Book Reviews / MORTAL ERROR




Did a Secret Service Agent Accidentally Shoot JFK in the Head?


Michael T. Griffith


[Editor's Note:  Michael Griffith, who has a strong background in applied

science and training from the Defense Language Institute at Monterey,

CA, has authored many articles and a book, COMPELLING EVIDENCE (1996),

on the assassination of JFK.  He maintains an award-winning web site

devoted to controversial issues at]


The late ballistics and firearms expert Howard Donahue believed that one of the Secret Service (SS) agents in the follow-up car accidentally shot President Kennedy. Donahue's theory and his supporting arguments are the subject of a book by Bonar Menninger, MORTAL ERROR (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992).  The work includes an excellent "Publisher's Note" that summarizes the findings of a St. Martin's Press research team regarding the flawed trajectory analysis done by NASA scientist Thomas Canning for the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA).


According to Donahue, Oswald did indeed fire at Kennedy, but only got off two shots. Oswald's first shot, says Donahue, hit the road near the limousine and showered the car with fragments, some of which lightly injured Kennedy in the head.  Oswald's second shot, according to Donahue, struck the President in the back of the neck and then went on to cause all of Governor John Connally's wounds. (This, of course, isthe single bullet theory (SBT), which Donahue believed.) Moments later, Donahue maintains, the fatal shot was fired, accidentally, from the follow-up car by SS agent George Hickey.


Menninger presents the following arguments in favor of Donahue's reconstruction:


*  The trajectory given for the alleged rear entrance head wound is incompatible with a shot from the alleged sniper's nest, i.e., from the location from which Oswald supposedly fired, the southeast corner window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building;


*  The bullet that mortally wounded Kennedy in the head behaved like a high-velocity, frangible missile, whereas Oswald supposedly used medium-velocity, non-frangible ammunition;


*  SSA Hickey, however, was seen with an AR-15 rifle at around the same time the head shot was fired, where the AR-15 fires high-velocity, frangible ammo;


*  The reported width of the rear entry wound on the head was 6.0 mm, but Oswald allegedly used 6.5 mm Carcano bullets;


*  The damage to the limousine's windshield was too high to have been caused by a bullet coming down into the car from the sixth-floor sniper's nest, as even Canning conceded to the HSCA;


*  Several witnesses in Dealey Plaza said two of the shots came in very rapid succession, nearly simultaneously, much too quickly to have been fired from the bolt-action Italian carbine that Oswald supposedly used;


*  Connally's wife and one of the SS agents in the limo both heard Kennedy cry out that he had been hit well BEFORE Gov. Connally was wounded;


*  There were no traces of blood or human tissue on the bullet fragments found in the limousine when Donahue examined them at the National Archives, yet the Warren Commission claimed these fragments came from the bullet that plowed through the President's head;


*  The 6.5 mm fragment that is seen on the back of Kennedy's head in the autopsy skull X-rays almost certainly did not come from the kind of ammunition that Oswald allegedly used. 


In fact, forensic science knows of no case where a fully metal-jacketed bullet (or a FMJ bullet) deposited a sizable fragment on the outer table of the skull as it penetrated the skull. That fragment most likely was a ricochet fragment that came from a bullet that struck the pavement behind the limousine.  These arguments are perfectly valid and relevant. However, they also lend themselves to more than one conclusion. Each could be construed, quite logically and plausibly, as equally strong evidence of conspiracy.


There are three major problems with Donahue's theory, in my opinion. For one thing, it fails to explain many indications that President Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. For instance, it does not account for the credible reports of phony SS agents in Dealey Plaza, the disturbing and suspicious Oswald impersonations, the problematic backyard rifle photos (which Donahue accepted as genuine), or the Joseph Milteer case (in which a wealthy, militant right-wing leader connected to the anti-Castro movement was recorded on tape by a Miami police informant--about two weeks before the shooting, saying that a hit on Kennedy was already "in the working").


Second, Donahue relied heavily on the SBT, which was the only way Donahue could explain Connally's wounds. However, physicist and radiologist Dr. David Mantik, who was permitted to examine the original autopsy materials at the National Archives, has discovered that the SBT appears to be a physical impossibility. Dr. Mantik, by making a simple but crucial experiment that should have been made years ago, found that no bullet could have gone from the back wound to the throat wound without smashing straight through the spine.  [Editor's note:  See "The Lone Nutter Refutation" above.]


In attempting to salvage the SBT from the results of the Warren Commission's own ballistics tests, in which the exit wounds in simulated human necks were torn-out wounds at least 10 mm in diameter, Donahue cited urologist John Lattimer, M.D.,'s specious theory that Kennedy's collar band "restrained" the neck and thus prevented the alleged exiting bullet from markedly pushing out the skin and from breaking through in a tearing fashion (Menninger 1992, p. 35). This hypothesis, according to Donahue, could explain why Kennedy's neck wound was small (about 4-5 mm in diameter), neat, and circular, even though it was supposedly the exit point for a 6.5 mm missile.


As Donahue should have realized, the slits in the front of the shirt are visibly below the collar band. According to the SBT, the "magic bullet" made those slits as it exited the throat. However, if those slits were made by a bullet, there would  have been nothing to restrain the skin of the neck from stretching, since the slits are clearly lower than the collar band (Harold Weisberg, NEVER AGAIN 1995, pp. 244-245).  Thus there would have been nothing to prevent the bullet from breaking through the skin in a tearing fashion.


Again, in the Commission's own ballistics tests, every single bullet fired into the simulated human necks created a torn-out, gaping exit wound of at least 10 mm in diameter, whereas JFK's throat wound was small, neat, and not punched out. What's more, according to Dr. Charles Carrico, the only doctor to see the throat wound before the shirt was removed, the throat wound was above the collar (specifically, he said it was above the knot of the tie). Indeed, Dr. Carrico said he did not see any slits in the front of the shirt nor a nick on the tie know before the nurses began to cut away Kennedy's clothing. Those slits and the nick on the tie knot were very likely made by the nurses as they removed JFK's shirt and tie.


The third problem I see with Donahue's theory is that it is foundationally dependent on the assumption that the alleged autopsy photos and X-rays are genuine and that the interpretations of them given by the Clark Panel and by the HSCA's medical panel are accurate.  [Editor's note:  See ASSASSINATION SCIENCE (1998) and MURDER IN DEALEY PLAZA (2000).]  Thus, Donahue accepted the placement of Kennedy's back wound near the base of the neck, yet evidence from the released files make it more clear than ever that the wound was actually farther down on the back, about five to six inches below the neck.


Similarly, Donahue accepted the claim that there was only one head shot and that it came from behind. Donahue rejected the massive eyewitness testimony that there was a large, exit-type defect in the right rear part of JFK's head, primarily because the X-rays reportedly do not show such a defect and because photos of the back of the head show the region to be intact. [Editor's note:  See the study by Gary Aguilar,M.D., in MURDER IN DEALEY PLAZA (2000).]  Two private experts who have examined the X-rays at the National Archives, however, have found that one of the radiographs does in fact suggest a sizeable defect in the rear area of the skull.


Furthermore, several private experts have concluded the skull x-rays show clear, undeniable evidence that at least two bullets struck the president in the head. As for the photos of the back of the head, these pictures have been labeled as fraudulent by medical technicians who attended the autopsy, as well as by medical personnel who saw the President's body at Parkland Hospital in Dallas right after the shooting.


Additionally, we now know from released files that one of the autopsy pathologists, Dr. Pierre Finck, in one of his HSCA interviews, went so far  as to question how one of the photos of the head been established as having been taken at the autopsy! We also have the previously sealed testimony of the mortician who reassembled JFK's skull after the autopsy, Tom Robinson. Robinson reported that there was still a visibledefect in the back of the head even after the inclusion of late-arriving skull fragments from Dallas.


And Dr. Boswell, another one of the autopsists, told the HSCA that half of the rear entry wound in the back of the head was contained in a piece of missing skull fragment, and that this fragment did not arrive to Bethesda Naval Hospital until very late that night, whereas the alleged autopsy photos were taken hours earlier.Since Donahue accepted the findings of the Clark Panel and the HSCA medical panel, he believed there was a large, 6.5 mm bullet fragment in the outer table of Kennedy's skull, just beneath the "revised" rear entrance wound in the back of the head. David Mantik, M.D., Ph.D., however, has discovered from his study of the X-rays that the 6.5 mm "fragment" is actually a man-made image that was superimposed over a smaller genuine fragment. Dr. Mantik was even able to duplicate how the 6.5 mm image could have been produced on the X-rays.  He has published his findings on these matters in ASSASSINATION SCIENCE (1998) and MURDER IN DEALEY PLAZA (2000).


Somewhat surprisingly, Donahue accepted the "revised" location for the rear head entry wound put forth by the Clark Panel and by the HSCA medical panel, which is a staggering four inches higher than where the autopsy doctors located it. Donahue speculates that the autopsy pathologists simply mislocated the wound. But this would require us to believe that all three of the autopsists "erred" by a whopping four inches in describing and diagramming the wound's location. This seems to be extremely unlikely and hard to believe, especially since they carefully measured the wound's location.


Indeed, Dr. Boswell even prepared a medical diagram in which he had, in effect,triangulated the wound to the vicinity of external occipital protuberance. (Why was the wound "moved"? Because the entry wound as described by the autopsy doctors could not have been caused by a bullet fired from the alleged sniper's nest.The revised location doesn't fit all that well either, but it lines much better than the location described in the autopsy report.)


There are other problems with Donahue's theory. Donahue allowed for no more than three shots, but credible reports of additional bullets striking in Dealey Plaza and a substantial amount of eyewitness testimony indicate there were at least four shots were fired, and quite possibly as many as six or eight. In addition, the Zapruder film seems to show reactions to six shots.


Donahue assumed that Oswald fired two shots from the sixth-floor sniper's nest, but there is good evidence that Oswald was on the second floor at the time of the shooting. [Editor's note:  Griffith discusses this evidence in detail in "The Baker-Oswald Encounter: Proof That Oswald Did Not Shoot JFK?", which may be found on his web site given above.]


Donahue cited journalist Jim Bishop's claim that SSA Clint Hill phoned Robert Kennedy from Parkland Hospital and told him there had been an "accident." (Menning 1992, p. 110). But Hill did not actually say "accident", but instead said that there had been an "incident" and then went on to explain that the President and Governor Connally had been shot.


In order to explain the violent rearward movement of Kennedy's head and upper body in response to the head shot, Donahue accepted the neuro-spasm and jet-effect theories. Both theories, however, are of doubtful credibility. Ballistics expert and physicist Dr. Larry Sturdivan implicitly rejected the jet-effect theory when he testified before the HSCA. The theory is based on disputed, improbable, assumptions anyway. As for the neuro-spasm theory, the neuromuscular reaction posited in this hypothesis seems to be much too fast given the speed of the backward snap and the mass involved, as Josiah Thompson observed years ago (SIX SECONDS IN DALLAS 1967, pp. 93-95; see also Harrison Edward Livingstone, KILLING THE TRUTH 1993, pp. 151-152).


Howard Donahue was a decent, honorable man, and he did a great deal of valuable, credible research. Unfortunately, his theory rested on a number of doubtful arguments and is incompatible with, or simply fails to explain, much too much of the evidence.



(c) 2002  Michael T. Griffith