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Forensic Pathologists?

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I realize my near total lack of knowledge in this field so I don't mind asking a couple of simple questions.

Was there no trust in forensic pathology in 1963? I know that there were many forensic pathologists practicing.

Was it considered an inept or inadequate science? If not, why was one, or better yet several, not called upon to determine the specifics of the death of the man, who was generally recognized to be, the most powerful person in the world of politics-----not to mention that he was a very rich and powerful person in his own right. A person whose shooting murder was to be investigated by no one less than the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a Catholic myself, I do not know of a forbidding religous reason that the burial could not have been delayed for a day if neccessary.

Why not have persons who were best in their field conducting this autopsy? Why did Jackie, Robert or Ted not demand it?

I of course know a few obvious reasons, but has there ever been a legitimate reason given? Why was it neccessary that an autopsy be conducted within eight hours of his death, with whatever poorly qualified pathologists that might, at that time, be available? I would think that Mrs. Kennedy's meticulous attention to detail and protocol regarding nearly everything else in her life, would have demanded nothing but the best, as was her custom.

I would think also that J. Edgar, with his own attention to detail,

should have been demanding the same and not want any doors left open to potential criticism of his investigation. Unless of course he did not want "correct" forensic detail.

In my personal experience,things that do not seem correct and logical, usually are not.

This autopsy scenario becomes more and more ridiculous as I merely scratch the surface of potential problems.

Conspiracy clues become more and more prevalent as each aspect of this case comes under more and more scrutiny from people who are no more qualified than even myself.

"A mystery wrapped in an enigma"?

Not really! There seems to be much motive for many people, tho not Lee Harvey Oswald, to want the President out of the way and that guilt be placed only upon an unguilty, tho misguided, patsy.

Charlie Black

Edited by Charles Black
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Charles, my reading of this subject which I have an interest in leads me to make some general statements.

The history of the development of forensics is different throughout the world. Many developments have taken a long time to percolate through. Different techniques have been developed in different places to the exclusion of others.

It really gets blurred in the USA where different states have different systems.

In one forensic anthropology might be highly developed and regarded, in another the local undertaker wight cast a cursory glance at a body and write a death certificate.

Much of the present knowledge and databases have been developed since the assassination. (I find it interesting that some of the most famous forensic anthropologists today come from the southern states). I'd love to hear what some of them would have to say after handling Kennedys bones for a day or two.

Reading xrays is an art. Often it takes days of looking at high qualityxrays in special lighting conditions to decipher them. Experience is what counts.

Experience is what counts really here too. The organisations involved here simply did not have some of the experience that would be necessary. I've read a round table discussion by doctors reviewing the case and their back and forth arguments tempered unfortunately by respect for 'credentials' make it agonising reading (while in the background someone is interjecting, demanding an end to 'public' discussions.)

To some extent, I suspect, there was an element of ego involved. None of them were likely to admit to inexperience. Most likely felt a relief that someone would make a plausible statement of finality.

So, yes the knowledge was there, but not in the right people at all times. An imnvestigation tempered with sensibilities, motives, and outside interference leaves us with what we have today.

An exhumation in the hands of a professional team of today would probably solve the whole thing within two weeks.

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An exhumation in the hands of a professional team of today would probably solve the whole thing within two weeks.

Possibly not.

After reading all the WC medical testimony, all the HSCA medical testimony, all the ARRB testimony, all the interviews with the autopsy pathologists I could find, all the interviews with HSCA forensic pathology panel members I could find, every article on the assassination in a medical journal I could find, the accounts of the HSCA investigation by doctors Michael Baden, and Cyril Wecht, etc., the only thing that's absolutely certain is that people see what they want to see, and that in order for doctors to see what they want to see, they sometimes make stuff up.

When the body gets exhumed, the pathologists may very well conclude there was no entrance hole in the cowlick. But I wouldn't bet on it. In 1968, they realized that a bullet entering near the EOP would not exit by the temple, so they moved the wound. In 1978, they realized that the bullet reallly did hit Kennedy in the back, at a point even with or below the wound in his throat, so they decided he was leaning forward. While the medical evidence will undoubtedly prove someday that there was a conspiracy, it won't be a government-sponsored team that will decide it. Only a Kennedy family-sponsored exhumation and re-examination can resolve this thing, and WITHOUT government assistance.

As to the state of forensic pathology in 1963, it was quite established. The problem is that the chief autopsist, James Humes, was not a forensic pathologist. Colonel Finck was, but he was not in charge. He had to suck it up while Humes, in order to rush through the thing, failed to talk to the Dallas doctors, failed to look at the clothes, failed to inspect the neck, and failed to surgically trace the bullet track of the wound in the back. This led to his mistaken belief that the back wound connected to the throat wound. He also failed to shave Kennedy's skull, failed to take adequate pictures of the bullet entrance in the back of the head, failed to have proper x-rays taken of the back of Kennedy's head, and failed to section the brain in the subsequent brain examination. These mistakes contributed to the fallacious belief that a bullet entered near the cowlick.

As Cyril Wecht has complained, the President of the United States received an autopsy less thorough than that of the average John Doe brought into a city morgue. It is a national disgrace. That said, I honestly don't believe it was by design. The people who brought Kennedy to Bethesda, particularly Jackie Kennedy, would have had every reason to believe his autopsy would be sufficient. Much of the guilt I believe falls on Humes himself, whose military mindset and tremendous ego made him incapable of telling his superiors that he was unqualified, and whose subservience to superiors made him vulnerable to the pressures to perform an incomplete autopsy, and simply find the bullets. There was a concern by the Kennedy family that Kennedy's Addison's disease would be exposed by his autopsy, and thus his lies to the public. There was also a concern about the first lady, who was determined not to leave the hospital without JFK. Unfortunately, these concerns. as communicated by Kennedy's physician, Dr. Burkley, to Humes, contributed to Humes' mistakes.

I don't believe an exhumation is necessary. I believe the existing medical evidence proves conclusively that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. Not because it is faked. But because it is real. I'm beginning a fight to get the medical community to concur. But it is an uphill fight.

The WC's refusal to let the autopsy doctors look at the photos and x-rays they took is another matter. If there was any conspiracy regarding the medical evidence, circa 1964, this would undoubtedly be it. Since the responsibility for this decision falls entirely on Justice Warren, a champion of the left, however, believers in a conspiracy almost always ignore this sad fact, preferring to dump their suspicions in the laps of the military men and the always abrasive Arlen Specter--who in fact fought valiantly for the doctors to be able to double-check their work, but was shot down.

If one looks at Warren's decision, unprecedented in American history I believe, to deny a doctor a review of the photos and x-rays HE took prior to his testimony, essentially depriving him of his notes, then one can only conclude that the great Warren was either a BLITHERING IDIOT, or under great pressure from someone with something to hide. Well, who could this person be? Well, who was it that insisted that Warren be on the commission, despite his ardent protestations? LBJ. Since LBJ bragged about twisting Warren's arm to be on the commission by telling him that 40 million American lives hung in the balance, it's reasonable to assume he told a similar lie to get Warren to deep-six the autopsy photos. Or perhaps this inital lie haunted Warren, and he was afraid LBJ would blame the commies and start a war if the evidence indicated conspiracy. We'll never know. To me this "Warren decision" is one of the biggest enigmas of the century, and is Warren's real legacy, even more so than his decision in Brown V. Board of Education. It's unfortunate.

Edited by Pat Speer
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Pat, it was following the Korean war that the processing of remains highlighted the poor knowledge base that existed. The FBI, while recognising the value of forensic anthropology, relied on the Smithsonian institute for experts well past the time of the assassination.

The result of pioneers like Snow and their immediate predecessors has brought Forensics to what it is today, a still developing science.

The average law enforcement body in those days did not place a high value on forensic experts, particularly in some of the southern states. The processing of bodies from the Korean war brought the whole thing to a head. And this was after the war. The lessons learnt and skills accuired by still a small group of true experts in this field had not filtered through as one might get the impression from your statement that it was well established, it was not.

Basic procedures that are now accepted were not followed. For example , creation of good xrays, prolonged irradiation. Qualified scrutiny of less than ideal material. A separation of bone from flesh by soaking and boiling and scraping did not happen. A good reconstruction therefore obviously impossible.

An exhumation would work with defleshed bone. High quality xrays would be possible, revealing exact location of lead fragments.. Analysis of fragments. Beveling. Reconstruction. Full body xrays for extant fragments.

Probably yes.

This could all have been accomplished then by an xray technician under expert guidance. Not only is the reading but also the production of good xray material an art.It didn't happen. Why? Not as a result of wanting to not do it but because the 'knowledge' of how to do it properly did not exist amongst these people yet, or the significance of it or simply not knowing that there were better ways..

Experts are an ornery bunch, it takes a lot to get them to admit they are wrong. That is possibly one of the greatest of hindrances.

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Very good post and sound logic.

Warren's actions and at other times, lack of action, point very strongly that he had been thoroughly convinced of the potential horrors that could result in the "wrong" outcome of the WC conclusions.

His handling (intentional bungling) of the Jack Ruby interview, I feel,is as important as the distortion of evidence that occured during the establishment of Oswald's guilt.

This entire episode of our history has destroyed, for all of those conscious enough to have given it thought, any semblance of the credibility of the U.S. government. Further destruction occurred as a result of Watergate. The coup de grace, tho not needed, has been our quest for those very elusive weapons of mass destruction that are "known"

to be buried in the deserts of Iraq!

Charlie Black

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Pat wrote:

. . .[T] only thing that's absolutely certain is that people see what they want to see, and that in order for doctors to see what they want to see, they sometimes make stuff up.

Pat, having handled some medical malpractice cases I can confirm what you wrote. It is possible to find a medical expert to say just about anything, even under oath in a court of law.

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I live in a rural/suburban area, just outside the 26th largest metropolitan area in the US. However, there is a state line dividing us. This metro area has a fine medical examiner's office. But until recent years, the local coroners--elected officials, and most usually funeral directors [although I knew one county coroner in a neighboring county who had no professional credentials of his own, other than being the son of an MD] had to send out autopsies to the state lab, more than 100 miles away, rather than utilize the facilities that were much closer.

Of course, in 1963 here as well as in Dallas, the ambulance services were often operated by the funeral homes...in a case where a life teeters on the brink, this might be considered a potential conflict of interest. Locally, it was only in the late 1970's, when the funeral directors began getting out of the ambulance business, that government stepped in and county-run emergency medical service offices came into being. Prior to that, the only access that semi-rural areas had to EMT's was on television...there were few standards for privately-operated, funeral home-owned ambulance services.

Emergency medical care has come a considerable distance since 1963, as has forensic training. Coroners with little formal training, unfortunately, still exist in communities such as where I live...as the office is still an elected one. And with conservative taxpayers revolting at the size of government budgets, I seriously doubt whether counties such as the one where I reside will ever have their own medical examiner's office. I suppose that, in response, some equally-conservative forensic pathologists could decide to open a privately-run lab, but I really don't forsee that ever happening...start-up costs would be tremendous, I'm sure.

In the case of the JFK autopsy, it's my opinion that the biggest mistake was conducting it in a military facility. As Pat mentioned, the fact that Humes outranked Finck presumably had a bearing on the outcome...as did the interference of the "suits" in the room, presumably FBI, if the reports I've read regarding photographs and other evidence are correct.

While an exhumation might answer a lot of questions, it might also turn out to be just another failed attempt at solving the case. After all, 40+ years later, we have a lot of evidence already that wasn't available in 1963; what we don't have is a unifying conclusion as to where all this evidence leads.

Edited by Mark Knight
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John, my statement that forensic pathology was firmly established by 1963 is, I believe, accurate. While Mark is quite correct that small towns and rural areas often had coroners with little or no training in 1963, and still don't, large cities have had well-trained professional forensic pathologists since well before WW2. I'll try and get some exact dates if you think it is necessary. Ironically, one of the top forensic pathologists in the country in 1963 was Dr. Earl Rose, of Dallas, who was all set to do Kennedy's autopsy before those pesky SS men absconded with the body.

Pathology and Forensic Pathology are very different. As Dr. Wecht explains, a pathologist starts out with an assumed cause of death, i.e. cancer, and then studies the slides and organs to demonstrate that this was the cause. A Forensic Pathologist, however, is trained to look at all the evidence of an autopsy, and then conclude from studying all this evidence, what would be the likely cause of death. The Pathologist therefore looks for an easy solution, and concludes the glass is full if it appears half-full, while a forensic pathologist is taught to reserve his judgment until he makes sure there isn't another glass that is also half-full. When one reads about the autopsy one can see how this difference in training helped bring about some flawed conclusions. When the doctors saw an entrance hole near the EOP and an exit hole near the top of Kennedy's head, Humes concluded the one lead to the other without tracing it through the brain or determining Kennedy's location in comparison to the sniper's nest. He also decided that the bruise on the lung must have been caused by the bullet on its route from the back to the throat, without studying for one second the trajectory or the effects of bullets on lungs, to see if it made sense. The glass was half-full so he said it was full. He gave it all away when in his report he quoted newspapers saying there were three shots fired from above and from behind; this indicated he was trying to get his report to match what he believed were the facts, rather than coming to an independent conclusion.

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Pat it would appear we are talking slightly at cross purposes. Part of the job of the pathologist (who deals with soft tissues) is to call on the expertise of a forensic anthropologist who deals with hard tissue. If you reread my statements you see I was talking about this forensic anthropologist.

""By and large," says Rhine, "it is the pathologist who tells the anthropologist what he expects, when the case will be available, and what kind of support will be offered. He generally sets the tone of the work."

It takes years of experience and training in bone analysis to become a skilled FA.

"Practice, practice, practice," Rhine insists. "A person pursuing work in forensic anthropology should accompany someone more experienced to the morgue to work on cases---many cases. He or she should be immersed in such activity and take every opportunity to attend meetings and engage in the exchange of information with others in the field. They need to bolster their experience and broaden it with the insights and observations of others. In short, they should develop a collegial experience. But attitudes are also important, such as patience, the willingness to return again and again to a skeleton to tease out those tiny, hidden revelations, and the perseverance to push against the barriers of ignorance to see how much more can be done."

Even so, there aren't many people in this field. "Forensic anthropology has not been universally used across the country," Rhine explains, "because there aren't enough of us. There may be on the order of 150 forensic anthropologists in the entire country. A couple of dozen are employed by the military, both in Washington and at the Army's Central Identification Lab in Hawaii. A few more are at the Smithsonian and other museums. The remainder tend to be underutilized, in part because of a reluctance by

some pathologists to venture outside the expertise circumscribed by their own facilities. In other instances, it is generally a tough, uphill battle to convince law enforcement agencies in some locales to deal with 'those goofy professors.'"

this is the case today.


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You are correct, John, that forensic anthropologists, are often given no respect. The HSCA asked Dr. Angel to give them a quick consultation, gave him little opportunity to come to a conclusion, and then ignored just about everything he said.

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Pat, ok then. The fact that the FA was not valued as he should be is clear. What is also clear is that the state of the art is different today. For this reason the FA is more and more regarded. Though still nowhere as muchas they should be. Notable ones of the current crop (see the Deaths Acre, and others.) bemoan the state of the art and are vigorously seeking to ensure that their craft will survive their death.

In 1963, the FA could have made more contributions. The FP should have emphasised this. The FA should have been given time. The fact that he didn't reflects on the other investigators.

I'm suggesting that it reflects the state of the art of the FA AND the FP. Because Forensic Anthropology then was much less developed than today, combined with an inherent snobbery amongst some professionals, the Forensic Pathologist did NOT know enough.

As well as all that. The FA depends on a different kind of xray. The bones are brought forward and the soft tissues diminish with increased irradiation. The xrays were taken from a Pathology perspective. Again, lack of knowledge of what was needed.

Today a team of professional FA's (perhaps led by Clyde Snow, who has done some remarkable work on Los Desaparaceidos in Argentina) given the opportunity and using modern technology, reconstruction techniques based on deep extensive experience could have this solved in 2 weeks.

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Pat wrote:

Ironically, one of the top forensic pathologists in the country in 1963 was Dr. Earl Rose, of Dallas, who was all set to do Kennedy's autopsy before those pesky SS men absconded with the body.

This is a big part of what went wrong with the murder investigation. While I believe it was Kennedy's staff [Powers et al] who were the push behind getting the body out of Texas--probably reflecting the wishes of Jackie, though that's not been firmly established--it was the SS who was the "muscle" behind the decision: they had the guns at Parkland, and after the carnage that had already occurred that day, I seriously doubt that anyone wanted to play out their hand. In this particular game of "Texas Hold-'Em, " it was probably better for the local authorities to fold their hand than to "call." But history lost when they did so.

By the time the body got to Bethesda, the FBI was already locked into the LN scenario, and this information was known to those in the autopsy room. How different might the conclusions have been had this idea not already have been planted, reinforced by the presence of the FBI agents in the room during the autopsy, coloring the ultimate conclusions even before the examination had begun? One can only speculate.

While exhumation and re-examination by a forensic anthropologist might give us answers which are more fact-based than the conclusions arrived at 42 years ago, there is a certain reluctance of society to dig up persons long buried, for whatever reason. As the sole surviving member of the household, Caroline may wish to leave this ground undisturbed [literally and figuratively]. In strictly a sense of inquiry, while we might argue that the truth that could be revealed should override all other arguments, a sensitivity for the desires of the family cannot ethically be overlooked.

And with the gravesite's status as a tourist attraction, it would obviously be impossible to "discreetly" disinter the body to conduct the investigation without generating tabloid-sized headlines. Could the body be removed under the cover of darkness, the examination of the body conducted in the wee hours, and the body reinterred before sunup? Or would this open up a bigger can of worms?

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