By Dr. Peter Cummings, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist in NOVA; Cold Case JFK.
Fifty years later, why does the assassination of President Kennedy matter? That was a question posed to me by my 7-year-old son, as I sat surrounded by the autopsy photographs and skull models I was using as research on the assassination for a NOVA special on PBS. His question caught me off guard. This simple yet important point had the potential to undermine all the work I had done over the past nine months. I looked at the pile of autopsy photos and the row of plastic skulls and asked myself the same question.
My fascination with the assassination began after seeing the Zapruder film for the first time when I was 10 years old. I became captivated by the enigma of it all and wondered how science could leave so many questions unanswered. Science gives us truth, allows for justice, how could science not figure out if a shot came from the Book Depository Building or the Grassy Knoll? President Kennedy’s death is perhaps the best documented murder in history, witnessed by hundreds of people, it’s even captured on film, yet 50 years later science is still searching for the truth of what happened.
I began my investigation like many other scientists of my generation — I hit the web. I knew the autopsy photographs were online and I thought that after many years of training, I should be able to reach a reasonable conclusion after seeing them. The deeper I dug, the more confused I became. I spent a lot of time rotating images and squinting my eyes, struggling to make any valid deductions. It was obvious to me that the publicly available photographs and x-rays were not of the quality necessary to base a scientific opinion. In fact, very few of the photos could be interpreted.
I realized that much of the controversy surrounding the president’s death is the result of the faulty application of forensic science. Today, with information available on the Internet, anyone can claim to be an expert. Pseudoscience runs rampant and people seem to have lost respect for actual research and standards of proof. Anyone with a website can pass him or herself off as an expert, often without any real education, experience or knowledge. The sanctity of the scientific method is paramount to arriving at honest conclusions and deriving the truth. It’s by ignoring this process that apparent inconsistencies have bred the endless assassination conspiracy theories.
The truth has become buried in a quagmire of junk science and as a result, the underlying principles of this country, truth, justice and liberty for all, have been lost. Much more than John F. Kennedy died in November 1963; in many ways our nation died with him. America lost its innocence and became a different country overnight. In no other death in our history has the truth been more important.
I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit the National Archives and examine the original medical evidence. My visit underscored the fact that Internet research isn’t enough — nothing can replace viewing the actual artifacts. It’s through a return to these basics that the scientific method works best. Science freed me of my preconceptions and allowed me to approach my investigation as if it were any other gunshot wound case: I made observations and took notes, and later after some quiet contemplation, I reached my conclusions. Over the course of this project I rediscovered the power of science and the absolute need to get it right so that the truth can be told.
One of the roles of the president is to help focus us as a society — to give us goals, to steer us in a direction, to show us what matters and must be done, and motivate us to do it. After I finished my work at the Archives, I stood over the president’s jacket, my hand gently resting on the cloth. I couldn’t help but feel the magnitude of the history. I have performed thousands of autopsies and seen hundreds of gunshot wound cases. Yet here I was, my hands on the president’s clothing, and I felt tears welling in my eyes. It was not a response I had anticipated. It was in this moment that the answer to my son’s question became clear. Why does it matter today, 50 years later? The answer: The truth always matters, no matter how long it’s been. The truth is important, and you always tell the truth. That’s what I told my son.