As a longtime student of the death of the 35th President, I wish I could say I was surprised to learn ABC had chosen Gus Russo as one of its research consultants for its broadcast commemorating the fortieth anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination. It would have been a surprise if ABC had chosen more wisely. Uneven scholarship by the mainstream media on that murder is almost an established tradition.
By way of background, I am a practicing ophthalmologist in San Francisco. I am also one of the few non-government physicians ever allowed by the Kennedy family to examine the still-secret JFK autopsy X-rays and photographs. I testified before the Assassinations Records Review Board [ARRB] and was mentioned by name in the ARRB's Final Report.  With Pittsburgh coroner, Cyril Wecht, MD, JD as my co-author, I wrote a 100+ page section of a book published in 2002 by one of the Dallas physicians who treated JFK in Dallas. 
While there is no gainsaying that, as author of the book Live by the Sword, as lead reporter for Frontline's 1993 documentary on Oswald, and as a reporter for ABC's Dangerous World documentary, Russo has earned considerable respect among some in the mainstream as a JFK assassination authority. But Russo, unfortunately, hasn't earned that respect from many careful students of the topic, both pro- and anti-conspiracy. And for good reason.
As an example of the latter, I offer Max Holland, a Warren Commission loyalist and a contributing editor to The Nation magazine. Besides his contributions to The Nation, Holland's writings on the Kennedy case have been published in American History, The Wilson Quarterly, The Boston Globe, and American Heritage Magazine, to name but a few. 
Holland has written that Russo, "appears to be nearly incapable of discrimination and not much inclined to take a hard look at sources he likes ... Russo is so intent on proving his thesis, which is that Oswald acted because the Kennedy brothers were trying to get Castro, that he routinely recites half-truths, and on occasion even bends a quote to mean something entirely different from what was intended."
Holland provides this telling example: "[I]n testimony before the Warren Commission, Michael Paine, whose wife had befriended Marina Oswald, told of a conversation he had with Oswald about Lee's subscription to The Daily Worker, official newspaper of the US Communist Party. Oswald, 'said that you could tell ... what they [the party] (sic) wanted you to do by reading between the lines,' Paine testified. In Russo's book, Oswald's remark to Paine becomes, 'You could tell what they (the Kennedys) (sic) wanted to do [i.e., reinvade Cuba] (sic) by reading between the lines." 
Holland concludes that, "Russo leaves out anything and everything that contradicts his preferred thesis," and that, "Russo has one foot firmly planted in the camp of those who use the assassination as a political cafeteria, taking a fact here and a fact there, but only insofar as they further a thesis."  Since Holland, like Russo, is decidedly pro-Warren Commission, his assessment cannot blithely be dismissed as mere crankiness from a conspiracy crackpot. Moreover, the pattern Holland has identified is readily apparent in Mr. Russo's handling of JFK's medical and autopsy evidence, a subject with which I have some familiarity.
'The Kennedys attempted to limit the extent of the autopsy, and to rush those performing it' 
Arguing that Robert and Jackie Kennedy set out to thwart an honest investigation of Jack's death, Russo claims that perhaps even the shortcomings of JFK's autopsy were the family's fault because of constraints they put on the surgeons in the morgue. Mr. Russo's evidence? Not official documents and credible witness accounts, which tell a different story entirely, but the uncorroborated, and contradicted, hearsay comments of a physician-witness to JFK's autopsy, Dr. Robert Karnei. Tellingly, Mr. Russo did not interview Dr. Karnei himself. Instead, he credits statements attributed to Dr. Karnei that were supposedly recorded in 1991 by the controversial, pro-conspiracy author, Mr. Harrison Livingstone: "Robert [Kennedy] (sic) was really limiting the autopsy ... [the pathologists] were really handicapped that night with regards to performing the autopsy."
Borrowing from Holland, Russo leaves out anything and everything that contradicts his preferred thesis, including the abundant official evidence that the Kennedy family did not interfere. That includes the contradictory account from the very source of Russo's allegation, Dr. Karnei! In a memo written four years before the hearsay interview Russo proffers, an attorney for the House Select Committee counsel, D. Andy Purdy, JD, reported officially that Dr. Karnei had "said he didn't know who was running things," and that Dr. Karnei said he did not, "know if any limitations were placed on how the autopsy was to be done." 
Ironically, Mr. Russo undermines his own case by recounting a statement from the only forensic pathologist to attend JFK, Dr. Pierre Finck: "The Kennedy family did not want us to examine the abdominal cavity, but the abdominal cavity was examined."  The source for this quote, which Russo does not give, was an interview with Dr. Finck published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1993.  Since JFK suffered no abdominal injuries whatsoever, even if Dr. Finck's memory was true this particular family request doesn't seem all that sinister. And in any case, the military ignored this alleged demand - Kennedy was completely disemboweled. 
So, if Russo has settled anything it is not that RFK/Jackie lacerated the autopsy, but that they were so powerless they couldn't even budge the military to keep its scalpels away from the uninjured parts of JFK's corpse. Setting Finck's comment aside, Russo ignores evidence that undermines his preferred thesis of family meddling. Examples abound:
- The House Select Committee reported that during an interview with the Commanding Officer of the Naval Medical Center, "[Admiral Calvin B.] Galloway said that he was present throughout the autopsy," and that, "no orders were being sent in from outside the autopsy room either by phone or by person." (my italics) 
- In a sworn affidavit executed for the HSCA on November 28, 1978, JFK's personal physician, Admiral George Burkley, claimed, "I directed the autopsy surgeon to do a complete autopsy and take the time necessary for completion." 
- Under oath to the ARRB, JFK's chief autopsist, Dr. James H. Humes, admitted that Dr. Burkley, the supposed conduit of the family's constrictions, seemed keen to move things along, but "as far as telling me what to do or how to do it, absolutely, irrevocably, no." [By way of explanation, Humes made the obvious point that, since Burkley was not a pathologist, "he wouldn't presume to do such a thing."] 
- Dr. Humes' second-in-command, Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, told the ARRB that they were "not at all" in any rush or under any compulsion to hurry.  "It was always an extension of the autopsy," that was encouraged, "rather than further restrictions." 
- As an important legal matter, RFK left blank the space marked "restrictions" in the permit he signed for his brother's autopsy.
Finally, Mr. Russo never mentions that in 1978 the Select Committee explored the question of the family's role in detail, concluding that, other than (reasonably) requesting the exam be done as expeditiously as possible, the Kennedys did not interfere with the autopsy. [See full HSCA quote in the footnotes.]  All this material is in the open record, yet to read Mr. Russo one would not know it even existed.
Would that the above example did not typify Russo's scholarship. But in just what I know of JFK's medical/autopsy evidence, I must side with Holland.
The bent fibers at Kennedy's shirtfront proved a bullet had exited his throat
Mr. Russo wrote, "Kennedy's shirt displayed a bullet hole in the front of the neck band with the fibers splayed out --- still more evidence of an exiting bullet."  Unwisely, Mr. Russo takes at face value what Mr. J. Edgar Hoover wrote the Warren Commission in 1964: "The hole in the front of the shirt was a ragged, slit-like hole and the ends of the torn threads around the hole were bent outward. These characteristics are typical of an exit hole for a projectile."  Could Mr. Russo really not know that FBI and House Select Committee officials had long since debunked Mr. Hoover about this? "The FBI laboratory's initial description," the HSCA reported, "did not offer evidence concerning the direction of the fibers."  The FBI's initial lab report preceded Hoover's March 23, 1964 letter. In other words, when the FBI lab first examined JFK's shirt, it did not report fibers were bent. The bent-fibers story premiered in Hoover's letter. But as Warren skeptic Mr. Harold Weisberg has noted, even in 1964 the Bureau was so cautious about this "evidence" that it essentially contradicted the head of the FBI. 
During his Warren Commission testimony, FBI agent Mr. Robert Frazier said that the outward bend of the shirt fibers was indicative of exit only "assuming that when I first examined the shirt it was ... it had not been altered from the condition it was in at the time the hole was made." [21a] In 1978, the Select Committee's forensic experts echoed agent Frazier's caution: "[T]he panel itself cannot assess evidentiary significance to the fiber direction because of the numerous intervening examinations." 
Thus, Mr. Russo has selected evidence he needs and has kept his readers in the dark about inconvenient evidence that is much more compelling.
The abrasion collar at his throat wound gives forensic proof a bullet exited there
In an extraordinary example of his [and his editors'] carelessness, Mr. Russo proffers flawed forensics to argue a bullet exited JFK's throat. He writes, "Exit wounds leave distinct 'abrasion collars' (sic) which were detected in the Kennedy photos of his throat (the tracheostomy had left one edge of the exit wound intact.) (sic)." 
Hilariously, Russo has it exactly backward.
Exit wounds do not have abrasion rings, or "collars" as they are sometimes called; entrance wounds do. One needn't have any profound grasp of forensics to appreciate this simple and key distinction, only some minimal familiarity with one of the better-known controversies surrounding JFK's autopsy evidence. It was the presence of an abrasion ring in Kennedy's back wound that was said by the forensic experts of the Clark Panel, the Rockefeller Commission and the House Select Committee to be evidence a bullet had entered JFK through his back. 
Though touching repeatedly on the subject of Kennedy's autopsy, Russo ignores many pro-conspiracy facts unearthed by the Assassinations Records Review Board. For example, on August 2, 1998, the Associated Press reported an important ARRB finding: "Under oath [before the ARRB], Dr. Humes, finally acknowledged under persistent questioning - in testimony that differs from what he told the Warren Commission - that he had destroyed both his notes taken at the autopsy and the first draft of the autopsy report."  In other words, Kennedy's pathologist had destroyed invaluable original autopsy notes and lied to the Warren Commission about it. 
The ARRB also discovered that JFK's pathologists and one autopsy photographer had signed an affidavit asserting that none of JFK's autopsy photographs were missing despite the fact that all of JFK's pathologists, both autopsy photographers, a White House photographer and a National Photographic Center employee later testified that photographs taken at Kennedy's autopsy were missing;  that the government had issued misleading public statements regarding two aspects of JFK's controversial autopsy photographs: First, that witnesses who were present at JFK's autopsy had endorsed the images  when, declassified files show, they had, in fact, refuted them.  Second, that Kennedy's autopsy photographs had been authenticated when suppressed files showed that the extant images failed the only authentication test ever conducted on the pictures.  And, finally, the ARRB concluded that there was evidence that there had been two brain examinations, of two, different JFK brains.  Given the enormous complexity of the Kennedy case, one can appreciate that, inevitably, some errors and oversights are bound to occur in even the most carefully researched book. Allowance for such shortcomings is necessary and appropriate. But the errors and omissions I've identified here I believe reflect more than just the momentary lapses that commonly occur during a gigantic and painstaking task. They reflect precisely what Max Holland has so astutely described as Mr. Russo's unfortunate penchant for using the assassination as a political cafeteria, taking a fact here and a fact there, but only insofar as they further a thesis.
With the press so often accused these days of carelessness in fact-checking it is, alas, scarcely surprising to see ABC settling for an author with so proven a record of carelessness that it is as obvious to Warren Commission loyalists as it is to Commission skeptics like me.
Gary L. Aguilar, MD San Francisco, California 6 December 2003
1. Final Report of the Assassinations Records Review Board. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998, p. 131.
2. Gary L. Aguilar, MD, Cyril Wecht, MD, JD. The Medical Case for Conspiracy. In: Trauma Room One, by Charles Crenshaw, MD. New York: Paraview Press, 2001, p. 170 - 286.
3. Max Holland. After Thirty Years: Making Sense of the Assassination. Reviews in American History 22(1994).
Max Holland. The Key to the Warren Report. American Heritage Magazine. November, 1995.
Adam Pertman. Researcher says Cold War shaped Warren Commission conclusions. The Boston Globe, 12/8/98.
Max Holland. Paranoia Unbound. Wilson Quarterly, Winter, 1994. (See also Max Holland. The Key to the Warren Report. American Heritage Magazine. November, 1995, p. 50.)
Max Holland. Stokers of JFK Fantasies. Op-Ed. The Boston Globe, 12/6/98, p. D-7.
4. Max Holland. The Docudrama that is JFK. The Nation. 12/7/98, p. 30.
5. Max Holland. The Docudrama that is JFK. The Nation. 12/7/98, p. 30 - 31.
6. Gus Russo. Live by the Sword. Baltimore, Bancroft Press, 1998, p. 325.
7. Gus Russo. Live by the Sword. Baltimore, Bancroft Press, 1998, p. 325.
In arguing that Robert Kennedy limited JFK's post mortem examination. Russo quotes, in High Treason, [1992, p. 182] that Robert Karnei, MD--a Bethesda pathologist who was in JFK's morgue but not part of the surgical team--claimed the Kennedys were limiting the autopsy.
8. In the ARRB-released, 8/29/77 memo from the HSCA's D. Andy Purdy, JD [ARRB MD # 61], Purdy writes: "Dr. Karnei doesn't ' ... know if any limitations were placed on how the autopsy was to be done.' He said he didn't know who was running things.") (p. 3).
9. Gus Russo in: Live by the Sword. Baltimore. Bancroft Press, 1998, p. 325.
10. Dennis Breo. JFK's death, part III - Dr. Finck speaks out: 'two bullets, from the rear.' JAMA Vol. 268(13):1752, October 7, 1992.
11. Breo, Dennis. JFK's death - the plain truth from the MDs who did the autopsy. JAMA, May 27, 1992, vol. 267:2794, ff.
12. Interview of Admiral Calvin B. Galloway by HSCA counsel Mark Flanagan, 5/17/78. HSCA Record Number 180 - 10078 - 10460, Agency File # 009409.
13. Sworn affidavit of Vice Admiral George G. Burkley. HSCA record # 180 - 10104 - 10271, Agency File # 013416, p. 3.
14. ARRB testimony James H. Humes, College Park, Maryland, p. 32 - 33.
15. ARRB testimony J. Thornton Boswell, College Park Maryland, 2/26/96, p. 29.
16. ARRB testimony J. Thornton Boswell, College Park Maryland, 2/26/96, p. 30.
17. HSCA. Vol. 7:14:
"(79) The Committee also investigated the possibility that the Kennedy family may have unduly influenced the pathologists once the autopsy began, possibly by transmitting messages by telephone into the autopsy room. Brig. Gen. Godfrey McHugh, then an Air Force military aide to the President, informed the committee that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth O'Donnell, a presidential aide, frequently telephoned him during the autopsy from the 17th floor suite. McHugh said that on all occasions, Kennedy and O'Donnell asked only to speak with him. They inquired about the results, why the autopsy was consuming so much time, and the need for speed and efficiency, while still performing the required examinations. McHugh said he forwarded this information to the pathologists, never stating or implying that the doctors should limit the autopsy in any manner, but merely reminding them to work as efficiently and quickly as possible." (emphasis added)
18. (Gus Russo. Live by the Sword. Baltimore, Bancroft Press, 1998, p. 468.)
19. Excerpt of letter from Hoover to Warren Commissioner General Counsel J. Lee Rankin reproduced by HSCA in Report of the Forensic Pathology Panel, Vol. 7:90. Full letter reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold. Post Mortem. Frederick, MD, 1975, p. 600.
20. HSCA in Report of the Forensic Pathology Panel, Vol. 7:91.
21. Weisberg, Harold. Post Mortem. Frederick, MD, 1975, pp. 599-601.
21a. Weisberg, Harold. Post Mortem. Frederick, MD, 1975, pp. 599-601. Frazier's Commission testimony appears at: 5H61.
22. HSCA in Report of the Forensic Pathology Panel, Vol. 7:91.
23. (Gus Russo. Live by the Sword. Baltimore, Bancroft Press, 1998, p. 468.)
24. A good discussion of "abrasion rings" and entrance wounds is to be found in a book by the noted forensic authority Vincent DiMaio, MD entitled, "Gunshot Wounds." London: CRC Press, 2000, p. 70 -71. Discussions of the meaning of an abrasion ring in JFK's back wound are to be found in the 1968 Clark Panel report, in the 1975 Rockefeller Commission report and in the 1978 House Select Committee's report - available by request.
25. Mike Feinsalber, "JFK Autopsy Files Are Incomplete." Associated Press, August 2, 1998, 11:48 a.m. EDT.
26. See "CERTIFICATE" signed by "J. J. Humes," 11/24/63, and cosigned by George Burkley, MD. Reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 524.
See "CERTIFICATE" signed by "J. J. Humes," 11/24/63, and cosigned by George Burkley, MD,. Reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 525
27. Report of Inspection by Naval Medical Staff on 11/1/66 at National Archives of X-rays and Photographs of President John F. Kennedy. Reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem, p.573.
28. In formerly secret testimony first taken 20 years ago, Dr. Finck described to the Select Committee how he had photographed the beveling in JFK's skull bone to prove that the low wound in occipital bone was an entrance wound. As he explained, only images of bone, and not soft tissue (scalp) images, would have shown cratering, or beveling. (Soft tissue will not demonstrate beveling, just as a BB "wound" through a carpet will not show the beveling of one through a plate of glass.) In the following exchange, Dr. Finck was being asked by the Select Committee's forensic consultants whether the images being shown were those Dr. Finck had claimed were missing:
(HSCA counsel D. Andy ) Purdy: "We have here a black and white blow up of that same spot (a spot on the rear of JFK's scalp he claimed was the location of the bullet's entrance). You previously mentioned that your attempt here was to photograph the crater, I think was the word that you used."
Finck: "In the bone, not in the scalp, because to determine the direction of the projectile the bone is a very good source of information so I emphasize the photographs of the crater seen from the inside the skull. What you are showing me is soft tissue wound (sic) in the scalp."
A few moments later, the following exchange occurred:
Charles Petty, MD: "If I understand you correctly, Dr. Finck, you wanted particularly to have a photograph made of the external aspect of the skull from the back to show that there was no cratering to the outside of the skull." Finck: "Absolutely."
Petty: "Did you ever see such a photograph?"
Finck: "I don't think so and I brought with me memorandum referring to the examination of photographs in 1967... and as I can recall I never saw pictures of the outer aspect of the wound of entry in the back of the head and inner aspect in the skull in order to show a crater although I was there asking for these photographs. I don't remember seeing those photographs."
Petty: "All right. Let me ask you one other question. In order to expose that area where the wound was present in the bone, did you have to or did someone have to dissect the scalp off of the bone in order to show this?"
Petty: "Was this a difficult dissection and did it go very low into the head so as to expose the external aspect of the posterior cranial fascia (sic - meant "fossa")?"
Finck: "I don't remember the difficulty involved in separating the scalp from the skull but this was done in order to have a clear view of the outside and inside to show the crater from the inside ... the skull had to be separated from it in order to show in the back of the head the wound in the bone." (HSCA interview with Finck, p.90-91. Agency File 013617)
Evidence that these key documentary photographs of JFK's fatal wound were indeed taken dates to the Warren Commission. During his Commission testimony, while discussing the beveling that was visible in the bone where the bullet entered, Commander Humes claimed, "This wound then had the characteristics of wound of entrance from this direction through the two tables of the skull." Arlan Specter: "When you say 'this direction,' will you specify that direction in relationship to the skull?"
Humes: "At that point I mean only from without the skull to within ... and incidentally photographs illustrating this [beveling] phenomenon from both the external surface of the skull and from the internal surface were prepared." (Warren Commission Vol.2:363)
(Another witness supported Finck's contention that he had worked with the photographer that night. Dr. Robert Karnie, MD, a Bethesda pathologist who was present during the autopsy, was interviewed by the HSCA. It reported, "He [Karnei] said he does 'remember him [Finck] working with probes and arranging for photographs.'" - HSCA Agency File # 002198, p. 6.)
The fact no such skull photographs currently exist is a problem whose significance was apparently realized very early on. Dr. Humes' testimony about these missing images appears to have been what was being referred to in a suppressed 1967 LBJ memo that reported, "There is this unfortunate reference in the Warren Commission report by Dr. Hinn (almost certainly Humes, there was no "Dr. Hinn," or any other doctor with a name like it) to a(n autopsy) picture that just does not exist as far as we know." Alternatively, the memo may have been referring to photographs of the interior of JFK's chest which Humes also discussed with the Warren Commission, and which are also missing. (Source is from memo titled, "President Johnson's notes on Conversation with Acting Attorney General Ramsey Clark - January 26, 1967 - 6:29 PM." Obtained by Kathy Cunningham from the Lyndon B. Johnson Library. Copy available by request.)
In a once-secret memo, HSCA counsel, D. Andy Purdy, JD, reported that chief autopsy photographer, "(John) STRINGER (sic) said it was his recollection that all the photographs he had taken were not present in 1966 (when Stringer was first saw the photographsHSCA rec. # 180-10093-10429. Agency file # 002070, p. 11. Stringer apparently was not satisfied with the explanation given him for the missing photos, for the HSCA reported, "He (Stringer) noted that the receipt he had said some of the film holders (sic) had no film in one side of the cassettes. He said the receipt said this happened in two or three of the film holders where one side only was allegedly loaded. He said he could understand it if the film holders were reported to have poorly exposed or defective film but could not believe that there were any sides on the film holders which were not loaded with film...."
There are no photographs of the interior of Kennedy's chest in the "complete" set of autopsy images at the National Archives. However every autopsy participant who was asked recalled that photographs were taken of the interior of JFK's body, as they should have been to document the passage of the non-fatal bullet through JFK's chest. Stringer told the HSCA he recalled taking "at least two exposures of the body cavity." A. Purdy. HSCA rec. # 180-10093-10429. Agency file # 002070, p. 2.
An HSCA memo reported that James Humes, MD, JFK's chief autopsy pathologist, "... specifically recall(ed photographs) ... were taken of the President's chest ... (these photographs ) do not exist." HSCA record # 180-10093-10429), Agency file # 002070, p. 17.
Regarding J. Thornton Boswell, MD, the pathologist who was second in command after Humes, the HSCA claimed "... he (Boswell) thought they photographed '... the exposed thoracic cavity and lung ...' but (he) doesn't remember ever seeing those photographs." A. Purdy. HSCA rec# 180-10093-10430. Agency file # 002071-p. 6
Robert Karnei, MD, a physician witness who was not a member of the autopsy team, told the HSCA, "He (Karnei) recalls them putting the probe in and taking pictures (the body was on the side at the time) (sic)."A. Purdy. HSCA, JFK Collection. RG #233, file #002198, p.5.
Floyd Reibe, the assistant autopsy photographer, was reported to have told the HSCA, "he thought he took about six pictures--'I think it was three film packs'--of internal portions of the body." In: David, Lifton, Best Evidence. New York: Carroll ∓ Graf, 1980, p. 638.
29. The question naturally arises, did anyone ever see autopsy images that have since disappeared? The answer, apparently, is Yes. In a previously suppressed interview, former White House photographer, Robert Knudsen, told the HSCA he developed negatives from JFK's autopsy which he examined in the course of his work on November 23, 1963. During the HSCA's investigation, he was shown the complete photographic inventory. Kundsen repeatedly insisted, against pressure, that in 1963 he saw at least one image not in the inventory he was shown in 1978 - an image with a metal probe through JFK's body that entered the back at a lower position than it exited through the throat wound. HSCA Agency File # 014028, and HSCA Agency File # 002198, p. 5.
30. House Select Committee on Assassinations, vol. 7:36-39.
31. See extensive discussion in essay by G. Aguilar and C. Wecht entitled, "The Medical Case for Conspiracy," in: Crenshaw, C. Trauma Room One. New York: Paraview Press, 2001, pp. 208 - 211 and pp. 230-232.
32. Lardner, George. Archive Photos Not of JFK's Brain, Concludes Aide to Review Board. Washington Post, 9/29/98, p. A-15. Available at: