner. Maryland State Med. J., March, 1977, p. 65.

[169] Blaine Taylor, The Case of the Outspoken Medical Examiner. Maryland State Med. J., March, 1977, p. 66.

[170] Memo by Pierre Finck to Director, Air Force Institute of Pathology, dated 3/11/69, regarding subject, “Shaw Trial, New Orleans.” Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #36, see p. 3.

[171] Memo by Pierre Finck to Director, Air Force Institute of Pathology, dated 3/11/69, regarding subject, “Shaw Trial, New Orleans.” Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #36, see p. 2.

[174] Dennis Breo. “JFK’s death – the plain truth from the MDs who did the autopsy”. JAMA, May 27, 1992, v. 267:2802. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #22, see p. 2802.

[177] Affidavit of James H. Humes, MD, J. Thornton Boswell, MD, and Pierre A. Finck, MD January 26, 1967. In: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem, p.575-579. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #14, see pp. 3-4.