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40 years on, Arlen Specter and Cyril Wecht still don't agree how JFK died

Sunday, November 16, 2003

By Michael A. Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, forensic pathologist and renowned-coroner-in-the-making, was in a Los Angeles morgue surrounded by corpses when the news broke.

Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht keeps a framed poster of President John F. Kennedy in his office. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Arlen Specter was stepping into an elevator en route to a murder trial. The clock at City Hall said 1:40 p.m.

It was 40 years ago next Saturday. President Kennedy, torchbearer of a new generation of Americans, trailblazer to the New Frontier, had been cut down by an assassin's bullet in Dallas.

Neither Wecht, then 32, nor Specter, then 33, could have known then they would soon become inextricably linked with that momentous event and the endless debate about what really happened during those "six seconds in Dallas" on Nov. 22, 1963.

Specter, now the state's senior U.S. senator, went on to work with the Warren Commission's investigation of the assassination, and wrote the famous or, depending on one's perspective, infamous "single-bullet theory" that supported the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed Kennedy.

Wecht, now the Allegheny County coroner and a power in local and state politics for decades, became one of the foremost critics of that official version. In his 1993 book, "Cause of Death," Wecht characterized the Warren Report as "absolute nonsense" and Specter's single-bullet assertion "an asinine, pseudoscientific sham at best."

Specter, Wecht and other experts on both sides of the four-decade-old debate will present their views during a four-day national symposium on the assassination at Duquesne University beginning Thursday.

The two have argued their positions for decades but don't seem to tire of it, viewing it as a civic duty to explain their polar-opposite views of what happened.

Memories of the day

Everyone in their mid-40s or older has the same tragic touchstone of more youthful days, remembering exactly where they were and what they doing when they heard Kennedy had been shot.

Wecht was visiting a new friend and professional colleague, deputy Los Angeles coroner Thomas Noguchi, who later became "coroner to the stars" for his investigations into the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and John Belushi, among others.

Wecht, at that time director of laboratory sciences and pathology at Leech Farm Veterans Hospital in Pittsburgh, and Noguchi were in the Los Angeles morgue discussing where to eat lunch when they learned from Noguchi's secretary what had happened.

"I was very, very upset," Wecht recalled recently in an interview in his second-floor office in the Allegheny County Morgue. "Like the overwhelming majority of young, educated, fairly liberal Democrats, I was taken with John Kennedy, considering him to be an outstanding leader in so many respects.

"The shock of hearing of his assassination, therefore, was very great, very traumatic," Wecht said as a pensive JFK looked down from a large black-and-white photograph mounted above the fireplace. "We barely nibbled at lunch, watching television as it unfolded. It was quite emotionally disturbing. It was a matter of sadness, a feeling of great loss."

Sen. Arlen Specter -- "I had no idea my life would intersect with that investigation."
Click photo for larger image.

Like everyone, he said, "I wondered who did this and why and how did it happen." He doesn't recall worrying that proper procedures would be followed in the autopsy and collection of evidence.

"To the extent that I thought about it, I [assumed] it would be handled by competent people," he said. "It wouldn't have occurred to me they would get someone less than the best to handle this."

Within a year, he would begin to feel differently.

Specter, too, was stunned.

"It was hard to believe that President Kennedy, the most powerful man in the world, a man of great accomplishments, a man with a great future, had been shot," Specter said during a telephone interview last week.

On that day, Specter worried about the president's family, his young children, the country.

"I had no idea my life would intersect with that investigation," he said.

At the time, Specter was a Democrat and had impressed Attorney General Robert Kennedy for successfully prosecuting Teamsters on racketeering charges in Philadelphia. Six months earlier, Bobby Kennedy had asked Specter to join the Justice Department team prosecuting Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Specter declined, wanting to stay in Philadelphia for personal and professional reasons.

On New Year's Eve 1963, Howard Willens, a deputy attorney general and a law school classmate of Specter's, called and asked if he were interested in serving as a junior counsel to the President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, more commonly known as the Warren Commission. Again, wanting to stay in Philadelphia, Specter balked. But after talking to friends at a New Year's Eve party at his home and then with his wife, he decided to take it.

Symposium planned
"Solving the Great American Murder Mystery: A National Symposium on the 40th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination" will be held Thursday through Sunday at Duquesne University.

The symposium, being hosted by The Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law and Duquesne University School of Law, will include Wecht, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and many of the case's top investigators and independent researchers, as well as some of the world's preeminent forensic scientists and legal experts.

Wecht chairman of the Institute's Advisory Board, said the symposium's intent is to provide an independent, academic forum and to explore.what can be learned about the assassination "based upon modern-day forensic scientific techniques and legal and investigative avenues."

In addition to Wecht and Specter, others scheduled to speak include former Parkland Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Grossman; attorney and activist Mark Lane, one of the earliest critics of the Warren Report; private investigator Dr. Josiah Thompson, author of the 1967 re-investigation of the case, "Six Seconds in Dallas;" attorneys Robert Tanenbaum and Gary Cornwell, who served as deputy counsels to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s.

Also, forensic pathologists Dr. Michael Baden head of the House Select Committee on Assassinations; U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim, chairman of the 1994- 98 Assassination Records Review Board; and Dr. Henry Lee, one of the world's leading criminalists and a consultant to the ARRB.


"The uniform reaction was it was something that needed to be done," Specter said. "It was a call to public service."

Specter made his first train trip to the commission's headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 13, 1964, a snowy day, and returned home that night after cramming his briefcase full of materials. On the ride home, he looked at the autopsy report. He'll never forget it.

"I still shudder when I think about it," Specter said last week. "It was an overwhelming experience to read what happened to the president."

Over the next 10 months, Specter would become immersed in the killing and its immediate aftermath. Based upon the trajectory, ballistic, witness, photographic, forensic and scientific evidence, Specter concluded that Commission Exhibit 399 -- the so-called "magic bullet"--had caused Kennedy's neck wounds and all of Texas Gov. John Connally's nonfatal wounds.

On June 7, 1964, Specter and Chief Justice Earl Warren, who headed the commission, visited the "sniper's nest" on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, from where Oswald was supposed to have fired his rifle. There, for eight minutes, Specter detailed for Warren his contention that the same bullet had killed Kennedy. Warren subsequently agreed with Specter's argument, as did the commission.

Convincing such skeptics as Wecht would be another matter.

The 'magic bullet' problem

Wecht closed his eyes and folded his hands on his desk. A study in concentration, he began speaking in measured tones about the JFK assassination and the Warren Report. But, soon, his passion, his incredulity, took over. His timbre rose. He stood and used his body as a model to show the location of Kennedy's and Connally's wounds. He laughed heartily at what he considers the incompetence of the commission's findings, particularly Specter's single-bullet theory.

Wecht didn't need to look up anything. With dizzying dispatch, he rattled off the frames per second of the Zapruder film (18), the time it would have taken Oswald to fire, reload and fire again (2.5 seconds), the time between Kennedy and Connally reacting to their wounds (1.5 seconds), and the weight of the so-called "magic bullet" the commission said struck both men (158.6 grains). All showed the single-bullet theory to be what he has categorized as "scientifically absurd."

He repeated his oft-repeated challenge for any forensic pathologist to produce a bullet that had done what the nearly pristine magic bullet is purported to have done. He first threw down that gauntlet in the late 1970s when, unlike him, the eight other members of the pathology panel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations accepted the single-bullet theory.

"Get me one bullet in one case, just one from hundreds of thousands of cases ... that has done this. Nobody has ever produced one," he said.

There's little limit to his frustration at how the case was handled. As he has since February 1965, when he presented a paper before the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, Wecht blasted the decision that let Kennedy's autopsy be performed by two doctors who had never done a gunshot wound autopsy. "Forensic science was ... thwarted, stymied, perverted, ignored," he said.

But Wecht's tone softened as he discussed literally touching history at the National Archives in August 1972, when he was given permission to examine the Warren Commission's evidence.

For 16 hours over two days, he looked at it all -- clothing with bullet holes, Oswald's rifle, the "magic bullet," autopsy photographs and X-rays.

"It was very exciting, very challenging," he said. "Holding the shirt, the bullet. When you think, 'My God. This was Kennedy.'"

And then, there was the fascination and increased frustration when he discovered during that examination that Kennedy's brain, supposedly preserved for examination, was missing. Wecht's discovery was a front-page story the next morning in The New York Times -- "Mystery Cloaks Fate of Brain of Kennedy."

Wecht became one of the best known critics of the Warren Commission, arguing that the government twisted evidence to pin the assassination on Oswald because the truth of what occurred would be too much for the American public to take. Wecht speculates that "truth" is that rogue elements of the CIA had the Mafia kill Kennedy.

His widespread criticism led movie director Oliver Stone to hire him as a technical consultant for the 1991 film "JFK" based on the investigation of the Kennedy assassination by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

For Wecht, it was art imitating life, because Garrison had asked him in the fall of 1968 to serve as an expert witness in the conspiracy trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw. Wecht turned Garrison down because, at that time, he didn't have access to the assassination evidence.

But while he didn't get into the real life courtroom with Garrison, he did so in the movie, in which Kevin Costner plays Garrison. He proudly noted that he was directly responsible for the courtroom scene in which the single-bullet theory is excoriated by tracing its "scientifically impossible" trajectory using two of the movie's characters standing in for Kennedy and Connally.

Costner, as Garrison, tells the jury: "Rather than admit to a conspiracy or investigate further, the commission chose to endorse the theory put forth by an ambitious junior counselor, Arlen Specter. One of the grossest lies ever forced on the American people, we've come to know it as the 'magic bullet theory.' "

In his book, Specter said he considered suing Stone for libeling him, but decided against it because he had a Senate campaign in 1992 and, he said, "I didn't need a movie company."

Debate about the Kennedy assassination is likely to continue for some time, both Wecht and Specter said.

Criticism of the single-bullet theory doesn't bother Specter, who noted there were still books being written challenging findings about President Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

"There will be questions about the assassination of President Kennedy for centuries," he predicted. "I'm not reticent about discussing the subject. I have inside knowledge. And being in public life, I have a duty to speak out, ... to answer questions."

Wecht, likewise, has never been shy about discussing the matter and will continue to do so.

"People, as they should be, are fascinated by this case," Wecht said.

Given its political, cultural, historical heft, that seems natural, Specter said.

"I think this is the experience of our lifetimes, ... an historical event of overwhelming importance."

On that, two men of such divergent beliefs can agree.

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at or 412-263-1968.

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