The Kennedy Assassination Series:
The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Shot That Killed Kennedy, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 1, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 2, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 3, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 4, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 5, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 6 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 7 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 8 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 9 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 10 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 11 by Jacob G. Hornberger
Once it was determined that the autopsy of John F. Kennedy’s body would be conducted at Bethesda Naval Hospital rather than Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Navy Commander James Humes and Navy Commander J. Thornton Boswell were assigned the task of conducting the autopsy. At 8 p.m. that evening, just before the start of the autopsy at 8:15 p.m., Humes telephoned Army Lt. Col. Pierre Finck and requested his assistance with the autopsy. All three of them were trained pathologists but only Finck specialized in forensic pathology, the branch of pathology that focuses on determining the cause of death.
In 1969, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison brought a criminal case against a New Orleans man named Clay Shaw. The state alleged that Kennedy had been killed as part of a regime-change operation on the part of the U.S. military and the CIA, part of whose mission was to remove Kennedy from power and elevate Vice President Lyndon Johnson to the presidency. The state was alleging that Shaw was a CIA operative who had been part of the plot.
At the trial, Finck was called by the defense to testify about the Kennedy autopsy. He testified that Kennedy had been hit by two bullets, one in the head and one through the neck. The head shot is the subject of my article, “The Shot That Killed Kennedy.” It deals with the controversy over the U.S. military’s official photographs of the back of Kennedy’s head, which fail to depict the large hole in the back of his head that physicians at Parkland Hospital observed when they were trying to save the president’s life.
The issues involving the neck wound are no less strange, for it is the wound that involves the so-called magic bullet. We’ll examine that controversy later, but for now I’d like to share with you two interesting aspects of Finck’s testimony at the Shaw trial in New Orleans.
The first one relates to the points I made in my last article, “The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 2.” In that that article I focused on certain characteristics of military culture: deference to authority, obedience to orders, and a penchant for secrecy. Finck’s testimony reflected all three military characteristics.
A standard procedure in autopsy cases is for the pathologist to “dissect” the track of a bullet wound to determine the exact direction that the bullet took and also to help locate the bullet, especially if it came to rest inside the body. Ballistic tests can then be conducted on the bullet to determine whether it was fired from a particular rifle.
That procedure wasn’t followed with Kennedy’s neck wound, and the prosecutor in the Shaw case, Alvin Oser, wanted to know why it wasn’t. The following is from the transcript of Finck’s testimony at the Shaw trial. The questioner is Oser.
Q: Did you have an occasion to dissect the track of that particular bullet in the victim as it lay on the autopsy table?
A: I did not dissect the track in the neck.
A: This leads us into the disclosure of medical records.
Doesn’t that seem to be a rather strange answer? Given that Finck’s testimony revolved entirely around the autopsy of Kennedy’s body, his testimony necessarily involved the disclosure of medical records. Oser refused to let Finck off the hook:
Mr. Oser: Your Honor, I would like an answer from the Colonel and I would ask the Court to so direct.
The Court: That is correct, you should answer, Doctor.
The Witness: We didn’t remove the organs of the neck.
Do you see the problem? Finck still hasn’t answered the question. Is he deliberately obfuscating? Or does he honestly think he’s answering Oser’s question?
Q: Why not, Doctor?
A: For the reason we were told to examine the head wounds and that the —
Q: Are you saying someone told you not to dissect the track?
The Court: Let him finish his answer.
The Witness: I was told that the family wanted an examination of the head, as I recall, the head and chest, but the prosectors in this autopsy didn’t remove the organs of the neck, to my recollection.
Do you see the problem? He’s still not answering Oser’s question. He’s simply repeating that he didn’t dissect the organs but he’s not answering Oser’s question as to why he didn’t dissect it. If Finck is hoping that Oser will simply give up and move on to another line of questioning, his hope is immediately dashed:
Q: You have said they did not, I want to know why didn’t you as an autopsy pathologist attempt to ascertain the track through the body which you had on the autopsy table in trying to ascertain the cause or the causes of death? Why?
A: I had the cause of death.
Do you see that he is still not answering the question?
Q: Why did you not trace the track of the wound?
A: As I recall I didn’t remove these organs from the neck.
Q: I didn’t hear you.
A: I examined the wounds but I didn’t remove the organs of the neck.
By this time, one has to ask whether Finck is intentionally and deliberately avoiding answering the question.
Q: You said you didn’t do this; I am asking you why you didn’t do this as a pathologist?
A: From what I recall I looked at the trachea, there was a tracheotomy wound the best I can remember, but I didn’t dissect or remove those organs.
But he still hasn’t answer Oser’s question, has he? So Oser finally turns to the judge for assistance:
Mr. Oser: Your Honor, I would ask Your Honor to direct the witness to answer my question.
Q: I will ask you the question one more time. Why did you not dissect the track of the bullet wound that you have described today and you saw at the time of the autopsy at the time you examined the body?
A: As I recall I was told not to, but I don’t remember by whom.
Finally! There we have it. That’s the reason Finck was obfuscating and avoiding answering the question. Army Col. Pierre Finck, the forensic pathologist for John Kennedy’s autopsy, was directed not to dissect the track of Kennedy’s neck wound to determine the track the bullet had taken, and he obeyed that directive even though it violated standard procedure in autopsy cases.
Q: You were told not to but you don’t remember by whom?
Q: Could it have been one of the Admirals or Generals in the room?
A: I don’t recall.
What are the chances that a forensic pathologist, whose responsibility was to dissect Kennedy’s neck wound to determine the path of the bullet, is going to forget the identity of the person who has directed him to not do his job in the most important autopsy he’ll ever perform in his life, an autopsy of the president of the United States?
I think there’s another reason Finck was doing his best to avoid answering Oser’s questions and why he very likely committed perjury when he testified that he could not remember the identity of the person who directed him not to dissect the track of the neck wound. My hunch is that Finck had a deep fear of what would happen to him if he revealed the identity of the person who had the power to issue that type of directive during the autopsy, a directive that Finck refused to disobey.
That the three pathologists who conducted Kennedy’s autopsy were operating under the authority of a high military official was reinforced by Finck in another part of his testimony during the Shaw trial:
Q: Was Dr. Humes running the show?
A: Well, I heard Dr. Humes stating that — he said, “Who’s in charge here?” and I heard an Army General, I don’t remember his name, stating, “I am.” You must understand that in those circumstances, there were law enforcement officers, military people with various ranks, and you have to co-ordinate the operation according to directions.
Q: But you were one of the three qualified pathologists standing at that autopsy table, were you not, Doctor?
A: Yes, I am.
Q: Was this Army General a qualified pathologist?
Q: Was he a doctor?
A: No, not to my knowledge.
Q: Can you give me his name, Colonel?
A: No, I can’t. I don’t remember.
Elsewhere in his testimony, Finck touched on that part of military culture concerning obedience to orders:
Q: Colonel, did you feel that you had to take orders from this Army General that was there directing the autopsy?
A: No, because there were others, there were Admirals.
Q: There were Admirals?
A: Oh, yes, there were Admirals, and when you are a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army you just follow orders, and at the end of the autopsy we were specifically told — as I recall it, it was by Admiral Kinney, the Surgeon General of the Navy — this is subject to verification — we were specifically told not to discuss the case.
In a memorandum submitted by Finck in 1965 to his commanding officer, Army Brig. Gen. J.M. Blumberg, Finck alluded to another instance of how a superior military official prevented him from doing his job during the autopsy:
I was denied the opportunity to examine the clothing of Kennedy. One officer who outranked me told me that my request was only of academic interest. The same officer did not agree to state in the autopsy report that the autopsy was incomplete, as I had suggested to indicate.
In 1997, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) took the deposition of Navy corpsman Jerrol Custer, who had served as an X‑ray technician for the Kennedy autopsy. As I wrote in “The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy,” Custer was one of several military personnel who witnessed Kennedy’s body secretly being brought into the Bethesda morgue at 6:35 p.m. in a cheap, gray shipping casket rather than the expensive, ornate casket into which the body had been placed in Dallas. ARRB general counsel Jeremy Gunn was the questioner.
Gunn: Was it your impression that Dr. Finck was taking instructions from one or more persons in the gallery, or was he —
Gunn: And from whom was he taking instructions?
Custer: From the same two gentlemen that had kept rolling the situation all that night.
Gunn: You’ve previously referred to that person being a four-star general. Which service was that four-star general with: do you know?
Custer: I’ll be honest with you. I can’t recollect. All I saw was four big stars. And that was enough.
Gunn: But you’re calling him a general. It’s, presumably, not an Admiral. I guess that’s fair.
Gunn: Presumably, it would be either Army or Air Force?
Custer: Oh, it has to be one of the two. I know an Admiral when I see one. Absolutely. He’s got gold halfway up to his elbow.
When Finck was called to testify before the ARRB in 1996, he confirmed that he had received the same type of secrecy order described in “The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 2.” The questioner is Jeremy Gunn, general counsel for the ARRB:
Q: Dr. Finck, did you ever receive any orders or instructions from anyone not to discuss the assassination or autopsy of President Kennedy?
A: At the autopsy, yes.
Q: Can you tell me what the circumstances were around that, who gave you the order for example?
A: As far as I can remember, it was in the autopsy room, and I may have recorded that somewhere, but now the name escapes. I don’t remember specifically who told us not to discuss it.
* * *
Q: Would you turn to page 3 of the document that you have in front of you, Exhibit 28. I would like to draw your attention to the paragraph numbered 2 and ask you if that helps to refresh your recollection of any other orders you may have received?
A: Before the Warren Commission, Warren report: “Before the Warren report was published in September ’64, I received directives by telephone from the White House through” — something illegible — “through your office.”
Q: Your office.
A: “And through the Naval Medical School in Bethesda not to discuss subject autopsy beyond the contents of the Warren report.” I don’t remember that.
Who was the high military official (or officials) who was directing and controlling the course of the autopsy? To this day, the American people don’t know the identity of that person. For almost 50 years, the U.S. military has succeeded in keeping his identity secret. And don’t forget: that autopsy room was filled with admirals and generals who were witnessing how the autopsy was being conducted, none of whom has disclosed the identity of that person to the public, confirming that military men do in fact keep secrets very well, especially when they have taken a solemn oath to do so.
At the beginning of this article, I said that I wanted to share with you two interesting aspects of Pierre Finck’s testimony at the Clay Shaw trial in New Orleans. The first one, just covered, outlines the role that military culture played in the Kennedy autopsy. The second one, which will be detailed in the next segment, pertains to a portion of Finck’s testimony relating to the issues surrounding the multiple delivery of Kennedy’s caskets into the Bethesda morgue prior to the autopsy, as outlined in my article “The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy.” It will be convenient for the reader to read that article before my next segment, “The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 4,” is posted.