Presumed Guilty: How and Why the Warren Commission Framed Lee Harvey Oswald




Chapter 3

Suppressed Spectrography

In the final analysis, the Warren Commission had three pieces of tangible evidence that linked Lee Harvey Oswald to the assassination of President Kennedy: (1) A rifle purchased by Oswald and three empty cartridge cases fired in that rifle were discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, (2) a nearly whole bullet that had been fired from Oswald's rifle was found on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital, and (3) two fragments of a bullet or bullets that had been fired from Oswald's rifle were found on the front seat of the presidential limousine.

Yet, there is nothing in this evidence itself to prove either that Oswald's rifle was used in the shooting or, if it was, that Oswald fired it. The whole fault in the Commission's case relating the Mannlicher- Carcano rifle to the shooting is this: bullets identifiable with that rifle were found {outside} of the victims' bodies. Pieces of metal not traceable to any rifle were found {inside} the bodies. The Report merely assumes the legitimacy of the specimens found externally and works on the assumption that these bullets and fragments had once been {inside} the bodies, and thus were involved in the shooting.

Obviously, bullets found outside the bodies are entirely circumstantial evidence, for although they may be conclusively linked with a particular weapon, their location of discovery does not link them with a particular victim. No matter how close to the victims or to the scene of the crime these bullets were found, as long as they were not {in} the actual bodies when discovered, proof is lacking that they were ever in the bodies at all. If Commission Exhibit 399, the nearly whole bullet found on a stretcher at Parkland, had been removed from Governor Connally's body, it could be asserted that it had indeed produced his wounds. Likewise, if the identifiable bullet fragments found on the front seat of the limousine had instead been located in President Kennedy's head wound, we would have the proof linking Oswald's rifle to the fatal shot.

In the case of the assassination, there was an easy and conclusive way to determine whether the bullet specimens found {outside} the bodies had ever been {inside} the victims, thus providing either the proof or the disproof of the notion that Oswald's rifle was used in the shooting. This conclusive evidence is the spectrographic comparison made between the metallic compositions of the projectiles found outside of the victims and the bits of metal removed from the wounds themselves.

Spectrography is an exact science. In spectrographic analysis, a test substance is irradiated so that all of the elements composing it emit a distinct spectrum. These spectra are recorded on film and analyzed both qualitatively (to determine exactly which elements compose the substance in question) and quantitatively (to determine the exact percentage of each element present). Through such analysis, two substances may be compared in extremely fine detail, down to the percentages of even their most minor constituents.[1]

Comparative chemical analysis such as spectrography has long been a vital tool in crime solving. The following are actual cases that illustrate the value of such comparison:

1. A deformed slug with some white metal adhering to it was found at the scene where a man had been shot, but not wounded. The white metal was first suspected to be nickel, which would have indicated a nickel-coated bullet, but was subsequently tested and found to be silver from a cigarette case that had been penetrated. The slugs in the cartridges taken from the suspect in the attack were analyzed and found to differ in composition from the projectile used in the shooting; the suspect thus escaped conviction.

2. In another case, a man escaped conviction because of dissimilarities in composition found upon comparative analysis of the bullet removed from the wounded man and bullets from cartridges seized in the suspect's house. The former contained a trace of antimony and no tin and the latter contained a comparatively large amount of tin.

3. A night watchman shot at some unidentified persons fleeing the scene of a robbery, but all escaped. Blood found at the scene the next morning indicated that one of the persons had been wounded and subsequently a man was arrested with a bullet wound in his leg for which he could provide no plausible explanation. Analysis demonstrated that lead fragments removed from the wound did not agree in composition with the slugs in the watchman's cartridges and the man was released. The impurities present in the lead were the same in each case, consisting chiefly of antimony, but the fragments from the wound contained much less antimony than the watchman's slugs.[2]

The identifiable bullets and fragments found {outside} the victims' bodies are the suspect specimens in the presidential assassination. The tiny pieces of metal found {inside} the bodies are, in effect, the control specimens. All of the specimens--including those removed from the President and the Governor--were subjected to spectrographic analysis. The results of these analyses hold the conclusive answer to the problem that was the central issue in the question of Oswald's guilt: Did the bullets from Oswald's rifle produce the wounds of the victims?

The spectrographic analyses could solve this central problem through minute qualitative and quantitative comparison. If a fragment from a body was not {identical} in composition with a suspect bullet, that bullet could not have entered the body and left the fragment in question. The requirements for "identical" composition are stringent; if the exact elements are not present in the exact percentages from one sample to another, there is no match and the samples must have originated from two different sources. If a fragment is found to be identical in composition with a suspect bullet, it is possible that the bullet deposited the fragment in the body. However, before this can be conclusively proven, it must be demonstrated that other bullets manufactured from the same batch of metal were not employed in the crime.[3] Some of the major comparisons that should have been made in the case of the President's death are these:

1. The Commission apparently believed that the two large bullet fragments (one containing part of a lead core) found on the front seat of the car and traceable to Oswald's rifle were responsible for the head wounds. Two pieces of lead were recovered from the President's head. The head fragments could have been compared to the car fragment containing lead. Had the slightest difference in composition been found, the car fragments could not have caused the head wounds.

2. The Commission believed that the two car fragments were part of the same bullet. Spectrographic comparison might have determined this.

3. Copper traces were found on the bullet holes in the back of the President's coat and shirt. Since the Commission believed that bullet 399 penetrated the President's neck, the copper residues on the clothing could have been compared with the copper jacket of 399 for a conclusive answer. Any dissimilarity between the two copper samples would rule out 399.

4. The Commission believed that 399 wounded Governor Connally. Fragments of lead were removed from the Governor's wrist. These could have been compared with the lead core of 399. Again, any dissimilarity would conclusively disassociate 399 from Connally's wounds. An identical match might support the Commission's belief.

5. The lead from the Governor's wrist could have been compared with the lead from one of the identifiable car fragments to determine whether this might have caused Connally's wounds in the event that 399 did not. This could have associated "Oswald's" rifle with the wounds even if 399 had been proven "illegitimate."

6. The lead residue found on the crack in the windshield of the car could have been compared with fragments from the two bodies plus fragments from the car in an effort to determine which shot caused the windshield damage.

7. As a control, the lead and copper composition of 399 could have been compared to that of the identifiable car fragments to determine whether all were made from the same batches of metal.

The government had in its possession the conclusive proof or disproof of its theories. It is not presumptuous to assume that, had the spectrographic analyses provided the incontrovertible proof of the validity of the Warren Report's central conclusions, they would have been employed in the Report, eliminating virtually all of the controversy and doubt that have raged over the official assertions.

But the complete results of the spectrographic analyses were never reported to the Commission; there is no indication that the Commission ever requested or desired them; they are not in the printed exhibits or the Commission's unpublished files; no expert testimony relevant to them was ever adduced; and to this day, the Department of Justice is withholding the complete results from researchers.

On November 23, 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a report to Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry summarizing the results of FBI laboratory examinations, including spectrographic analysis (see 24H262- 64). On the matter of composition, Hoover said only that the jackets of the found specimens were "copper alloy" and the cores and other pieces, "lead." The element mixed with the copper to form the "alloy" is not even mentioned. It is quite unlikely that the other specimens were composed solely of "lead," for the lead employed in practically all modern bullets is mixed with small quantities of antimony, bismuth, and arsenic.[4] The only spectrographic comparison mentioned in this report is meaningless:

The lead metal of [exhibits] Q4 and Q5 [fragments from the President's head], Q9 [fragment(s) from the Governor's wrist], Q14 [three pieces of lead found under the left jump seat in the limousine] and Q15 [scraping from the windshield crack] is similar to the lead of the core of the bullet fragment, Q2 [found on the front seat of the car].

That two samples are "similar" in composition is without meaning in terms of the precise data yielded through spectrographic analysis. The crucial determination, "identical" or "not identical," is consistently avoided. Also avoided is the essential comparison between the "stretcher bullet," 399, and the metal fragments removed from the Governor's wrist.

The Commission sought virtually no testimony relevant to the spectrographic analysis. When it did seek this testimony, it asked the wrong questions of the wrong people. FBI ballistics expert Robert Frazier gave testimony about these tests on May 13, 1964. At this time, he told the Commission and Arlen Specter, his interrogator, that the spectrographics examinations were performed by a spectrographer, John F. Gallager (5H67, 69). Frazier, accepted by the Commission only as a "qualified witness on firearms" (3H392), was not a spectrographic expert. His field was ballistics and firearms identification, and while he might have supplemented his findings with those from other fields, he was not qualified in spectrography, which entails expertise in physics and chemistry. Gallagher, the expert, could well be called the Commission's most-avoided witness. His testimony, the {last} taken in the entire investigation, was given in a deposition attended by a stenographer and a staff member the week before the Warren Report was submitted to President Johnson. At this time, he was not asked a single question relating to the spectrographic analyses.[5] (See 15H746ff.)

Neither Specter nor the Commission members can deny having known that Frazier was not the man qualified to testify about spectrographic analysis; Frazier stated this in his testimony:

Mr. Specter: Was it your job to analyze all of the bullets or bullet fragments which were found in the President's car?

Mr. Frazier: Yes; it was, {except for the spectrographic analysis of the composition}. (5H68; emphasis added)

Frazier added, "I don't know actually whether I am expected to give the results of (the spectrographer's) analysis or not" (5H59). If this statement fails to make it clear that Frazier was not prepared to testify about the results of the spectrographic analyses, an earlier statement by him leaves no doubt: "[The spectrographic] examination was performed by a spectrographer, John F. Gallagher, and I do not have the results of his examination here" (5H67). If Frazier did not have the actual report of the results of the tests with him when he appeared before the Commission, there was obviously no way of vouching for the accuracy of the findings to which he testified, whether he was qualified as an expert in spectrography or not. Also, Frazier's knowledge of the spectrographic analysis was merely secondhand; he was aware of the results of these tests because the spectrographer "submitted his report to me" (5H69). Thus, Frazier played no role in conducting this analysis. His only "qualification" for giving testimony about the spectrographic analyses was that he had read a report about them. Because this report is not part of the public records, we have no way of determining whether Frazier accurately related the results of the analyses, or whether the report upon which he based his testimony was competent, complete, or satisfactory. In short, we are asked to take Frazier on his word when (1) he knew of these tests only secondhand, (2) he did not have the actual results with him when he testified about them, and (3) he had no expertise in spectrography. On this basis alone, Frazier's testimony concerning the tests is not worthy of credence.

However, if we examine exactly what Frazier specified as the results of the spectrographic analyses, it becomes apparent that his testimony, if true, is meaningless and incomplete. Frazier spoke of essentially the same comparisons that Hoover did in his letter to police chief Curry, repeating Hoovers meaningless designation that the ballistic specimens compared were "found to be similar in metallic composition" (5H67, 69, 73-74). When the {exact} composition had been determined to a minute degree and could be compared for conclusive and meaningful answers, there was no legitimate reason to accept this testimony about mere "similarities" in composition. Furthermore, Frazier offered his opinion that the spectrographic analyses were inconclusive in determining the origin of certain of the ballistics specimens (5H67, 69, 73-74). However, because Frazier was not a spectrographic expert and because the actual report of these tests is not available, his interpretation of the test results is worthless. Even at that, Frazier and his Commission interrogator, Arlen Specter, avoided mention of those comparisons affecting the legitimacy of bullet 399--namely, the copper from the President's clothing and the lead from Governor Connally's wrist as compared with the copper and lead of 399.

Frazier was cross-examined at the New Orleans conspiracy trial of Clay Shaw. Here he was pressed further on the spectrographic analysis. When asked about any "similarity" in the compositions of the various ballistic specimens he replied, "They all had the same metallic composition as far as the lead core or lead portions of these objects is concerned."[6]

This response prompts two inferences. First, Frazier specifically excluded as being the "same in metallic composition" the {copper} portions of the specimens. If this omission was necessitated by the fact that the copper of the recovered specimens did not match in composition, a significant part of the Warren Report is disproved. Second, Frazier's description of the lead as being the "same" in composition is ambiguous. Did he mean that the {elements} of the composition or the {percentages} of the elements were the "same"? In the former case, his testimony would again be meaningless, for {what} is contained in the metal is not so important as {how much} is contained. If the percentages were the same, the Report could be confirmed.

Further questioning by Attorney Oser cleared up this ambiguity.

Mr. Oser: Am I correct in saying there is a similarity in metallic composition or they are identical?

Mr. Frazier: It was identical as far as the metallic {elements} are concerned.[7] (emphasis added)

Here Frazier leaves no doubt that the individual {elements} in the various lead samples were identical. What he avoids saying is that the percentages of those elements were identical throughout. This is the crucial point. If anything, Frazier's specification that the {elements} were identical (when questioned about the {composition}) leads to the inference that the percentages of those elements were not identical, hence the recovered specimens could {not} be related and the Warren Report is necessarily invalid.

The Commission's failure to obtain the complete spectrographic analyses and to adduce meaningful expert testimony on them can be viewed only with suspicion. Here was the absolute proof or disproof of the official theories. If truth was the Commission's objective, there can be no explanation for the exclusion of these tests from the record. If the Commission was right in its "solution" of the assassination, for what reason could it conceivably have omitted the {proof} of its validity? One is reasonably led to believe that the spectrographic analyses proved the opposite of what the Commission asserted.

If the Commission's failure to produce the spectrographic analyses was no more than a glaring oversight, the remedy is indeed a simple one. The government need only release these tests to the public. They cannot contain the gore that makes publication of the President's autopsy pictures a matter of questionable taste. They cannot be injurious to living persons as other classified reports might be. They cannot threaten our national defense. They are merely a collection of highly scientific data that could support or destroy the entire official solution to the assassination.

The government has to this day kept them squelched.

Harold Weisberg, the first researcher to recognize the significance of the spectrographic tests and their omission from the record, has fought and continues to fight for access to the report detailing these tests. In 1967, Weisberg wrote as follows of his efforts to obtain the tests:

On October 31, 1966, then Acting Attorney General Clark ordered that everything considered by the Commission and in the possession of the government be placed in the National Archives. I had written [J. Edgar] Hoover five months earlier, on May 23, 1966, asking for access to the spectrographic analysis of the bullet allegedly used in the assassination and the various bullet fragments, clearly the most basic evidence, but not in the printed evidence. He has not yet answered that letter. Since issuance of the Attorney General's order, I have on a number of occasions requested this evidence of the Archives. Hoover, as of March 1967, had not turned it over. Once, in my presence, one of his agents deceived the Archives by falsely reporting this analysis was in an FBI file that was accessible. Since then, silence, but no spectrographic analysis.[8]

Weisberg's efforts have continued. In 1970, he made available to me all of his government correspondence. I saw, over the signatures of then Attorney General John Mitchell and Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, the government's constant refusal to release the spectrographic analyses.[9] Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Weisberg took the Justice Department to court, suing for release under provisions of the "Freedom of Information" law. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against Weisberg in this case, Civil Action No. 712-70. Weisberg and his attorney appealed this decision, and the appeal, brief No. 71-1026, is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Without the spectrographic analyses, there is {no} evidence to associate Oswald's rifle with the wounds suffered by President Kennedy and Governor Connally. Nothing was found in the body of either victim that would suggest a connection between that specific Mannlicher-Carcano and the wounds. The spectrographic tests might establish such a connection; they might also conclusively {dissociate} that rifle from the wounds. However, omission of the exact spectrographic results from the Commission's evidence and the subsequent refusal of the government to release the spectrographer's findings do not leave one at all confident that these tests support the official solution to the assassination.


[1] See "Spectrography" in "Encyclopaedia Britannica" (Chicago: William Benton Publishers, 1963), vol. 21, and "Photography" in vol. 17; Herbert Dingle, "Practical Applications of Spectrum Analysis" (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1950), pp. 1-3, 74-75, 122-24.

[2] A. Lucas, "Forensic Chemistry and Scientific Criminal Investigation" (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1935), pp. 265- 66.

[3] Author's interview with Dr. John Nichols on April 16, 1970. See also Nichols's statement in the "Dallas Morning News," June 19, 1970.

[4] "The Winchester-Western Ammunition Handbook" (New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1964), p. 120. (Hereinafter referred to as "Winchester Handbook.")

[5] First public attention drawn to the spectrographic analyses and their omission from the Commission's record was by Harold Weisberg in "Whitewash," p. 164. Sylvia Meagher later discussed this topic in her book, pp. 170-72.

[6] Transcript of court proceedings of February 21, 1969, in "State of Louisiana v. Clay L. Shaw," p. 40. (Hereinafter referred to as "Frazier 2/21/69 testimony.")

[7] Ibid., p. 41.

[8] Weisberg, "Oswald in New Orleans," pp. 148-49.

[9] Weisberg's attorney in this case, Bernard Fensterwald, requested that his client be furnished with the spectrographic analyses in a letter to Justice Department lawyer Joseph Cella, dated October 9, 1969. Then Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst responded to this request in a letter dated November 13, 1969; he refused to disclose the document, (These letters are a part of the public record. They are part of the set of exhibits appended to the "COMPLAINT" dated March 11, 1970, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in the case of "Harold Weisberg v. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of State," Civil Action No. 718-70.)

Weisberg has attempted to obtain the report of the spectrographer through a series of written requests dated May 23, 1966, March 12, 1967, January 1, 1969, June 2, 1969, April 6, 1970, May 15, 1970, and an official request form submitted on May 10, 1970. In a letter dated June 4, 1970, then Attorney General John Mitchell personally denied Weisberg's request for access. Richard Kleindienst, in a letter dated June 12, 1970, also denied Weisberg's request. (These letters are also a part of the public record. They are contained in the appendix to Appeal No. 71-1026, "Weisberg v. U.S. Department of Justice," filed by attorney for plaintiff-appellant in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.)