The subject of how President Kennedy’s body was handled, after he was pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital, has created a good deal of controversy and criticism. Some of this is valid, to some degree, but none of it points to a conspiracy.
The first issue typically raised is the fact that Texas law required the body of a homicide victim to remain in the county where the crime was committed until an autopsy could be performed. Earl Rose, the local medical examiner/coroner, was the individual who insisted on keeping the body in Dallas, despite the fact that other local officials saw no problem with allowing it to be released. Many felt that it was obvious that the top Federal Official should have a Federal autopsy, and Federal laws were updated after this to reflect that fact. Besides, the Texas law in question was only a misdemeanor. Vice President Johnson, now the new President, would not leave Texas without Mrs. Kennedy, and she would not leave without her husbands body, but none of this mattered to Rose, who felt himself god of his little world.
Kenneth O’Donnell, a political advisor to President Kennedy and a longtime trusted friend of the family, who had even been Robert Kennedy’s roommate at Harvard, took the lead in negotiations with Rose. They argued for more than an hour and finally brought in a judge, who proved too timid to overrule Rose, but O’Donnell reached his breaking point. When he was told that an autopsy would only take about three hours, O’Donnell said, “Go fuck yourself. We’re not staying three hours or three minutes.” He was going to get the body of his beloved chief and the grieving widow back to DC.
The actual reality of what happened was completely ignored by Oliver Stone in JFK (1991), as usual, making it seem as if unnamed agents subverted the law in an effort to advance a conspiracy and hid the truth.
If Rose had been allowed to perform an autopsy, I am certain that conspiracy theorists would be equally as upset today, claiming that a Texas friend of Lyndon Johnson’s was allowed to make the official report, rather than Federal Government Employees. It should be noted that Rose did perform the autopsies of Lee Harvey Oswald, Officer J. D. Tippit, and, several years later, Jack Ruby. Had he been an unreliable participant in this alleged vast conspiracy, why was he allowed to be so involved in the case? In 1978, Rose also served on the Forensic Pathology Panel of the HSCA, reexamining everything the Warren Commission originally did. And, years after that, when asked by Vincent Bugliosi, “Were you satisfied from your review of the autopsy photos and X-rays that the autopsy surgeons reached the same conclusion you would have reached if you had conducted the autopsy back in 1963 in Dallas?” Rose immediately and unequivocally answered, “Yes, there’s no question their conclusions were correct. Two shots entered the president from behind, the entrance wound to the back exiting in the throat at the site of the tracheotomy and the entrance wound to the back of the head exiting in the right frontal temporal area.” The only place he said he disagreed with the autopsy surgeons is that they reported the entrance wound to the back of the head “too low. It was in the cowlick area.” (From, Reclaiming History)
Once in flight on Air Force One, Admiral George C. Burkley, President Kennedy’s personal physician, asked Mrs. Kennedy where she wanted the autopsy performed, at an army facility or at a navy facility. Since “Jack” had been in the navy, she chose to go there, which means that the alleged conspirators would have needed to be ready to go at either location. Conspiracy theorists make much of the fact that many people were present at the autopsy, and conspiracists make it seem as if these people were largely unnamed, but the FBI carefully recorded everyone present, which included Dr. Burkley, who spoke for Jackie and the Kennedy Family. Also present was General Godfrey McHugh, President Kennedy’s trusted military attaché. Unless you wish to believe that Kennedy was completely stupid or a horrible judge of character, there is no way that these men would have betrayed him or allowed the autopsy to report false finding.
Conspiracy theorists like Stone in JFK, make it seem that the three hour autopsy was rushed and that obvious points of contention were never looked into. For example, Stone shows a doctor sticking his finger in Kennedy’s back wound and saying, “I can feel the end of the wound with my finger,” but he is told, “That won’t be necessary, Commander,” by a senior officer and all further examination of the back wound stops, as if the conspirators did not want a bullet to be discovered. In reality, Kennedy’s entire body was x-rayed and there were no bullets left inside of him. Stone’s phony portrayal of the autopsy goes on to quote one of the doctors, Finck, later saying, “There were admirals, and when you are a lieutenant colonel in the Army you just follow orders.” This makes it seem as if the autopsy doctors were not in charge of their own autopsy, which isn’t true. What Stone and company do not want you to know, are the next words out of Dr. Finck’s mouth. “And at the end of the autopsy we were specifically told,” by Admiral Kenney, the Surgeon General of the Navy, “not to discuss the case.” The “orders” Finck followed where about not discussing the finding of the autopsy and had nothing to do with how to conduct the autopsy. Interviewed in 1992, Dr. Finck reiterated this, saying, “There was no military interference with the autopsy. There were many people in the morgue—all very upset—and this made it difficult for us. But there was no military interference.” Dr. Humes, the lead doctor of the three conducting the autopsy also confirmed this in a 1992 interview by saying, unequivocally, “I was in charge from start to finish and there was no interference—zero.”
Experts can argue about the speed of the autopsy, but the only people pushing for it to go faster were Dr. Burkley, Ken O’Donnell, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Admiral Galloway, Dr. Humes’ superior, simply orders a, “complete autopsy,” to be done, with no further direction beyond this.
Experts can also argue that more tests should have been done and/or things should have been done in a different order. The Forensic Pathology Panel of the HSCA was highly critical on points like this, but the Forensic Pathology Panel did not determine that the autopsy was too incomplete to draw factually conclusions from it. In the end, they agreed with the original autopsy findings and did not find any evidence of deliberate or accidental alterations on the part of the original autopsy doctors.
Some critics will go on to make wild claims, like, “None of these doctors had any autopsy experience,” which is just a straight up lie. Dr. Humes had performed more than a thousand autopsy before heading up Kennedy’s autopsy. It is true that most of those autopsies involved death from natural causes, but he was not unfamiliar with gun shot wounds and Dr. Finck was an expert on the subject. In theory, they could have found someone more qualified to perform the autopsy, but, again, this would only be used by conspiracy theorists to advance their argument. “Why,” they would undoubtably say, “were the qualified doctors on hand not allowed to perform the autopsy? Why did they have to call in an outside, hand-picked, doctor?” That’s just the ways conspiracy theorists operate. Everything is a plot twist in their story, to be exploited, rather than a fact to be thoughtfully examined.
The conspiracy crowd can kick up all the dust they want complaining about how the autopsy could have been better, but none of it does anything to advance their beliefs; it simply dirties things up to distract the audience from the facts. The autopsy findings are consistent with all the other evidence found by the Dallas Police, FBI, etc., and no one could have switched out or otherwise faked the evidence in the autopsy room. There is nothing nefarious to see here.
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