New Light on a Lingering Forensic Controversy
By John Canal
The exact entry site of President Kennedy’s head wound is the most perplexing medico-legal controversy stemming from the assassination. It has confounded assassination researchers and credentialed experts for decades.
Conflicting conclusions over the entry wound’s location—and the tightly-associated debate over the damage to the cranium—have lingered for so long they seem irresolvable.
Factoring in a simple technique familiar to every skilled mortician, however, makes it possible to resolve the contradictions between the findings of the original pathologists and the official inquiries that revisited the medical evidence in 1968, 1975, 1978, and 1998. It is finally possible to square this particular circle and put the issue to a well-deserved rest.
The Controversy in a Nutshell
All five of the official forensic investigations have been unanimous on one point: a single, high-velocity missile entered the rear of the president’s head, with the instant, gruesome results captured in the Zapruder film beginning at frame 313. Expert opinion is in disagreement about almost everything aside from that.
The three military officers/physicians who performed the postmortem on the night of November 22 placed the entry wound near Kennedy’s external occipital protuberance (EOP), a little knob typically about two inches above the hairline. The autopsy report stated, “Situated in the posterior scalp approximately 2.5 cm. laterally to the right and slightly above the external occipital protuberance is a lacerated wound measuring 15 x 6 mm. In the underlying bone is a corresponding wound . . . .”
These prosectors also noted the grievous damage to JFK’s head. They described a large irregular defect of the scalp and skull on the right involving chiefly the parietal bone but extending somewhat into the temporal and occipital regions. (The parietal bone extends from the occipital bone, which is essentially the back of the head, to the frontal bone, essentially the forehead.) This finding was consistent with the recollections of more than 25 eyewitnesses, most of them medically-trained, who reported seeing an exit-like wound about the size of a small orange in the rear of the president’s head.
Figure 1 is one unofficial attempt from 1967 to depict the damage to the back of the head (BOH) as described in Dr. Robert N. McClelland’s testimony before the Warren Commission. McClelland’s description was one of the more precise eyewitness accounts. But accounts of the damage to this area understandably varied, as the majority of medical personnel had been preoccupied with trying to resuscitate JFK at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital.
The BOH opening, in all likelihood, was created after the bullet’s explosive impact exposed the president’s brain through a tear in the rear scalp and an opening between two or more dislodged (but not blown-out or missing) pieces of loose rear skull. This observation is supported by the fact that the lateral X-ray shows no missing rear bone whatsoever. Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, one of the prosectors, did say in 1996 that he repositioned some bone pieces before the X-rays and photos were taken; it seems logical that he pushed some loose pieces of skull (dislodged but still adhering to the scalp) roughly back into place.
The initial postmortem finding regarding the location of the entry wound in the head was accepted until 1968. In that year Attorney General Ramsey Clark commissioned four experts to revisit the postmortem because of a public controversy that had arisen over the findings. While the so-called Clark Panel did not have the decided advantage of examining the body directly, it was composed entirely of forensic experts, whereas only one of the prosectors had training in that specialty. Citing one X-ray in particular, these experts declared that the prosectors had incorrectly located the rear entry wound in the head. The Clark Panel Report claimed the X-ray in question revealed the entry to be as high as the area of the president’s cowlick, or almost four inches (or ten centimeters) higher than the location established back in November 1963.
A single photographic view was also cited to underpin the Clark Panel’s correction; number 42 representing that view is reproduced here as Figure 2. This photograph was presumed to have been taken just after JFK’s corpse arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital, site of the autopsy, and it presumably showed the entry wound well above the EOP—in the vicinity of the president’s cowlick rather than near the EOP. The Clark Panel made no mention of the dubious practice it had engaged in of using a movable body part, such as the scalp, to locate the entrance wound. Normally, as one wound-ballistics expert put it, the “location of a penetrating wound to the cranium is usually pinpointed by the cratered hole in the skull.”
The other manifest difference between the Clark Panel and the findings of the original prosectors concerned the visible damage to the rear of the president’s head. The Clark Panel reported what seemed self-evident from Figure 2: aside from the cowlick entrance wound, the BOH was relatively unscathed; indeed, the scalp was apparently intact.
The bottom line was that the Clark Panel findings did not fundamentally change the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had fired the one bullet that penetrated the president’s skull, in addition to the separate shot that pierced JFK’s upper back. Nonetheless, the amended conclusions were stunning: assertion of a four-inch error in the entry wound, and refutation of visible BOH damage. The notion that the postmortem contained such gross errors in the first place left doubt where there should have been absolute certainty.