Mortal Error
by Bonar Menninger

Recently, I have read a few more books about the JFK assassination (Jackass for short). Each one seems convincing as I read it, but they offer different and often conflicting theories. The most recent one that I read offers the most unusual theory of all. Its title is Mortal Error and its theory is that JFK was killed by accident!

It was written by Bonar Menninger, but it is based on 25 years of investigations, experiments, and research done by Howard Donahue. Howard, evidently is not a writer, so the publisher assigned Menninger to write the book for him. Donahue is a firearms expert who won many sharpshooting contests in Maryland, and ran his own gun shop there for many years. He has never been interested in political intrigues, he is an ordinary, unsuspecting, uncomplaining, patriotic, American taxpayer who has always supported himself and his family and minded his own business. He probably doesn't keep up on world or national events or read much besides gun magazines. He was an engineering student at the University of Maryland when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a pilot. After the war he got married and settled down without finishing college.

Years later, in 1963 when Kennedy got shot, Donahue wasn't upset because he wasn't a Kennedy supporter, but he had to console his wife who was. After a while she got over it and they didn't think about it much until 1967 when Donahue got a telephone call from CBS News. They were doing an investigation for a TV special about the Jackass and they contacted him and a few other firearms experts. CBS wanted to see whether any marksmen could duplicate the feat that the Warren Commission said Lee Harvey Oswald had accomplished in Dallas. They constructed a mock-up of the Dealy Plaza site to simulate firing from the 6th floor at a moving target below with the same kind of rifle that Oswald owned. The marksmen had to try to get off 3 shots within 5.6 seconds and at least 2 shots had to hit the target to duplicate Oswald's alleged feat. Eleven marksmen were each allowed 2 attempts. Donahue was the only one who succeeded. On his 2nd try he put all 3 shots within a 3-inch circle on the target's head in 5.2 seconds. This was a key factor in CBS News' conclusion at the end of their 4-day Jackass broadcast, anchored by Walter Cronkite, that the Warren Commission was right--Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone Jackass.

As a result of the TV show, Donahue became a celebrity in his home town for a little while, and he was approached by the editor of True magazine to write an article, based on his expertise in ballistics, in support of the Warren Commission's conclusions. He agreed, and this is how he first began investigating the facts of the Jackass.

He had every intention of writing an article in support of the Warren Commission. So he ordered a copy of the full report and began studying it, especially the ballistics evidence. He accepted the autopsy report, photographs, and X-rays at face value and began to construct models, measure trajectories, develop hypotheses, and conduct experiments. He never got around to writing the article (I think he just can't stand to write), but he continued his investigations in his spare time for the next 25 years, gradually solving some of the mysteries. Fortunately, Bonar Menninger, who can write well, was given a commission to document Donahue's discoveries. The book was published in 1992. It is worth reading.

I don't have time to tell the whole saga that Donahue went through to dig up the facts, it would, and did, take a whole book to do so. But one thing that comes across in the book is Donahue's persistence, and the support and persistence of his wife, who believed in him and was less shy than he about knocking on doors and writing letters and calling congressmen.

Another thing that comes across is that Donahue never seriously suspected that there could have been a conspiracy. Whenever he uncovered disturbing evidence that brought the Warren Commission's analysis into doubt, he worked harder to find an explanation to reconcile the new evidence with the general conclusions of the commission. Until finally, he found evidence that could not fit in and that proved there was a 2nd gunman. But even then, he did not suspect conspiracy. He concluded that the 2nd gunman must have shot JFK in the head by accident!

Here are some of the things that Donahue found out. The "magic bullet" theory (that JFK and Connoly were hit by the same pristine bullet) is plausible and probably true. The full-metal jacket bullets that Oswald's high-powered rifle used are sturdy enough to travel through 2 men, shattering rib and wrist bones, and come out in the condition of the so-called "pristine" bullet. However, the shot that hit both men was the 2nd shot not the 1st. Everybody else had always assumed it was the 1st shot. That is why the trajectory and the alignment and the timing of the 2 men's reactions didn't fit and the bullet was labeled "magic" by the critics of the Warren Commission. Everybody else assumed that when JFK's hands went up toward his throat it was because he was reacting to being shot there. If that were true, then Connoly's reaction to the same bullet hitting him was too slow to be believable. Donahue found evidence that the 1st shot hit the pavement behind JFK's limo and shattered into small fragments some of which bounced up and sprayed JFK in the back of the head. This is what he initially reacted to. This explains how JFK was able to say "My God! I'm hit!" If the 1st shot had hit him in the throat, he couldn't have said anything. Then a couple seconds later, he was hit in the throat and the same bullet hit Connoly. By making this adjustment to the timing of the "magic" bullet shot, Donahue discovered that the attitudes of the 2 men's bodies at that time were such that the wounds they received formed a straight line.

Then Donahue considered the position of the limo at that moment, so and so many feet from this and that and heading downhill at a 3 degree angle, and discovered that the straight line formed by the men's wounds extends directly back to the 6th floor of the school book depository where Oswald's rifle was found.

After solving the mystery of the "magic" bullet, Donahue turned his attention to the shot that hit JFK in the head. Many critics have said that the Zapruder film shows JFK's head thrown backward by the bullet's impact and that this proves the shot came from the front. Josiah Thomson wrote a best-selling book Six Seconds in Dallas published in 1976 which makes this point. Plus a lot of the eye-witnesses heard shots coming from the grassy knoll in front of JFK. Plus, it's a closer, easier shot from there and it would make sense for an assassin to choose that spot. Plus the doctors and nurses in Dallas who attended to JFK all said the back of his head was blown off by a shot that must have come from the front. Plus a lot of other things.

Donahue's view is that if anybody shot at JFK from the front, they must have missed. The autopsy report indicates the wound in the back of JFK's head was a small entry wound, not much bigger than a bullet, and the wound in the front of his head is much larger, so the shot had to come from the back. Donahue noticed other things about the head wound that should have fueled the conspiracy theorists. So much attention was drawn to investigations of the "magic" bullet that nobody before Donahue bothered to study the ballistic characteristics of the head wound. First of all, the bullet that blasted JFK's head could not have been the same kind of bullet used in Oswald's rifle. If a full-metal jacketed bullet fired by Oswald's rifle had hit JFK in the head, it would have passed right through without much fragmentation and without blasting the head open, just like the "magic" bullet went through both men without much distortion and without causing massive exit wounds. Why did all the critics miss this? They don't know ballistics. Another piece of ballistic evidence that proves that Oswald's gun could not have fired the head shot is the fact that the entry would is smaller than the bullets that Oswald's rifle used.

So there had to be another weapon and another shooter. Next, Donahue tried to determine where the head shot came from. He bought plaster skulls and marked the position of the entry wound on the back and the probable exit point in the front (but the wound in the front was so large that it left a lot of margin for error). He chose the center of the front exit wound as the most probable place for his calculations and marked the spot. Then he drilled a hole straight through the skull and inserted a rod so he could determine the trajectory. Then he figured out the position of JFK's head at the moment it was hit and projected the trajectory onto a scale model of Dealy Plaza to find out where the shot came from. Guess what. The shot had to come from inside the trunk of JFK's car!

Obviously that was ridiculous. He went over his calculations again and again, but always with the same result. He remained stumped for a couple years.

Then by luck he met a doctor who had been asked by the House Jackass Subcommittee to look at the autopsy evidence and make a report. From this doctor, Donahue learned several things that had not yet been made public. One of the things he learned was that the doctor who wrote the autopsy report made an error in describing the position of the entry wound in the back of the head. He marked it 4 inches lower than where the X-ray showed it to be. So Donahue redid his calculations and plotted the new trajectory and discovered that the shot had to have come from the limousine directly behind JFK's! In fact, it had to come from the position of a particular Secret Service agent riding in the back seat of that limousine--because if it didn't come from him, the bullet would have had to pass through him before it could get to JFK. Since the Secret Service agent was not injured, he must have been the shooter.

This fit in with another factor that Donahue had already thought of. What kind of person would choose bullets that would disintegrate and cause a massive wound? Bodyguards! The shot would immobilize the enemy by causing a massive wound and go no further to injure anybody else. Donahue wrote a letter to the Secret Service asking what kinds of weapons the agents in Dealy Plaza had on the day of the Jackass. The Secret Service responded that they had 38-caliber pistols and that none of them had been fired that day.

He was stuck again until he read William Manchester's book The Death of a President. There he found the statement,

"From the rear of the follow-up car Agent Hickey raises the barrel of the AR-15 and points it about aimlessly."
This put Donahue on the track and he eventually dug up other evidence and eyewitness testimony that Hickey was wielding an AR-15 when the shooting was taking place. He also found a photograph showing Hickey holding the AR-15 moments after the shooting as the cars were racing to the hospital. The AR-15 is an automatic rifle that fires small bullets encased in thin copper jackets that rupture on impact to allow the bullets to disintegrate and cause massive wounds.

Donahue became convinced that Hickey fired the shot that killed JFK. But he is never thought for a moment that it was anything but an accident. If he is right it would explain a few things. As soon as the motorcade arrived at the hospital in Dallas, Secret Service agent Clint Hill called the White House and spoke to the Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, and said,

"There has been an accident."
If the accident was that Hickey killed JFK and if Bobby believed the story, then it is possible that Bobby would go along with covering it up. For one thing his brother's name would be more glorious in the history books if people believed he was martyred by an evil assassin than if he was the victim of a bumbling bodyguard. Second, the reputation of the Secret Service would be ruined if the public found out. Third, Agent Hickey's life would be ruined. It has always puzzled the conspiracy theorists why Bobby Kennedy, who controlled the whole Justice Department, would allow the investigation of his brother's murder to be botched so badly. Donahue's theory offers a motive.

There is also evidence that the Kennedy family helped cover up the facts. JFK's brain is missing. If we could find it and study it we could conclusively prove or disprove Donahue's theory. The last people known to have had JFK's brain in their possession were the Kennedy family, headed then by Bobby. Donahue's theory also provides a motive to explain the actions of the Secret Service men immediately after the Jackass. In clear violation of Texas law, and with full knowledge of that law after arguing with the Dallas County Medical Examiner for half an hour, they forcibly took JFK's body from the Dallas hospital and flew it to Maryland before the autopsy was performed. They did this so that they could begin to cover their tracks and save the reputation of the Secret Service. I think there is a lot more to the Jackass than Donahue's theory, but he deserves credit for uncovering facts that many others missed.

Year Read: 1993

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