FORENSIC SCIENCE AND PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S HEAD WOUNDS
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
The Warren Commission
claimed President Kennedy was struck in the head by a
Shearing, FMJ Missiles,
Ballistics expert and
court-certified firearms expert Howard Donahue pointed out it was highly
. . due to the inherent strength of the
Unless full metal jacketed bullets strike an intermediate object in flight, prompting premature expansion and/or fragmentation, the depositing of fragments outside the entry wound is foreign to my experience. It is not common sense and would only be proposed by a person totally out of touch with the mechanisms of bullet penetration through the human body. (In Harrison Livingstone, Killing the Truth: Deceit and Deception in the JFK Case, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1993, pp. 57-58)
You can appreciate the fact that a jacketed projectile is going to leave very little on the bone margins because it's basically a hardened jacket, and it's designed so that it will not scrape off when it goes through a steel barrel. One can appreciate the fact that going through bone, which is not as hard as steel, may etch or scratch it, but it's not going to peel off much metal. In contrast to this, a softer projectile might very well leave metallic residues around the margins. (In Robert Groden and Livingstone, High Treason, Berkley Books Edition, New York: Berkley Books, 1990, p. 79)
Bear in mind that Fillinger was talking about "residues." He wasn't
referring to a sizable fragment like the
In doing research for the second edition of this article, I wrote to several medical examiners and asked them the following two questions:
1. When fully metal-jacketed (FMJ) bullets traveling at medium or high velocity pierce through skulls, do they normally leave behind numerous small bullet fragments inside the skull, as in twenty to forty small fragments?
2. Have you ever heard of an FMJ missile depositing a sizable bullet fragment on the outer table of the skull near the entry wound (i.e., as a result of the fragment being scraped off the jacket as the bullet entered the skull)?
In both instances, I'm assuming a velocity of around 2200 fps.
I received two replies, one
from Dr. Jimmy W. Green and the other from Dr. Eric Berg, both of whom, as
mentioned, are medical examiners. Dr. Green said that "almost all"
FMJ bullets fired from medium-to-high-velocity rifles "do not fragment
with numerous pieces." He cited one exception, and that was a .223 bullet
traveling at a high velocity, and he noted that "hunting ammunition"
will produce a "lead snowstorm." Of course, the
1. Almost all FMJ bullets fired from rifles of medium to high velocity do not fragment with numerous pieces as you have described. Having said that, it is known that the .223 bullet as used in an M-16 rifle will produce multiple fragmentation even though it is an FMJ bullet. This is due to its high velocity (about 3200 fps) and inherent instability when it enters the body. These combined effects tear open the jacket and expose the lead core. Most centerfire rifle bullets from hunting ammunition will cause a "lead snowstorm" effect with numerous small metallic fragments breaking off the lead core as the bullet passes thru the body. I don't see why this couldn't happen with the skull and brain as well as the trunk.
should include whether or not there were any intermediary targets prior to
entering the body or head and whether or not the actual bullets were FMJ or
some other construction. (E-mail to author,
Dr. Berg was even more skeptical that an FMJ bullet would leave numerous fragments in a skull. With regard to the question about an FMJ bullet depositing a fragment on the outer table of the skull, he said, "No, not with a full metal jacket." I quote Dr. Berg's reply:
QUESTION #1: No. "In x-rays of through-and-through gunshot wounds, the presence of small fragments of metal along the wound track virtually rules out full metal-jacketed ammunition.. . . In rare instances, involving full metal-jacketed centerfire rifle bullets, a few small, dust-like fragments of lead may be seen on x-ray if the bullet perforates bone. One of the most characteristic x-rays and one that will indicate the type of weapon and ammunition used is that seen from centerfire rifles firing hunting ammunition. In such a case, one will see a 'lead snowstorm'. . . . Such a picture rules out full metal-jacketed rifle ammunition or a shotgun slug." (Page 318)
QUESTION #2: No, not with a full metal jacket.
VJM DiMaio, Gunshot Wounds, CRC Press,
In fact, when Dr. Mantik
Dr. Larry Sturdivan, a wound ballistics expert who served as a
consultant for the HSCA, has acknowledged the
not sure just what the
Dozens of Tiny Fragments from FMJ Missiles?
When Failure Analysis Inc.
conducted ballistics tests on the behavior of FMJ missiles through human
skulls, not one of the test bullets broke up into fragments. The bullets used
by Failure Analysis were FMJ missiles coated with nickel-chrome, whereas the
ones allegedly used by Oswald were copper-jacketed. When they were fired into
human skulls, not one of the Failure Analysis missiles broke up into fragments,
much less into numerous tiny fragments. Yet, the autopsy x-rays of President
Kennedy's skull show a veritable snowstorm of tiny bullet fragments, over
Detective Roach again:
head wound [JFK's head wound as seen in the x-rays]
has all the hallmarks of
Howard Donahue discovered that the HSCA's own ballistics tests provided further evidence that the bullet that struck Kennedy in the head did not behave like a Carcano missile, but instead like a high-velocity, frangible bullet. Bonar Menninger explains:
another clue surfaced . . . that further strengthened Donahue's belief that his
conclusions were correct. A press package containing reams of ballistic data
and charts was made available to who attended the [HSCA's]
ballistic hearings. Included in the package were photographs of gelatin blocks
shot with various caliber bullets. The gelatin simulated the human brain. The
tests were designed to mimic the President's head wound. Among the bullets
tested by the committee were a
Dr. Cyril Wecht, former president of the
is my experience, including bullets that are not as powerful and fully jacketed
ammunition like this [the
The usual failure of FMJ bullets to leave numerous fragments in skulls was also seen in Dr. John Lattimer's wound ballistics tests. Dr. Lattimer fired Carcano missiles at test skulls packed with a substance designed to simulate the scalp. X-rays of these test skulls revealed no bullet fragments, not even near the wound of entry in the rear top of the head (Michael Kurtz, Crime of the Century, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982, p. 98).
Dr. Alfred Olivier conducted ballistics tests for the Warren Commission, in part to determine if a Carcano missile could have caused the wounds to President Kennedy's head. Some Warren Commission defenders have argued that Dr. Olivier's tests did in fact prove that the head shot could have been caused by a Carcano missile, and that his tests in fact explained the veritable snowstorm of bullet fragments seen in the autopsy x-rays of JFK's skull. However, the extant x-rays of skulls from Dr. Olivier's tests prove otherwise (see below). Also, Howard Donahue reported that Dr. Olivier told him (1) the bullets in his ballistics tests did not explode or disintegrate, and (2) the bullets broke up into only a few fragments. After reviewing Dr. Olivier's Warren Commission testimony, and upon considering the exhibits produced by his tests, I question the assertion that Dr. Olivier's tests support the claim that the head shot could have been caused by a Carcano missile.
Dr. Olivier did not specify how many fragments resulted from each of his test bullets. If anything, however, his description of them does not give the impression they were numerous (see, for example, 5 H 88). The photos of the relevant exhibits appear to confirm this view. The fragments from Dr. Olivier's tests appear in CE 857 and in CE 859. The photos in these exhibits show that this particular test missile broke up into no more than nine small fragments and into two somewhat larger fragments. CE 857 is a photograph showing a small clear plastic box with the lid open with what looks like between six to nine tiny fragments in it. To the right are two large bullet fragments with the front end smashed in. X-rays of skulls from Dr. Olivier's tests show minimal fragmentation, and the fragmentation they show is markedly different from the fragmentation seen on the autopsy skull x-rays. Tests show that on those rare occasions when FMJ bullets do fragment extensively when penetrating skull bone, most of the fragments are blown out of the skull, so that few if any bullet pieces remain inside the skull. More will be said about these last two points in a moment.
I see other problems for the lone-gunman theory in the results from Dr. Olivier's tests. The resulting exit wounds in his test skulls were nowhere near the HSCA's revised location for JFK's exit wound, which is the location now accepted by virtually all lone-gunman theorists. In fact, in his Warren Commission testimony Dr. Olivier mentioned one test in which the bullet exited from the area of the supraorbital ridge, which is in the forward part of the frontal bone (5 H 89). (Of course, Dr. Olivier assumed the entry point was slightly above the external occipital protuberance, which is where the autopsists located it, but the HSCA said the autopsy photos and x-rays showed the entrance to be a whopping four inches higher. The autopsists balked at this placement. Boswell and Finck never wavered in their insistence that the entry point was where they had placed it, and they disputed the relevance of the autopsy materials in this instance. Humes initially rejected the higher placement, vigorously. Later, though, he temporarily caved in and went along with the revised location. Now, however, he once again insists the wound was where he said it was during the autopsy and in the autopsy report.)
It is interesting to note
that although Dr. Olivier fired bullets into ten skulls, he only cited one
skull as having an exit wound that was at all similar in location and size to
the large exit wound described by the autopsy doctors. As a matter of fact,
most of the resulting exit wounds were in the frontal area--they shattered
bones in the forehead area (Menninger, Mortal
Error, p. 84). Bear in mind, too, that the commission's exit wound was
different than the one later proposed by the HSCA, and different than the one
described in detail by the Dallas doctors and nurses who treated the president
at Parkland Hospital immediately after the shooting. The
Regardless of where one believes the exit wound was located, it would be uncharacteristic of a Carcano bullet to leave a trail of numerous fragments inside a skull. Yet, the missile that struck JFK's skull left dozens of tiny fragments all across the right side of the interior of the head, from the alleged entrance point to the forward edge of the HSCA's revised exit wound. And, as mentioned, in the Failure Analysis ballistics tests, the FMJ missiles fired into skulls did not break up into tiny fragments. In fact, no FMJ bullet in the known history of forensic science has done what the head-shot bullet of the lone-gunman theory supposedly did. According to the lone-gunman scenario, the head-shot missile did all of the following:
1. Left a sizable fragment
in the back of the skull as it entered the skull,
2. Left a snowstorm of tiny
3. Deposited two sizable fragments inside the limousine (after one of them presumably dented the windshield chrome);
4. Left traces of lead on one of the seats and in the windshield;
5. Sent a sizable fragment
streaking toward James Tague, who was standing over
Dr. Michael Kurtz has done considerable research on the wound ballistics aspects of the case. Dr. Kurtz argues that the skull fracturing and bullet fragmentation visible on the autopsy x-rays indicate high-velocity ammunition struck the president's skull, not low-velocity or medium-velocity ammunition as supposed by the single-assassin theory:
The x-rays of the skull reveal massive multiple fractures of the skull on both the right and left sides. There is extensive fragmentation of the bone, and several pieces of the skull are missing. This type of damage is not produced by ammunition like that allegedly used by Oswald. Copper-jacketed bullet commonly penetrate straight through objects, leaving only small tracks and causing little in the way of bone fractures. Wounds ballistics tests performed for the commission confirmed this. Bullets from Oswald's rifle, from a .257 Roberts soft-point hunting rifle, and from a United States Army M-14 rifle were fired into blocks of gelatin covered with masonite. The Mannlicher-Carcano bullet went straight through the gelatin, leaving a tiny track and causing little damage to the substance. The soft-point hunting bullet expanded rapidly upon entering and considerably more damage. The M-14 bullet caused more destruction than the others. . . .
The skull x-rays also depicted extensive bullet fragmentation within the skull. This type of fragmentation is not typical of full-jacketed military ammunition. That ammunition was specifically designed to remain intact when passing through a body. Lead, or hollow-point, ammunition is the type that causes fragmentation. . . .
World War II films of men being shot in the head by Mannlicher-Carcano rifles reveal absolutely no massive explosion of brain tissue and also show quite graphically that the men invariably fell in the same direction as the trajectory of the bullets that struck them. Autopsy photographs and x-rays of some of the victims of Mannlicher-Carcano-inflicted head wounds also showed no bullet fragmentation, no serious disruption of brain tissue, and very small exit wounds. (Crime of the Century, pp. 91, 104)
The x-rays of two of the skulls used in the Warren Commission's wound ballistics tests pose another problem for the lone-gunman theory. The fragmentation seen on these x-rays differs markedly from the fragmentation seen on the autopsy x-rays, in location, nature, and number. Howard Roffman explains:
These X rays depict gelatin-filled human skulls shot with ammunition of the type allegedly used by Oswald. They were classified by the government and remained suppressed until recently; they are printed here for the first time ever. What they reveal is that Oswald's rifle could not have produced the head wounds suffered by President Kennedy. The bullet that hit the president in the head exploded into a multitude of minuscule fragments. One Secret Service agent described the appearance of these metal fragments on the X rays: "The whole head looked like a little mass of stars." The fragmentation depicted on these test X rays obviously differs from that described in the president's head. The upper X ray reveals only relatively large fragments concentrated at the point of entrance; the lower reveals only a few tiny fragments altogether. This gives dramatic, suppressed proof that Oswald did not fire the shot that killed President Kennedy. (Photo: National Archives) (Presumed Guilty, 1976, photo pages 8 and 9, chapter 5)
Another wound ballistics problem for the lone-gunman theory is that the number of known and unknown fragments from the head shot appears to add up to much more than one Carcano missile, which means more than one bullet struck Kennedy in the head. Dr. Kurtz explains:
The known fragments both inside and outside the head total more than two-thirds of an intact Mannlicher-Carcano bullet. This does not account for the fact that a sizable number of fragments exploded completely out of the head and were propelled out of the limousine on to the street. . . . The Ramsey Clark panel states specifically that most of the bullet that struck the president "emerged from the head." Dr. Lattimer estimated that 95 grains of the bullet which struck the head "apparently went completely over the windshield to strike the street further along." His calculation is based on the fact that 65 grains of the bullet were recovered. This calculation, however, is based entirely upon the total weight of the limousine fragments. He does not include the weight of the two fragments recovered from the head nor those remaining in the head.
Lattimer estimated that 70 percent of the right half
of the brain as well as 50 percent of the right half of the skull was missing.
Over thirty-five fragments, many over
ballistics tests conducted for the Warren Commission by Dr. Alfred Olivier
confirmed this. A bullet from Oswald's rifle fired into a test skull fragmented
extensively, ejecting over thirty fragments outside the skull. Two very
large fragments composing approximately 70 percent of the test bullet were found
outside the skull. Twenty-nine smaller fragments, some as large as
The results of these tests indicate that the total number of known and unknown fragments add up to substantially more than one of Oswald's bullets. The bullet fragments remaining in the brain plus those in the skull plus those removed from the brain plus those the limousine fragments plus those never recovered strongly suggest that more than one bullet struck President Kennedy in the head. (Crime of the Century, pp. 97-98, emphasis added)
As mentioned, the extensive skull fracturing and bullet fragmentation visible on the autopsy skull x-rays indicate the ammunition that struck the president's head was not the same kind of ammunition that Oswald allegedly used. Even the Clark Panel concluded the missile that struck the back of the president's head was a high-velocity bullet. Said the panel,
These findings indicate that the back of the head was struck by a single bullet travelling at high velocity. . . . (Clark Panel Report, "Examination of Photographs of Head," reproduced in Menninger, Mortal Error, p. 316, emphasis added)
However, Oswald used low-to-medium-velocity ammunition. FBI firearms expert Robert Frazier explained to the commission that the Carcano rifle (the alleged murder weapon) was a low-velocity weapon:
Mr. EISENBERG. How does the recoil of this weapon [the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that Oswald supposedly used] compare with the recoil of the average military rifle?
Mr. FRAZIER. Considerably less. The recoil is nominal with this weapon, because it has a very low velocity and pressure, and just an average-size bullet weight.
Mr. EISENBERG. Is the killing power of the bullets essentially similar to the killing power at these ranges---the killing power of the rifles you have named?
Mr. FRAZIER. No, sir.
Mr. EISENBERG. How much difference is there?
Mr. FRAZIER. The higher velocity bullets of approximately the same weight would have more killing power. This has a low velocity. . . . (3 H 414, emphasis added)
As stated earlier, I asked several medical examiners about the likelihood that an FMJ bullet would leave dozens of fragments inside a skull. The two medical examiners who replied, Dr. Jimmy W. Green and Dr. Eric Berg, both indicated they felt this was unlikely. Dr. Green said that "almost all FMJ bullets fired from rifles of medium to high velocity do not fragment with numerous pieces. . . ." Dr. Berg was even more skeptical that an FMJ bullet would leave numerous fragments in a skull, and he quoted from Dr. Vincent DiMaio's book Gunshot Wounds. That quote is worth repeating, and note that Dr. DiMaio says that even in cases where an FMJ bullet perforates bone only rarely will the missile leave fragments, and that even then the fragments will be "few":
In x-rays of through-and-through gunshot wounds, the presence of small fragments of metal along the wound track virtually rules out full metal-jacketed ammunition.. . . In rare instances, involving full metal-jacketed centerfire rifle bullets, a few small, dust-like fragments of lead may be seen on x-ray if the bullet perforates bone. One of the most characteristic x-rays and one that will indicate the type of weapon and ammunition used is that seen from centerfire rifles firing hunting ammunition. In such a case, one will see a "lead snowstorm". . . . Such a picture rules out full metal-jacketed rifle ammunition or a shotgun slug. (Gunshot Wounds, CRC Press, Boca Raton, 1999, p. 318, emphasis added)
Another Bullet Fragment in the Back of the Head
When the HSCA had outside
experts examine the autopsy skull x-rays, the experts discovered a bullet
fragment that had not been noted before. Dr. G. M. McDonnel
discovered the fragment. He noted it was embedded in the galea,
which is a layer located between the scalp and the skull, and that it was
slightly to the left of the
. . . details surfaced in the committee's own documents that indicated Kennedy very likely was hit by not one, but rather a barrage of ricochet fragments.
medical evidence appendix published in early 1979 contained reports from two
radiologists who'd independently examined the President's skull X rays. One of
these physicians, Dr. G. M. McDonnel of
presence of this second bullet piece obviously strengthened Donahue's
conclusions about the first-shot ricochet. So too did information provided by
the second outside expert, Dr. David O. Davis, chairman of the radiology
McDonnel, however, apparently was not totally in accord with this explanation. Instead, he proposed the two fragments may have somehow worked their way back out through the entrance wound and attached themselves to the outside of the skull and galea during the transport and handling of the President's body.
Donahue, this explanation was even more absurd than
Donahue . . . believed that the location of the fragments on both the rear and now the side of Kennedy's head precluded any possibility except a ricochet. (Menninger, Mortal Error, pp. 160-161)
There is no way to explain the presence of this additional fragment in the back of the head in the context of the Warren Commission's lone-gunman scenario. Donahue was almost certainly correct: The fragment must have come from the bullet that several witnesses saw strike the pavement near the limousine when the limousine was passing beneath the oak tree or from another additional bullet that was fired during the assassination. It most certainly did not come from an FMJ bullet that struck Kennedy in the back of the head.
A Frontal Shot Indicated on the X-Rays
There is a cluster of bullet fragments in the right-frontal region in the skull x-rays. This is evidence that a high-velocity, exploding bullet struck the head in that area. Wound ballistics expert Dr. Sturdivan told the HSCA that one would "definitely" see a cloud of bullet fragments clustered near the point of impact of an exploding bullet:
Mr. Matthews: Mr. Sturdivan, taking a look at JFK Exhibit F-53, which is an x-ray of President Kennedy's skull, can you give us your opinion as to whether the president may have been hit with an exploding bullet? . . .
Mr. Sturdivan: In those cases, you would definitely have seen a cloud of metallic fragments very near the entrance wound. (1 HSCA 401, emphasis added)
Sturdivan said he didn't believe Kennedy was struck by exploding ammunition, but he was unaware that the original, unenhanced autopsy x-rays show a cloud of fragments in the area of the right temple, which, according to Sturdivan's own observation, would "definitely" indicate the impact of an exploding missile in that area. Dr. Kurtz:
Sturvidan also stated that Kennedy was not struck in the front of the head by an exploding bullet fired from the grassy knoll. The reason, Sturdivan declared, was that the computer-enhanced x-rays of Kennedy's skull do not depict "a cloud of metallic fragments very near the entrance wound." In cases where exploding bullets impact, he asserted that "you would definitely have seen" such a cloud of fragments in the x-ray. Sturdivan's remarks betrayed both his own ignorance of the medical evidence and the committee's careful manipulation of that evidence. Sturdivan saw only the computer-enhanced x-ray of the skull, not the original, unretouched x-rays. Had he seen the originals, he would have observed a cloud of metallic fragments clustered in the right front portion of the head. Furthermore, the close-up photograph of the margins of the large wound in the head shows numerous small fragments. The Forensic Pathology Panel itself noted the presence of "missile dust" near the wound in the front of the head. One of the expert radiologists who examined the x-rays noticed "a linear alignment of tiny metallic fragments" located in the "posterior aspect of the right frontal bone." The chief autopsy pathologist, Dr. James J. Humes, remarked about the numerous metallic fragments like grains of sand scattered near the front head wound. The medical evidence, then, definitely proves the existence of a cloud of fragments in the right front portion of Kennedy's head, convincing evidence, according to Sturdivan, that an exploding bullet actually did strike the president there. (Crime of the Century, pp. 177-178)
It should be mentioned that the mortician who reassembled Kennedy's skull after the autopsy, Tom Robinson, said he saw a small hole in one of the temples, and he believed it was in the right temple. He said he filled the hole with wax. Additionally, on the afternoon of the assassination, White House press secretary Malcolm Kilduff said in a televised press conference that a bullet had struck Kennedy in the right temple and had gone through his head. He was asked, "Can you say where the bullet entered the head, Mac?" He replied, "It is my understanding that it entered in the temple, the right temple." . Kilduff pointed to his own right temple, adding that he'd been told this by the president's personal physician, Dr. George Burkley. Journalist Seth Kantor was present at that news conference. He recorded in his notes that Kilduff said the bullet "entered right temple."
Interestingly, one of the autopsy pathologists, Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, drew a diagram of the president's skull on the night of the autopsy that shows a small notch in the bone in the right frontal region. Dr. Mantik scanned the skull x-rays with an optical densitometer and found indications of an entrance wound in the same location in the frontal bone where Dr. Boswell depicted a notch. Dr. Mantik concluded, "This notch is therefore a critical piece of evidence: the frontal bullet knocked out a small fragment of bone here" (Murder in Dealey Plaza, p. 251). This defect in the right frontal region confirms the reports of a small wound in the right temple. This defect and the cluster of fragments in the right frontal bone are powerful evidence that a bullet struck Kennedy in the right temple.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith holds a
Masterís degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate
Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University,
a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two Associate
in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force.
He also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of
Civil War Studies from