Werner U. Spitz, M.D., former medical examiner in Wayne and Macomb counties in Michigan, worked on two government committees that examined the President John F. Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.
(Photo: Kimberly P. Mitchell Detroit Free Press)
President John F. Kennedy was hit by two bulletswhen he was assassinated 50 years ago today in Dallas; the subsequent autopsy was botched, and Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman.
That's what world-renowned forensic pathologist Werner Spitz says he believes a half-century after the president's death stunned a nation and 38 years after Spitz sat on the first of two government committees he was picked to serve on to review Kennedy's death.
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Decades after the president was murdered while riding in a motorcade, conspiracy theories abound on who killed him, how many gunmen there were, how many shots were fired, how many times he was struck and who was behind the assassination. Conspiracy theorists have pointed a finger at everybody from the Russian KGB to the Mafia to Fidel Castro to then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Spitz, a forensic pathologist for 60 years who has served as an expert or consultant in numerous high-profile criminal cases, including those involving O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony and Jon Benet Ramsey, says he believes Oswald acted alone. He said the only conspiracy that may have happened - and he speculates - is that someone paid Oswald to kill the president, such as Castro or the mob.
"Did it happen? Nobody saw anyone exchange any money," Spitz said Thursday.
Spitz, the former medical examiner in Wayne and Macomb counties who maintains a practice in St. Clair Shores, said he doesn't think anyone paid Oswald to kill the president, but he doesn't know for sure.
Like many people, the now-87-year-old Spitz remembers where he was on this day 50 years ago.
He was coming back from Germany on a ship bound for New York when there was a rumor that Kennedy had been shot.
He said people were congregating on the decks. He was on the top deck - the best place for reception on a shortwave radio. People were trying to get broadcasts out of New York, where the ship would arrive a day later.
"Some people shed tears. Some people just sat," he said of the atmosphere on the ship. "I get all choked up today when I think about it."
"Little did I know that 12 years later, in 1975, I would get a phone call from Washington, D.C., from an attorney ... and he asked me if I would agree to be an expert and to use the medical facts of the assassination and explain to Vice President (Nelson) Rockefeller," Spitz said.
The next year, he said, he was called by another attorney in Washington asking if he would serve as an expert on a committee established by the House of Representatives - a committee where he saw pictures, autopsy reports and other documents pertaining to the Kennedy assassination.
Spitz said he believes Oswald fired three shots, but just two struck Kennedy.
He said Kennedy was struck once in the back of the right shoulder, with the bullet exiting his neck. He then was shot in the back of the head, dying as soon as the bullet hit him, Spitz said.
"There were so many sources of error," Spitz said of the entire situation.
Security wasn't tight around the convertible limousine carrying Kennedy, the governor of Texas and their wives; doctors in Dallas cut into a bullet wound during lifesaving efforts, and the autopsy was done by military pathologists, not a forensic pathologist.
"They botched that autopsy," Spitz said. "They had absolutely no experience in forensic pathology."
For example, he said, they were not allowed to shave the area around the bullet wounds on Kennedy's head.
But, Spitz added, at that time, forensic pathology was in its infancy in the U.S.
Spitz said he had some benefits over others who speculate and construe scenarios. He saw the pictures of the president during the autopsy, and he talked with Dr. James Humes, one of the people who performed the autopsy and later worked at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit.
He said Humes cried when he talked about the mistakes that he made during the autopsy. For example, Spitz said, Humes threw papers containing notes from the autopsy and Kennedy's blood into a fireplace at his home. The blood had been on his gloves and was transferred to the papers.
When asked how the Kennedy case ranks among all of the cases in his lengthy career, he had a simple answer.
"When people are on the autopsy table, they are all the same," he said.
Spitz said he doesn't have anything special planned for today. He's simply going to work like he does every day.
"I'm probably going to think about it. I'm going to be reminded, what I was exposed to, what I had to look at," he said.
He doubts the conspiracy theories ever will go away.
"We are still talking about President Lincoln," he said.
But Kennedy was young and handsome. Spitz said if there was such a thing as royalty in America, Kennedy was a monarch.
"I think this whole thing was an unfortunate event from so many angles, from so many viewpoints," he said.