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  • Matt Crumpton

Ep 14: Medical Evidence Part 2 (Single Bullet Theory Part 2)

Updated: Apr 23

In the last episode, we talked about the president’s throat wound, the Sibert and O’Neill report, and whether the autopsy was controlled by the military. Today, we’ll begin looking at at the warren commission’s single bullet theory and the so called magic bullet itself, Commission Exhibit 399

Let’s get back to why the track of the bullet wound in President Kennedy’s throat was not dissected during the autopsy. When Dr. Finck, was asked by Jim Garrison, “why did you not dissect the track of the bullet wound [in the President’s throat]?” Finck said “As I recall, I was told not to, but I don’t remember by whom.”[i]

Bethesda Medical corpsman Paul O’Connor confirmed that the doctors were going to check the track of the throat wound, but Admiral Galloway told the doctors “Leave it alone. Don’t’ touch it. It’s just a tracheotomy.”[ii] O’Connor says that Admiral Galloway “stopped anybody from going further.”[iii]

While the autopsy was ongoing, the assumption of the doctors and everyone in the room, according to agents Sibert and O’Neill, was that the neck wound was from a tracheotomy and the back wound was from a bullet that fell out on the stretcher. Agent O’Neill said in his ARRB testimony, quote “There was no discussion whatsoever about the tracheotomy. I mean, it was a fait accompli that that was a tracheotomy, nothing else. Nor was there any further discussion about the wound … in the back. No discussion whatsoever about that, about what it might have been. Now, I understand that later that morning, after the body was gone, calling to Dallas they found out that [the tracheotomy] was over a bullet wound. But, by that time, the body was gone.”[iv]

If the throat wound is an exit wound, then it is really a continuation of the back wound since they are said to be caused by the same bullet. Was it possible that the bullet that caused President Kennedy’s back wound could have caused his throat wound?

The exact location of the back wound or rear neck wound is highly contested among Kennedy assassination experts. According to the Warren Report, the location of the back wound was “near the base of the back of the neck.”[v] The exact location of the wound according to the official story is just slightly higher than where the Adams apple would be, but on the back of the neck. This makes sense because the Warren Report tells us that the bullet came through the back of President Kennedy’s neck and out the front.

Critics, however, say that the back wound was not a neck wound at all. It was lower and further to the right, such that it was truly more of a back or shoulder wound. If the critics are correct, and this was really a back wound and not a rear neck wound, then the trajectory of the single bullet theory is not possible. So, the location of this wound is really important.

The strongest evidence to support the rear neck wound placement is the autopsy report itself.”[vi] You can see the illustration of the alleged track of the bullet in Commission Exhibit 385, which shows the single bullet as it went through President Kennedy.[vii]

But, according to the FBI report filed by Agents Sibert and O’Neill after the autopsy, the location of the bullet wound was “below the shoulders and two inches to the right of the middle line of the spinal column.”[viii]

Also, Commission Exhibit 397, the handwritten diagram of Dr. Humes, the presiding doctor who wrote the autopsy report, shows the wound well below the neck line and to the right.[ix] Kennedy’s personal physician, Admiral Burkley, even signed his name and wrote the word “verified” on this diagram.[x] Take a look for yourself. On first glance, it looks like an upper back injury where you would expect an exit wound, if there was one, to be lower, and more to the right, then where Kennedy’s throat injury was.

There are five more witnesses who are on record saying that the wound in President Kennedy’s back was not a neck wound, but was more of a shoulder or back wound. Secret Service Agents Kellerman and Greer were present at the autopsy and observed the wound. Kellerman referred to it as “a hole in his shoulder,” specifically “in that large muscle between the shoulder and the neck, just below it,”[xi] while Greer said the “wound was just in the soft part of the shoulder.”[xii] Three other secret service agents who were present in Dallas that day also referred to the alleged rear neck wound as a “shoulder wound”: Agent Thomas J. Kelley (who described it as a “wound in the shoulder”)[xiii], Agent Glen Bennett (who was riding in the follow up car behind the president and said that he “saw that shot hit the President about four inches down from his right shoulder”)[xiv] and Agent Clint Hill (who described it as “an opening in the shoulder”).[xv]

There is another piece of evidence that helps to tell the story of the location of the wound. President Kennedy’s shirt and suit coat both had holes in them from the bullet. When you look at the holes in the clothes, it appears that Kennedy’s rear wound was several inches lower than the autopsy placement.

The exact location the Warren Report says the rear neck shot hit Kennedy is “5 1/2 inches (from the tip of the right shoulder joint and approximately the same distance below the tip of the right mastoid process, the bony point immediately behind the ear.”[xvi] Conversely, the holes in Kennedy’s shirt and coat are about 5 ½ inches from the top of the collar, which is much lower.

Quick Sidebar on the points of measurement used in the autopsy. Normally, the top of the head and the midline were used as measurement points for bullet wounds, as was done for Oswald’s autopsy, for example.[xvii] According to Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist and HSCA expert, the mastoid process is not typically used in measurements by forensic pathologists as a landmark in pinpointing the location of bullet wounds.[xviii] There was no explanation given for why the mastoid process was used as a measurement point as opposed to following the standard practice.

Anyway, back to the measurements. We need to know if the back wound lines up with a throat exit wound. The autopsy is measuring from the mastoid process (right behind your ear) to 5 and a half inches down, and they come up with approximately the base of the neck as the entrance point. However, the president’s clothing, which is hard evidence that still exists today in the National Archives, has a hole that is 5 and a half inches down from the collar. We know that the base of a person’s neck would not be 5 and a half inches lower than the person’s collar. So, conspiracy theorists say that the shirt and coat bullet holes support the Sibert O’Neill report placement of a shoulder wound as opposed to the Warren Report autopsy placement of a rear neck wound.

Warren Report defenders cite two reasons for not relying on President Kennedy’s clothing to prove the location of the back wound. First, Dr. Humes admitted that the clothing gave the back wound the appearance “when viewed separately of being somewhat lower” than what he reported in the autopsy.[xix] But he addressed the discrepancy by saying that Kennedy’s muscles were so big that it made the shirt and coat not fit him.[xx] Dr. Humes said, “The President had a “very well-developed set of muscles . . . I believe this would have a tendency to push the portions of the coat which show the defects somewhat higher on the back of the President than on a man of less muscular development.”[xxi]

Warren Report critics point out that when you look at photos of President Kennedy, his clothes fit him. I looked for myself and generally found that President Kennedy’s suits were well tailored. I did come across an article by Warren Report defender John McAdams showing that Kennedy’s jacket was bunched up at the time of the shooting, which would support what Dr. Humes was saying.[xxii] There are photos from around the time of the shooting that look like there was some bunching in the jacket. Still, that little bit of bunching in the jacket, would not explain a 5 to 6 inch discrepancy.

The second argument against using Kennedy’s clothes to find the location of the back wound is that Kennedy was leaning forward in the limo at the time he was shot. If so, that would explain the bunching in the jacket to some extent.[xxiii] It would also explain how the back wound of entry is lower than the throat wound of exit – even when the bullet itself was on a downward trajectory.

So far, we’ve talked about how far down the wound was in Kennedy’s clothing, but we didn’t mention that there is also a left-right discrepancy. According to the Warren Report, the hole in Kennedy’s suit coat was not just 5 and 3/8 inches down from the top of the collar, it was also 1 and ¾ inches to the right of the center back seam of the coat.[xxiv] Similarly, Kennedy’s dress shirt had a hole in the back at 5 ¾ inches down from the top of the collar and 1 and ¼ inches to the right of the center seam.[xxv] The arguments about Kennedy leaning forward and his shirt bunching up potentially make sense vertically, but not laterally. A shirt bunching up wouldn’t make the hole in Kennedy’s garments be off to the right.

According to the HSCA, the angles for the shot were 11 degrees upward through Kennedy and then 27 degrees downward through Connally – all without hitting any bones in Kennedy’s body to alter the path.[xxvi] The problem for Warren Report defenders with the forward lean argument is that when you look at the Zapruder film itself, we cannot see Kennedy to know whether he Is leaning forward at the time of the first shot.[xxvii]

We do know that the track of the throat wound was not dissected during the autopsy. If the back wound was linked to the throat wound, did any of the medical procedures used in the autopsy prove it? Unfortunately, as we learned during the Garrison case, the autopsy doctors also failed to dissect the track of the back wound. When asked about this decision, Dr. Finck responded, “As I recall, I was told not to but I don’t remember by whom.”[xxviii]

What did the Warren Commission think about this conflicting location of the back wound? On January 27, 1964, Warren Commission general counsel J. Lee Rankin said this to commissioners during a closed door meeting about Kennedy’s back and neck wounds:

“We have an explanation there in the autopsy that probably a fragment came out the front of the neck, but with the elevation the shot must have come from, and the angle, it seems quite apparent now since we have a pictureof where the bullet entered in the back, that the bullet entered below the shoulder blade to the right of the back bone, which is below the place the picture shows the bullet came out in the neckband of the shirt in front…”[xxix]

A few things jump out at me from this statement by Rankin from the closed door meeting of the Warren Commission. First, Rankin says that a fragment came out the front of Kennedy’s neck. This is different from the single bullet theory that the Commission landed on. Second, Rankin says “the bullet entered below the shoulder blade to the right of the back bone,” which is much lower than the autopsy position, but consistent with the Kennedy’s suit coat and shirt and the Sibert and O’Neill Report. And third, Rankin says that he is describing the back wounds from a picture.


So far, we have been going through the evidence related to injuries to Kennedy’s throat and neck - or back - depending on what you believe. According to the Warren Report, that same bullet traveled into Governor Connally’s back near his right armpit, immediately after exiting Kennedy’s throat.

The Report said, QUOTE “In their testimony, the three doctors who attended Governor Connally at Parkland hospital expressed independently their opinion that a single bullet had passed through his chest; tumbled through his wrist with very little exit velocity, leaving small metallic fragments from the rear portion of the bullet; punctured his left thigh after the bullet had lost virtually all of its velocity; and fallen out of the thigh wound.”[xxx]

Initially, the Warren Commission did not propose the single bullet theory. In July 1964, about two months before the final report was released, the Warren Commission had concluded that the first of three shots hit the president in the back, the second caused injuries to Governor Connally and the third caused President Kennedy’s fatal head wound.[xxxi]

So, originally, the single bullet would have only had to cause Governor Connally’s injuries. But when James Tague came forward with a bloody cheek after a shot hit the curb and sprayed his face with concrete, the Commission asked the FBI to investigate the claim. The FBI then determined that Tague’s story was legit since Dallas Officer LL Hill corroborated it when he radioed in around 12:40pm, about ten minutes after the assassination, saying “I have one guy that was possibly hit by a ricochet from the bullet off the concrete.”[xxxii]

It was not conclusively determined that the mark on the concrete came from a rifle shot.[xxxiii] Nevertheless, the Tague injury and curb mark were persuasive enough to convince the Warren Commission that there was a bullet mark, or at least from bullet fragments, such that they had to account for it in their conclusion. And thus the single bullet theory became a necessity to the Warren Commission.[xxxiv]


The bullet that the Warren Commission says went through President Kennedy and Governor Connally is known as Commission Exhibit 399 - Or CE 399.

Despite what the autopsy doctors initially thought about the bullet coming out of Kennedy’s back, according to the Warren Report, CE 399 was found on Governor Connally’s stretcher, which makes sense given that it is said to have fallen out of Connally’s thigh wound.[xxxv] Let’s see if we can trace the chain of custody from the time the bullet was discovered through the issuance of the Warren Report. We know that CE 399 is in the national archives today. What is the path it took to get there?

The first person to discover the bullet was Darrell Tomlinson, a senior engineer – basically an elevator operator - who found it around 1pm.[xxxvi] If you look at Tomlinson’s deposition before the Warren Commission, it’s not at all clear that he found the bullet on Connally’s stretcher. Tomlinson goes back and forth with Commission counsel Arlen Specter and describes a situation where he found the bullet on a stretcher near the elevator, but that he is not certain whose stretcher it was.[xxxvii]

When Tomlinson found the bullet, it was on a stretcher that was already on the ground floor, which is where the emergency room was located. Governor Connally’s surgery was on the second floor, but Connally was previously in the emergency room on the ground floor. We don’t have any affirmative evidence linking the gurney that Tomlinson found to Governor Connally.

According to the Warren Report, after he picked it up, Tomlinson then gave the bullet to Parkland Security Chief, O.P. Wright. Wright, then turned the bullet over to Secret Service Agent Richard Johnsen.[xxxviii] Johnsen brought the bullet back to Washington, D.C. and gave it to James Rowley, the chief of the Secret Service.[xxxix] Rowley gave the bullet to FBI agent Elmer Lee Todd, who then delivered it to Robert Frazier at the FBI crime lab.[xl] This chain of custody is explained in Commission Exhibit 2011.[xli]

The problem with the Warren Report’s chain of custody is that when the FBI went back to ask all of the people who possessed the bullet at one time whether it was the same as CE 399, most of them said it was not.

Tomlinson, Wright, Agent Johnsen, and Agent Rowley all could not identify CE 399 as the same bullet they had handled.[xlii] Only Agents Todd and Frazier confirmed that the bullet in evidence was the same as the one they handled.[xliii].

An FBI memo claimed that both Tomlinson and Wright said the bullet they handled resembled CE 399. However, when Warren Report Critic Josiah Thompson interviewed both men in 1966, they were adamant that the bullet they handled was not CE 399.[xliv] Wright said that he knew it was a different bullet because the one he gave the Secret Service was a “lead colored sharp pointed hunting round.” But the slug in evidence is rounded.[xlv]


For a long time, there was a dispute about whether agent Elmer Todd actually marked his initials on the bullet as he said he did. Many researchers who visited the national archives to look at CE 399 said that they didn’t see any initials for “ET” – while they did notice the others who initialed it.

But, in 2019, new technology for scanning 3D items became available and led to CE 399 being scanned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and made available online.[xlvi] The clearly sketched ET initials were pointed out by researchers. Thus, the legend of Elmer Todd’s disappearing (or non-existent) initials ended up being the story of his lightly etched initials at the end of the day. Todd did possess the bullet and he marked it.[xlvii]

Still, one issue that remains disputed is the timeline of the custody of CE 399. Remember, it goes from Tomlinson who found it, to Wright, the hospital security chief, to Secret Service Agent Johnson to Secret Service Chief Rowley. This is all on the day of the assassination. The timing of the handoff of the bullet after Rowley is where it gets interesting.

Agent Todd noted on the envelope that the bullet was quote “Received from Chief Rowley, USSS, 8:50pm, 11/22/63. E.L. Todd.”[xlviii] So, we have an established time for the hand off from Rowley to Todd as 8:50pm. Agent Todd then delivered the bullet to FBI firearms examiner Robert Frazier. It’s this transfer from Todd to Frazier that has been brought into question. We have two pieces of evidence from Frazier that seem to indicate that he received the bullet from Todd at 7:30pm. Obviously, if Todd, got the bullet from Secret Service Chief Rowley at 8:50, then Todd could not have given it to Frazier at 7:30. The meaning of this potential discrepancy can be debated, but it certainly opens the door for allegations of evidentiary shenanigans.

Researcher John Hunt searched the FBI Laboratory files at the National Archives and found a handwritten inventory of evidence titled “History of Evidence” that was written by FBI expert Frazier. On that document, individual pieces of evidence are numbered and listed next to the person who gave the items to Frazier and the date and time the items were received. Frazier wrote that 7:30pm is the time he received CE 399 from Todd on this document.[xlix] Then, there is Frazier’s typed laboratory worksheet from November 26, 1963 that also has in handwriting that 7:30pm is the time he received the bullet from Todd.[l]

Look, in a criminal court, this chain of custody timing discrepancy would potentially be enough to throw the evidence out. But, we’re not talking about Oswald’s criminal conviction. We’re trying to figure out what actually happened.

Warren Report defenders believe there is an innocent reason for Frazier writing 7:30pm as the time of receiving CE 399. There was a memo attached to the envelope the bullet was in from Secret Service Agent Richard Johnsen, who got the bullet from OP Wright, the Parkland Security Chief. In that memo, Johnsen gave a description of his custody of the bullet and signed his name with the time of 7:30pm. The idea is that Frazier must have just looked at the time on this memo, which was attached to the evidence envelope, and listed 7:30 as the time he got the bullet from Elmer Todd.[li]

But, Frazier didn’t say that. It’s just speculation. That’s one possible inference to make. But, it doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would Frazier say 7:30 is the time that he got the bullet when the 7:30 time on the memo from Johnsen appears to be talking about when Johnsen wrote the memo. And Frazier used this 7:30pm time twice. If Frazier did haphazardly reference the time written by someone else when they wrote a memo as the time when he received a bullet, that raises more questions for me about his overall competence.

Next Time on Solving JFK, we’ll continue looking at the medical evidence and the single bullet theory.

[i] Testimony of Dr. Pierre Finck, February 24, 1969, in the trail of Clay Shaw; Appendix A in James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed: JFK, Cuba, and the Garrison Case, p 291. [ii] William Matson Law with Allan Eaglesham, In the Eye of History, p 45. [iii] Id. [iv] Francis O’Neill ARRB Testimony at 135. [v] Warren Report at 4. [vi] [vii] [viii] [ix] [x] [xi] Warren Report Volumes, 2H 103. [xii] Warren Report Volumes, 2H 127. [xiii] Warren Report Volumes, 5H 175. [xiv] Commission Exhibit 2112, Handwritten notes of Glen Bennett [xv] Warren Report Volumes, 2H 143 [xvi] Warren Report at 88. [xvii] Commission Exhibit 1981 [xviii] Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact, p 141 citing letter from Dr. Cyril Wecht, former Director of the Institute of Forensic Sciences at Duquesne University School of Law and Chief Forensic Pathologist, Allegheny County, dated February 10, 1967. [xix] Warren Report Volumes, 2H 365 [xx] Id. [xxi] Id. [xxii] [xxiii] Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History, p 421. [xxiv] Warren Report at 92. [xxv] Id. [xxvi] James DiEugenio, Reclaiming Parkland, p 118. [xxvii] See the Zapruder Film. [xxviii] Testimony of Dr. Pierre Finck, February 24, 1969, in the trail of Clay Shaw; Appendix A in James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed: JFK, Cuba, and the Garrison Case, p 291 [xxix] [xxx] Warren Report at 95. [xxxi] [xxxii] Warren Report at 116. [xxxiii] Warren Report at 116. [xxxiv] Warren Report at 117. [xxxv] Warren Report at 18. [xxxvi] [xxxvii] [xxxviii] [xxxix] [xl] [xli] [xlii] [xliii] [xliv] DiEugenio, p 66 citing Josiah Thompson, Six Seconds in Dallas, p 147. [xlv] Thompson, p 175-176. [xlvi] [xlvii] [xlviii] [xlix] [l] Id. [li]

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