Editor’s Note: In the spring of 2015, the official publication of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE) featured an article by Lucien C. Haag entitled “The Missing Bullet in the JFK Assassination.” The article was the last in a series of three discrete analyses in which Haag, a criminalist and long-time AFTE contributor, examined ballistic evidence from each of the three shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dealey Plaza.
In the two previous articles, Haag, with admirable clarity, and by drawing from the work of others (notably Dr. John K. Lattimer and Larry M. Sturdivan), confirmed yet again the rational consensus: the second shot fired hit President Kennedy in the upper back before seriously wounding Governor Connally, and the third shot pierced the rear of the president’s head.
In sharp contrast, Haag’s article on the missing bullet (aka the first shot fired) had serious deficiencies. Technical, evidentiary, and logical flaws in Haag’s shooting reconstruction analysis invalidate his conclusion as to how the first shot fired by Oswald missed its intended target.
The following critique is adapted from a letter sent to the editor of the AFTE Journal, which is online but behind a paywall. The letter appears in the journal’s Fall 2016 issue, along with a response from Haag.
To determine why or how Oswald’s first shot missed, Lucien C. Haag empirically tested all four reasoned possibilities that have been put forward since the 1963 assassination. The bullet might have been deflected by 1) the branches of an oak tree; 2) a traffic signal light; 3) the mast arm of the signal light; or finally, 4) the bullet simply missed and struck the asphalt pavement of Elm Street.
The idea was to establish the most logical explanation following a process of elimination. Or as Haag observed in 2013 (borrowing from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), “The essence of good forensic science is to look at what are the competing explanations of an event. And if you can rule out that which is impossible, that which remains, however seemingly improbable, is the truth.”
Deflection by the Oak Tree
During the investigation following the assassination, Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents thoroughly inspected the oak tree that partially obscured Oswald’s line of sight down Elm Street. They found no evidence that branches had been struck by a bullet fired from Oswald’s rifle. The Warren Report, nonetheless, still claimed complete deflection by the tree branches was a possibility.
Haag designed and conducted his own tests to determine, once and for all, if the tree branches in question had the capability to deflect a pristine 6.5mm-FMJ bullet fired from a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. This study was sensible because notwithstanding the lack of evidence, lore about an oak tree branch deflecting the first shot had become a widely-accepted explanation in the decades since the Warren Report.
Haag’s testing approach here was well planned, and first reported during a PBS-NOVA documentary, “Cold Case JFK,” which aired in November 2013. The results revealed that bullet deflections by oak tree branches, such as those that were in Oswald’s line of sight, are minimal, although the impact is sufficient to destabilize a jacketed bullet. This was not a surprise finding given the high kinetic energy of a projectile fired from a Mannlicher-Carcano and the low impact resistance of a tree branch. A bullet fired through the branches of the oak tree on 22 November 1963 would have either struck passengers in the presidential limousine, and/or the limousine itself, or terminated in the Elm Street asphalt.