Friday, December 16, 2011

The Accidental Death of John F. Kennedy

Howard Donahue was a Baltimore ballistics expert who became involved in the JFK investigation when he was called by CBS in the spring of 1967. CBS had constructed a mockup of Dealey Plaza, complete with a little track which pulled a moving target repeatedly through the “Plaza” at 11 miles per hour. CBS was trying to see whether they could find anybody who could hit the target three times in 5.6 seconds. Donahue fired three shots into a three inch circles in 5.2 seconds – and became fascinated with the weapons-and-ballistics aspects of the assassination.

Donahue’s theory, developed over the following twenty years, is that Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact fire two shots at the President that warm November afternoon, with or without the assistance of a vast array of unknown conspirators. He missed with the first shot, although a fragment ricocheted up and hit the President in the neck. His second shot hit Kennedy and Governor John Connally, and his weapon jammed when he attempted a third shot. Unfortunately, a Secret Service man, George Hickey, grabbed a weapon and jumped when he heard the first shot. Hickey’s weapon accidentally fired, and that bullet, from Hickey’s gun, mortally wounded the President.

On first hearing this theory, almost no one believes it could be right. It sounds like just another helium balloon by someone who watched too many Mission: Impossible re-runs as a child. But I have read Donahue’s book Mortal Error carefully, and I have to tell you, if there is a flaw in his argument, I don’t see it.

Donahue is a ballistics expert who has testified in many criminal cases in that role. His ballistics argument include:

1.) The trajectory of the fatal bullet, plotted very carefully based on the entrance and “exit” wounds and the position of Kennedy’s head at the moment, traces a line behind Kennedy, and directly back to the Secret Service care which was following at a distance of about five feet.

2.) The bullet which hit Kennedy in the head disintegrated after impact, which a bullet fired from Oswald’s rifle would not have done, but a bullet fired from an AR-15, carried by Hinkey, would have. “The Carcano round (Oswald’s round) simply did not have the velocity – either rotational, from the rifling of the barrel – or linear, from the gunpowder charge in the skull – to completely shred the thick metal jacket and disintegrate the lead inside upon impact… the startling fact was that the bullet that hit Kennedy’s head ha not behaved like a full metal jacket at all.”

3.) A Carcano round, fired at the distance between Kennedy and Oswald at the moment of the fatal shot (believed to be 261 feet), could not have transmitted as much energy as the fatal round obviously did,.

4.) A .223 bullet, as fired from an AR-15 (Hickey’s gun), creates a little ‘lead snowstorm” in its target, as some of the lead actually melts on impact, then cools again in the tissue. A Carcano round has no similar effect. According to Donahue, exactly such an effect was described to him by Dr. Russell Fisher, a member of the pathologists panel which reviewed the autopsy results in 1968. (The President’s brain disappeared from the national archives shortly after that, making it impossible to confirm this allegation.

5.) The bullet fired by an AR-15 is 5.56 millimeters in diameter. A Carcano round is 6.5 millimeters. The entrance wound in the back of the President’s head was only six millimeters wide – making it seemingly impossible to put a 6.5 millimeter round through the hole.

Donahue’s material is stupefyingly dense but the situation is not as complicated as the language in which it musty be stated. If you can wade through the math until you get an intuitive feel for what the argument is about, you can figure things out. Let’s start with the fact that the fatal shot “entered the rear of the President’s skull and exploded out the right side of his head.” But Oswald was positioned to the right rear of Kennedy, behind him and to the right. That should mean that a shot from Oswald should have exited the left side of Kennedy’s head. Put the book down, take your fingers and point; you’ll see what I mean.

Not only that, but Oswald was way up in the air. The Warren Commission reported that the fatal shot was fired at a downward angle of 16 degrees. But, also according to the Warren report, the fatal bullet, as it exited, blew a hole in Kennedy’s skull; about two inches from the top of his head- above the hairline. A descending bullet should have created and exit wound through Kennedy’s face, about the height of his nose- not through his skull.

The Warren report defenders avoid this quandary by supposing that Kennedy’s head, at the moment of impact, is turned sharply to the left (25 degrees) and tilted sharply forward (40 degrees). Kennedy’s head was turned to the left and tilted forward at the moment of impact- but not nearly enough to explain the anomalous location of the exit wound…On the other hand, the exit wound is exactly where it should be if the fatal bullet was in fact fired from Agent Hickey’s weapon.

Let us deal with the circumstantial observations of the critical seconds:

1) Secret Service agent George Hickey carried an AR-15, which is the civilian version of the M-16, the rifle used by U.S. military ground troops in the Vietnam era. Numerous eyewitness reports state that Hickey had grabbed this weapon and was waving it around within seconds of the first shot.

2) One eyewitness, S.M. Holland, told the Warren Commission interviewer that “just about the same time the President was shot the second time, he (Hickey) jumped up in the seat and was standing up…now I actually thought when they started up, I actually though he was shot, too, because he fell backwards just like he was shot, but it jerked him down when they started off.” Holland also observed that agent Hickey had his weapon in his hands at the moment.

3) Special agent Winston Lawson was in the first car of the motorcade, the car ahead of Kennedy’s on that day. His job was to look steadily backward at the President. Maintaining constant visual contact. In his statement written December 1, 1963, agent Wilson wrote that:
“As the Lead Car was passing under this bridge I heard the first loud, sharp report and in more rapid succession two more sounds like gunfire. I could see persons to the left of the motorcade vehicles running away. I noticed agent Hickey standing in the follow-up car with the automatic weapon and first thought he had fired at someone.”

4) Secret Service Agent Glenn Bennett, seated next top Hickey in the follow-up car, says that when the second shot hit Kennedy he yelled “He’s hit” and reached for the A-15 on the floor of the vehicle- only to realize agent Hickey already had it. Secret Service Agent Emory Roberts, who was in charge of the agents in the follow-up car, reported that just after the shooting he turned and saw Hickey with the rifle, and said “Be careful with that.”

5) While the sound reports from the scene are confusing, many ear-witnesses that that one or more shots had originated from near the President. Austin Miller, watching from the overpass, thought that the shots had come “
from right there in the car.” Royce Skelton, also watching from the overpass, said that he thought the shots came “from around the President’s car.” Mary Elizabeth Woodward, standing just in front of the grassy knoll, described the third shot as “
a horrible ear-shattering noise.”

6) Several individuals who were part of the resident’s motorcade reported smelling gunpowder. Mrs. Earle Cabell, wife of the mayor of Dallas, was riding in an open convertible, four cars behind the death car. She saw the barrel of the rifle projecting through the open window, and immediately after that reported smelling gunpowder. Other people riding in the motorcade also reported the smell of gunpowder, including Tom Dillard, a journalist who was riding in an open car about a block behind the President, and Senator Ralph Yarborough, who was in the care immediately behind Agent Hickey’s

If in fact the only shots fired that afternoon were from Oswald’s rifle, sic stories in the air and inside a building, I have a very difficult time understanding why numerous eyewitnesses would smell gunpowder at ground level and in the path of the presidential limousine.

From there on, what we have in support of the Donahue thesis is a series of after-the-fact observations, culled by Donahue from dozens of Kennedy books.

1) Jim Bishop, in The Day Kennedy Was Shot, reported that Secret Service agent Clint Hill phoned the White House from the hospital. “There’s been an accident,” he reported, apparently overheard by the reporter.

2) According to LBJ: The Way He Was by Frank Cormier, Lyndon Johnson hated to have the Secret Service agents tailgating him, and once, on a hunting trip, threatened to shoot out their tires if they didn’t keep a safe distance. Another time, Johnson told Cormier that “If I ever get killed, it won’t be because of an assassin. It’ll be some Secret Service agent who trips himself up and his gun goes off. They’re worse than trigger-happy Texas sheriffs.”

Donahue’s theory is that nobody intended to kill the President, other than Oswald; it was an accident. It was an accident which happened to occur in such a manner that it was very unclear, to the persons on the scene, what had happened or what was happening. Once this terrible accident had occurred, very few people would have to have knowledge of what was going on. It is quite possible that Agent Hickey himself did not realize what had happened.

And those few people who did, faced with a fait accompli, have a powerful incentive to keep quiet about it. Look at what happens if they talk:

1). Agent Hickey’s life is destroyed

2). All of the agents involved are professionally destroyed.

3).The Secret Service, a government agency with an annual budget of many millions of dollars, is seriously compromised.

There have been other incidents of men being accidentally killed by their bodyguards- indeed, a book argues that this is what happened to the Kingfish, Huey Long. Ross Perot argued during the 1992 presidential campaign that the Secret Service was a vast waste of money, that it was used for political purposes, that it was used to disguise perquisites of office, and that it should be disbanded. There is much truth to this argument; certainly no journalist close to the President would deny that the Secret Service is routinely use to enable the President to “stage” events.

If, in addition to these abuses, it became known that the Secret Service had accidentally shot President Kennedy, do you think the public would still be willing to shell out millions for this “protection”? I’m not an investigative reporter; I’m just a guy who reads a lot of crime books. To me, Mortal Error remains the most persuasive account of the tragedy in Dallas.

Popular Crime; Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James; Scribner. 2011


  1. It's reported that Hickey had an AR-15. It could have been an M-16. The difference is significant because an M-16 can be configured to fire a three-round-burst with one trigger pull. I believe Oswald was indeed a patsy. He was blamed to cover up Hickey's mistake. When the government makes a mistake, they blame a patsy, because the government has to appear competent in order to function effectively. Read "The Death of a President" by William Manchester for the huge hints written between the lines of the "official" lies. Bobby Kennedy orchestrated the coverup, to make his brother's death more dignified. JFK died because he was loved too much by an overprotective agent. His death was covered up by a brother who loved him with all his heart.

    1. the M-16 did not have a 3 round burst option in '63. It had semi and auto.

    2. the M-16 did not have a 3 round burst option in '63. It had semi and auto.

  2. Whatever, but really, this issue will never be put to rest until all the people who were alive on November 22, 1963 are dead and gone. And even then doubt will remain throughout history. But that's the key word: "History." You can't change it no matter what you believe, and at this point in time, we have more important things going on than who did what in Dallas, Texas on the day Kennedy was assassinated (either on purpose or by accident). The end result is basically the same, and if someone other than Oswald really did it on purpose or by accident, we will never really know. Time to file this one away for posterity. It's finished, over and done and nothing can change what occurred. Today we live in a very different world than November 1963 (I was just a kid then, but everything was much different than today), and everyone has their own theory, their own speculation, their own beliefs. It is part of history, and as such, no one can change it. And frankly at this point, I really don't care what happened because it seems no two people will ever agree on what actually did. Some think it was the Mafia, some think it was Oswald alone, some think was this guy Hickey by accident, some think it was a mysterious figure on the Grassy Knoll, some think it was their grandfather, etc., etc. No kidding, no two people will ever agree on this. Time to move on. Way past time, actually.

  3. I haven't read Mortal Error but did view the documentary The Smoking Gun, which supports Howard Donahue's theory as to what happened that tragic November day in 1963. This theory provides the most plausible and logical account of the assassination of JFK I've seen. Donahue's daughter points out in the thoughful documentary that her father's theory is not exciting or glamorous, which causes some to dismiss it as believable.

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  5. In the day the AR 15 was not set up to fire in three round bursts. Head shots from early AR's in Vietnam are strangely similar to the effects that Kennedy suffered.

  6. OK as far as it goes, but look at the evidence about Oswald, and I think JFK's death was COMPLETELY accidental, a byproduct of Oswald's attempt to kill John Connally.