Features: The Warren Commission, The Truth, and Arlen Specter: Part 1

CRITIC DWIGHT MACDONALD wrote in Esquire: "The American legal mind is often subtle and complex, but its ‘adversary’ training pushes it toward an Either/Or solution which treats Facts not as ever-changing pointers toward an ever-changing hypothesis, but as uniformed troops to be strategically massed so as to overwhelm the enemy by sheer numbers … lawyers are always out for
total victory — I attribute the Commission’s ‘adversary’ bias against Oswald simply to the fact that the prima-facie case against him was so strong."

Arlen began working for the Warren Commission early in January, 1964. A deadline of June 1st had been set for the first draft of reports from each of the area teams, Specter was the only staff lawyer to meet that deadline. In his report he concluded that all the shots fired on Dealey Plaza on November 22nd came from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.

Based on Specter’s investigation, these were the main points in the final version of the Report:

• Witnesses, principal among them steamfitter Brennan, saw what they took to be a rifle in an upper-story window of the Depository.

• Three employees 011 the fifth floor of the Depository heard shots and shells dropping on the floor above them.

• Two large bullet fragments found in the front of the Presidential car as well as a nearly whole bullet said to be found on Governor’s Connally’s stretcher at Parkland Hospital were definitely fired from the 6.5-mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle which Oswald ordered from a Chicago mail-order house and which was found on the sixth floor of the Depository,
• Three shots were fired. One hit Kennedy near the top of his back, came out the front of his neck, went through Connally’s hack, came out his chest, smashed his right wrist and caused a puncture wound in his left thigh. Another went in the back of Kennedy’s head and blew out the right front part of his head. A third missed. The Commission decided that the order of the hits and the miss was irrelevant and made no determination of the sequence.

Specter based these conclusions on a number of principal pieces of evidence: The autopsy report from Bethesda; motion pictures of the assassination taken by amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder; are-construction of the event based on the films; and ballistic tests of bullet velocity and wound characteristics,

The crux of Specter’s contention — and the Commission’s Report — is what has come to be called the "single-bullet theory." That is, the same bullet which went through Kennedy’s neck caused all of Governor Connally’s wounds. Specter claims that one of the principal factors that led him to the theory was that there was no other way to explain what happened to the bullet which emerged from the front of the President’s neck unless it also hit Connally. There was no indication that it hit anywhere else in the car. There was a crack on the inside of the front windshield and a mark on the chrome above it, but much more damage would have been done if they had been caused by a whole bullet.

There was also the question of timing. Tests showed that the fastest the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle could be fired twice was 2.3 seconds (based on the time required just to open and close the bolt, not aiming). The Zapruder films, taken at 18.3 frames per second, indicated that all the shots were fired in less than six seconds. If three shots were fired, they would have had to be fired very rapidly and accurately.

It is far more complicated than that, however, given the details of the evidence. In fact, the key question is this: Was it possible for a lone gunman to have accomplished the assassination if President Kennedy and Governor Connally were not hit by the same bullet?

Specter maintains that the answer is not "central" to the Commission’s conclusion. He does so in the face of the very evidence which the Commission used to conclude that it was. In fact, Edward Epstein in Inquest quotes a Commission lawyer as stating bluntly: "To say that they were hit by separate bullets is synonymous with saying that there were two assassins."

The Commission Report contends that "the President was probably shot through the neck between frames 210 and 225" of the Zapruder film. (Each frame was made into a slide and numbered, so that there was a time lapse of about 1/18th of a second between frames.) This finding was based on the fact that the President was definitely reacting to the neck hit — both hands were grasping for his throat -— by frame 225, and on the evidence that the re-enactment showed that Oswald’s aim would have been obstructed by an oak tree before frame 210. The Report also concludes (albeit, through not very conclusive evidence) that the last occasion when Connally could have received his injuries was "at some point between frames 235 and 240." Since the Zapruder camera was operating at 18.3 frames per second, Oswald would not have had time to fire the Mannlicher-Carcano twice in the time span the Commission said both Kennedy and Connally were hit.