She pulled me along by the hand as we silently hurried from the supermarket that dreary Friday afternoon in late November 1963. Soon we were home and Mom went directly to the living room, joining my older brothers and sobbing teenage sisters, all of us staring in disbelief at the dreadful drama playing out on our black and white TV. Even as a 4-year-old I understood the basics of what was happening: President John F. Kennedy, the pride of every Irish Catholic family like our own, the guy whose picture hung in the dining rooms of our friends, was dead, shot by some wacko named Lee Harvey Oswald, or so we were told.
The scene in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza was so jarring and upsetting that the coup d’ gráce, the fatal shot to the head, wasn’t even presented on television until 1975. That’s when Geraldo Rivera aired the now-infamous Abraham Zapruder film on his late-night show “Good Night America,” graphically illustrating for the first time how the back of Kennedy’s head had been blown off in what appeared to be a shot from the front.
By then, the Warren Commission investigating the murder, headed by US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, had seen the tape, but the public hadn’t. And those frames in which it appeared to be a gunshot from the infamous grassy knoll that tore into the president’s skull made the commission and its single-shooter theory seem like an elaborate way to cover up for the real culprits — the mafia, the CIA, the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro and Vice President Lyndon Johnson leading the list of suspects developed by a vast army of amateur sleuths who came to be known in the ensuing years as “conspiracy theorists.”
Over the past half-century, a large majority of Americans have come to believe that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. Earlier this year, US News & World Report cited a poll by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which found that the commonly held belief that more than one person was involved in the assassination “remains the most widely held conspiracy theory in America.”
In that April poll, 59 percent said others were involved. A recent poll by The Associated Press matched AEI’s figures, and a Gallup poll came in at 61 percent of those asked still believing another gunman was involved.
That figure was down sharply from 2003, with a Gallup poll that year showing three-quarters of those interviewed believing Kennedy’s killing involved a conspiracy, and an ABC News poll finding 70 percent of Americans believed that JFK was killed by at least two people.
One reason for the dramatic drop in numbers could be a matter of simple attrition. Fewer and fewer people who lived then and remember those times are still around. Another might be the work of a small but determined number of investigators, perhaps none more convincing than former hard-charging LA Deputy DA Vincent Bugliosi.
In the early 1970s, Bugliosi, now 79, became world famous for winning the convictions of mass murderer Charles Manson and members of his so-called “family,” then writing a bestselling book about the case with Curt Gentry called “Helter Skelter.” In 2008, the prolific prosecutor went after President George W. Bush, writing “The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder,” in which Bugliosi alleged that Bush was responsible for the deaths of American military personnel during the war in Iraq, a conflict Bugliosi claims the president started under false pretenses.
In his 2007 book, “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” Bugliosi puts Oswald on trial, as well as the Warren Commission, and at the end of more than 1,600 pages comes to the only conclusion he believes is possible: Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy.
Of the more than 1,000 books that have been published on the assassination, Bugliosi insists his is the definitive text on the most controversial murder in American history.
“No book comes anywhere remotely close to my book in covering the entire case,” Bugliosi told the Pasadena Weekly. “It is the book on the assassination and I am very proud of it.”
In 1986, Bugliosi played the part of prosecutor in an unscripted 21-hour mock trial of Oswald on British television. In defense was well-known attorney Gerry Spence. Bugliosi won.
With the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death looming large in everyone’s thoughts this week, the former county prosecutor was in big demand, giving a number of interviews Tuesday, the day we talked with him by phone from his home in Pasadena.
Pasadena Weekly: Thanks for talking with me. I know you’re a busy man this week. Let’s look at the evidence quickly, specifically the supposed shot from the grassy knoll. You are saying that this fatal shot was not from the front?
Vincent Bugliosi: That event that you just mentioned I think convinced millions of Americans, understandably so, incorrectly, but understandably, that they were wrong, that the shots came from the front because you have that head snap to the rear. Gerry Spence showed that segment of the film over and over again (during the mock trial), at least three times, I think he showed it four or five times, and he told the jury that it looked like Babe Ruth had taken a bat and had hit it as far as he could.
Then he says that Mr. Bugliosi, in his Wyoming patois, he says, ‘Mr Booyosi is trying to convince you folks that what you saw with your very own eyes never even happened.’ I think if I didn’t have an answer for him, I think the verdict probably would have been not guilty, because I think it would have raised a reasonable doubt. But I did have an answer.
If you look at the individual frames of the Zapruder film, if you look at the film all you will see is the head snap to the rear. But if you look at individual frames, at frame 312 the president’s head is OK. At 313, the president is struck in the head, you see the explosion of the head, and at what direction is the president’s head pushed at frame 313? It’s pushed slightly forward, not backward. So at the all-important moment of impact, the president’s head was pushed forward, indicating he was shot from the rear, where Oswald was, not forward, where you mentioned the grassy knoll was. Then, in frames 314 to 321, that was the head snap to the rear. [A pathology panel] looking into the assassination, they called this a neuromuscular reaction. Nerve damage had occurred in the president’s brain, causing his back muscles to tighten, which in turn caused the president’s head to go backwards. … I think the most important thing is what happened at the time the bullet hit, and it pushes his head forward.
Another key piece of evidence was the so-called Magic Bullet, which went through the president’s back, then his throat, then through the back of a car seat, then into (Texas) Gov. (John) Connally’s back and into Connally’s wrist, and yet was found virtually unblemished. Had you ever seen anything like that in you experience as a prosecutor?
Let me just say there was no magic bullet. It was just a clever invention of the conspiracy community. What they do in their sketches, they place Connally erroneously. Oliver Stone did in his movie and they all do this. Then they argue that a bullet coming from the president’s right rear coming on a downward trajectory and on a straight line through the president’s body, soft tissue, once it exits from the president’s throat, for it to have hit Connally, it would have to have made a right turn in midair, then make a left turn. I think we can agree that if we start off with an erroneous premise everything to follow isn’t going to make a lot of sense. The only problem is that’s wrong. Connally was not seated directly in front of Kennedy. He was seated on a jump seat to the president’s left front. So a bullet exiting from the president’s throat in a straight line had to go into Connally for the simple reason that it had nowhere else to go.
Now, at the trial in London, Spence called Cyril Wecht, and he has been for years the chief pathologist for the conspiracy community, and he called Wecht to the stand. And he said, ‘Dr. Wecht, can you tell this jury what type of bullet this was?’ and Wecht said to Spence, ‘Well, Mr. Spence, bullets don’t make left and right turns in mid-air, not even in cartoons. It was a magic bullet.’ On cross examination, I said to Wecht, ‘Dr. Wecht, if this bullet passed through soft tissue in a straight line through Kennedy’s body, and did not go on and hit Gov. Connally, as you claim it did not, why didn’t it tear up the interior of the limousine or hit the driver or anything else? And he said, ‘Well, you know, I didn’t conduct the investigation on this case.’ I said, ‘Now wait a minute, Dr. Wecht. It sounds like you have your own magic bullet. After it exited the president’s throat, it did not go on to hit Gov. Connally. It did not go on to tear up the interior of the limousine. It did not hit the driver or anyone or anything else. It must have zigzagged to the left,’ and he said, ‘No, it did not zigzag to the left.’ I said, ‘Then did it hop, skip and jump over the car?’ He said, ‘No, it did not have to perform any remarkable feat at all.’ I said, ‘Then tell this jury what happened to the bullet after it exited the president’s throat?’ And he paused, and he said, ‘I don’t know.’
Now, when you really stop and think about this, we accept what the conspiracy theorists argue, that after the bullet exited from the front of the president’s throat it apparently vanished without a trace into thin air. The question then is who’s got the magic bullet? The tremendous irony here is that the conspiracy theorists have hung that magic bullet tag around the throat or the neck of the Warren Commission for 50 years, successfully by the way, very successfully, and it turns out they did not have a magic bullet. … A 2-year-old would know that the bullet would have to go through and hit (Connally).
Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought they found a pristine bullet and it didn’t even look like it had been fired.
What you are talking about is also a magic bullet argument. The main magic bullet argument is that the bullet made all these turns in mid-air. You are bringing up a second magic bullet argument and that is the bullet recovered on the stretcher outside of Parkland Hospital. They claimed it was in pristine condition. The word pristine I think means perfect. And the point is it was not in pristine condition. The base of the bullet was badly damaged. No one else shows this in their books. I do in mine. The bullet lost, I believe, 2.4 grains from its original weight of 161 grains. Also, their main argument was that because it went through Connelly’s body, it would have been much more damaged than that. No 1, this bullet was a fully metal-jacketed military-type bullet, the type that was designed to cause a lot of damage to whatever it hit without doing too much damage to itself. Secondly, the bullet passed through soft tissue in Kennedy’s body and when it hit Connally, it only hit a glancing blow to the fifth right rib. But it did go on and directly hit Connally’s right wrist. But by that time, the bullet had slowed down and by that time it’s not going to do much damage to an object it hits or to itself. And the wrist is one of the softest bones in the body. In any event, forensic experts from the House Select Committee (on Assassinations) and the Warren Commission both agree that this bullet could have caused the damage it did to Kennedy and Connally without being more deformed than it was.
One thing, the two main things to talk about are, did Oswald kill Kennedy? And even more importantly, was there a conspiracy? On Oswald’s guilt, near the end of the book I have 53 separate pieces of evidence pointing irresistibly to Oswald’s guilt. Under those circumstances, it would not even be humanly possible for him to be innocent. I mean, you can be completely innocent and have a piece of evidence pointing toward your guilt. And because of the nature of life, maybe two or three and even, in a really far out situation, four pieces of evidence pointing directly toward guilt. And you are completely innocent. But you are not going to have 53 pieces of evidence. That’s not going to happen in the real world. It just doesn’t happen. Only in a fantasy world. … When he was interrogated for more than 12 hours by the Dallas Police Department he told one provable lie after another, all of which, of course, show consciousness of guilt. I am not just satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt about his guilt. I am satisfied beyond all doubt.
As to a conspiracy, there are 32 separate pieces of evidence which point away from the existence of a conspiracy. If there was a conspiracy, Oswald would have been one of the last people on the face of this earth that anyone would have gotten to do their bidding for them. Here’s someone who is not an expert shot. He was a good shot, but he was not an expert shot. If you are going to get someone to kill the president, you are going to get someone who is an expert shot. Notoriously unreliable, unstable, here is someone who, pre-Gorbachev, lived in the Soviet Union. Even today, who in the world defects to Russia? But he goes over there. He desperately wants to become a citizen, and what does he do? He slashes his wrist and tries to commit suicide. Just the kind of person the CIA would want to rely upon to commit the biggest murder in American history. Of course, I’m, being sarcastic, but I am making a point. … Here you have 50 years have gone by and not one credible word has leaked out about a conspiracy, and that is
because there was no conspiracy.
The whole thing is ridiculous, and yet it’s endless, it’s bottomless. I see no diminution at all in the fervor of conspiracy community and their arguments. They have the same passion, the same fervor, the same craziness they have always had. It’s a religion with them. There is no way to convince them of an opposite notion. They are not going to accept Oswald killed Kennedy. The tremendous irony here is most of them love and idolize John F Kennedy. The irony is they are literally dedicating their lives to exonerating the person who destroyed their hero, blew his brains out. I don’t think they ever thought about that.
How could so many people have gotten it so wrong after all these years?
It could be because it’s become a religion. Let me make a broad assessment. I believe the overwhelming majority of these conspiracy buffs are sincere, they are patriotic, but when it comes to the Kennedy case, they are certifiably psychotic. They have no grasp of reality. There is no question about that. They are immune to evidence. Otherwise, in their regular lives, I think they are average people and I think they are sincere.
Why do you think people have been so willing to embrace this idea of a conspiracy?
When the report came out on Sept. 26, 1964, 55 percent of the American people accepted the findings of the Warren Commission and Oswald’s guilt; 32 percent rejected the findings and the rest were, I guess, undecided. But because of the torrent of books, radio, TV talk shows, movies, college lectures, the shrill voices of the conspiracy theorists to convince the majority of Americans that Oswald was either a member of a high-level conspiracy, or some patsy who was framed by an elaborate group of co-conspirators, from Cuban exiles to organized crime to US intelligence, people believe there was a conspiracy. To paraphrase Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for the Third Reich, if you push something at someone long enough they are going to start buying it, particularly if they are not exposed to any contrary view. There are 1,000 books on the assassination and 95 percent of them are about a conspiracy. Eventually, that takes its toll.