Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cyril Wecht: Forensic Pathologist

Advocate for Truth

In his fourth book for popular reading, Mortal Evidence, forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht writes, "We scientists are driven by the desire to understand how someone met his fate." 

Mortal Evidence
Mortal Evidence
He knows that the "facts" are not always as they seem, and nowhere is his passion for finding the truth within the complications of a person's death more forceful than with the November 22, 1963, assassination of John F. Kennedy

In 1965, Dr. Wecht undertook an analysis of the Warren Report for the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.  Then in 1972, he was the first non-government forensic pathologist permitted to observe and study the Kennedy autopsy materials that were preserved in the National Archives.  To his mind, the way the entire incident had been handled was appalling: the autopsy had been superficial and the investigation incomplete.  He concluded that the Warren Commission's "lone assassin, single bullet" theory could not be supported.  Further, Wecht was dismayed to discover that certain key items were missing: photographs of Kennedy's internal chest wounds, glass slides of his skin wound, and most importantly, President Kennedy's brain.  How could something so significant to the case be missing?  That August, Wecht helped The New York Times break this news.

Three years later, he was invited to testify as part of a medical expert panel before the Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States, also known as the Rockefeller Commission. 

Then in 1978, he served on a nine-person panel of eminent forensic pathologists, appointed by the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, who reviewed the case together to determine if there had been governmental involvement.  He stood firm against all the others in insisting that there was no way one bullet had caused all the wounds to both Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally, who were riding together in an open-top car.  In fact, he believed that Kennedy was struck twice in a synchronized fashion, from the rear and the right front side.  In years to come, he supported writers and researchers who believed there had been a cover-up.

By 1991, Dr. Wecht's reputation was such that Oliver Stone invited him to consult on the medical evidence for his conspiracy-heavy film, JFK.

Wecht's insistence that all of the evidence needs to be made public has never flagged, and in November 2003, he was instrumental in organizing a conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: "Solving the Great American Murder Mystery: A National Symposium on the 40th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination."  For three and a half days, the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, in conjunction with the Duquesne University Law School, offered an impressive panel of scholars, scientists, authors, attorneys, and pathologists from around the world.  It was clear from the number in attendance and the intensity of debates that the mystery is still significant for many Americans.

At least two bullets hit Kennedy that fateful day, and one wounded Governor Connally.  Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, but when he was pronounced dead, he was illegally transported to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, where a botched autopsy and quickly classified reports soon inspired theories about an assassination conspiracy and/or a governmental cover-up.  Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the shooting, but his version of events was soon silenced by Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Oswald during a jail transfer.  Did he do it to shut up the "patsy" or simply because he desired to kill the man who had killed the president?

Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald
Wecht points out that before Oswald died he was interrogated for those two days by top experts, none of whom had kept any notes or recorded the proceedings.  Not a single piece of written documentation of one of the most important interrogations in American history has been presented.  Understandably, Wecht finds that suspicious, if not downright duplicitous.  It also bothers him that the government is still withholding information on the case.  If Oswald acted alone, and there is no cover-up, why the need for secrecy so many years later?

Cyril Wecht, speech at JFK conference
Cyril Wecht, speech at JFK
conference
It was his hope that the conference would inspire people to keep pressuring for answers from the government. As if in response to this appeal, some 1,400 people attended one or more days of the conference.

"I was extremely delighted, exhilarated, and very gratified by the tremendous turnout we had," says Dr. Wecht.  "Not only people that have attended JFK assassination conferences for 20, 30 years but also people who are top-level professionals, physicians, politicians, and attorneys of different kinds who go to any number of national professional meetings.  Many said that they had never seen anything that was so exuberant, so well attended, so well organized.  It generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and rekindled and renewed spirits."

Wecht considers that event a catalyst for more conferences, such as the one he will help to organize in Washington, D.C., on the 40th anniversary of the release of the Warren Commission Report.

But Wecht has not spent all of his time on the Kennedy assassination.  Indeed, his education and career have been multifaceted from the start.

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