The JFK 100

The Fifth Shot
("Back and to the Left")


Oliver Stone uses the backwards motion of the President's head in the Zapruder film (beginning in frame 314) to argue for an assassin on the grassy knoll. As discussed in the previous section, this argument ignores the forward motion of the head that occurs between frames 312 and 313.

But putting aside the initial forward motion, is the backwards motion in the Zapruder film evidence of a shot from the knoll?


The Trajectory from the Knoll


"Back and to the left, back and to the left," intones New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in JFK.

But look more closely. The President was not thrust "back and to the left"; JFK states it more accurately a few seconds earlier: "This is the key shot. Watch it again. The President going back to his left."(1)

Back to his left. This is what the Zapruder film shows (see below).



A comparison of Z frames 315-318



Does this make a difference? It does. Had the President been thrust to the left, that is, the left side of the limousine, directly into his wife, Jacqueline, this would not be inconsistent with the trajectory of a shot from the grassy knoll.

But that's not what happened. JFK lurched forcefully to his left, almost directly backwards in his seat.

In 1992, author Harrison E. Livingstone became the first conspiracy-oriented author to debunk the myth of the grassy knoll gunman. Livingstone writes:


If [the President] had been hit from the Grassy Knoll or stockade fence, it would have taken off the left side of his head and thrown him violently sideways, and not backward as in the film. The left side of his head was not damaged at all.(2)


Author and JFK consultant Gus Russo concurs. He stood behind the camera as Oliver Stone filmed the motorcade scene, and has this to say:


Standing behind the picket fence, it is . . . apparent that if the shot were from the front, then it couldn't have originated behind the fence: the fence is at a 90 degree angle to Kennedy's head -- tilted 34 degrees left of center when hit -- at the time the President was struck. A virtual broadside hit. Such a shot would not have forced JFK's head forward or backward, but side to side, with the bullet exiting near Kennedy's left ear, hitting Jackie. Of course, none of this happened.(3)


Note also that in the frames of the Zapruder film following the head shot, the wound is towards the front right of the President's head, not in the back, as Oliver Stone claims elsewhere in JFK.

Compare the following images, depicting the approximate trajectory(4) a bullet would take in order to hypothetically cause the rearward movement of the President, and the approximate trajectory a bullet would take from where Oliver Stone places a gunman on the grassy knoll.



Approximate trajectory of hypothetical shot from the front


Approximate trajectory of hypothetical shot from the front


Approximate trajectory from Stone's grassy knoll gunman


Approximate trajectory from Stone's grassy knoll gunman



Harrison Livingstone is not the only conspiracy theorist to acknowledge the disconnect between grassy knoll gunman theories and the "back and to the left" motion apparent in the Zapruder film.

Sherry Fiester is the former head of the Forensic Investigative Unit for St. Charles Parish of the Louisiana Sheriff's Department. She is a member of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction and "has testified as an expert in crime scene reconstruction and bloodstain pattern analysis in over 30 judicial districts in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida." She believes that a shot struck the President from the front, but acknowledges that the President's wounds rule out the possibility that a shot could have come from his right side.

Based on the location of the President's wounds, his precise location in Dealey Plaza, and his orientation within the limousine, Fiester created the following diagram. "The pink area represents possible locations for the shooter of the fatal headshot," she notes. "The pink line near the center of the cone represents the location JFK was facing at the time of the shooting."


Sherry Fiester's plotted trajectory of a hypothetical shot from the front


Fiester observes, "Since the grassy knoll is not positioned within the possible locations of the shooter for the headshot, the fatal headshot could not have originated from behind the picket fence."(5)

Gus Russo adds:


In Dale Myers's meticulous reconstruction of the event, he asked the computer to draw a line from low in the back of Kennedy's head -- where some have erroneously stated a wound existed -- to the wound in the right temple area. Giving the front-shooter theorists the benefit of the doubt, and negating all the autopsy X-rays and photos, Myers then followed the line forward to determine where such a shooter had to be located. It turns out that if the shooter were in front of Kennedy, in a line with his wounds and front-to-back axis of movement, the assailant could only be in one place: [thirteen] feet in the air above the southernmost point of the railroad underpass.(6)



The Cause of the Backward Motion


The simple truth is that, regardless of the trajectory, a rifle shot alone could not cause anyone to be propelled violently in any direction to the degree President Kennedy is in the Zapruder film; the laws of physics simply do not allow for it.

Researcher Joel Grant interviewed Duncan MacPherson, a rocket scientist (literally) since the 1950s. Listing some of his credentials, Grant writes that in 1959, MacPherson "developed a new guidance technique and the equations that were used to guide the Mercury astronauts into orbit on the Atlas launch vehicle. These equations were modified under his supervision to control Gemini and, later, Apollo launches." In the late 1960s, "MacPherson branched into Systems Engineering, relating primarily to trajectory dynamics." Since 1989 "Mr. MacPherson has been an independent technical consultant to organizations interested in space flight activities."

Here is an excerpt from Grant's interview with MacPherson:


Q. It is common knowledge that, as captured by Abraham Zapruder, President Kennedy's head and upper torso lurch energetically immediately following the explosion of his head. Could this movement have been caused by the directly transferred momentum of a bullet? That is, can a bullet "push" somebody like that?

A. No, and no. The movement of a body due to bullet momentum cannot be greater than the movement of the same body if it was holding the gun that fired the bullet. This is a result of elementary physics and is not disputed by anyone who understands physics. The major frustrating feature of the Kennedy assassination phenomenon is the willingness of people to pretend to talk authoritatively on subjects they know absolutely nothing about, especially things related to firearms. This body recoil is one favorite. . . .

Q. If the effects observed on the Zapruder film are not the result of a direct "push" by a bullet, what could account for JFK's movements?

A. In general, body movement in response to nervous system trauma is a result of contractions in body muscles. This is related to movements of your leg when a doctor raps you on the knee with his little mallet; your leg moves because a nerve induces a muscle contraction, not because it was driven into motion by the force of the tiny rap with the mallet. . . . In addition to this effect, simulations have shown that bullet strikes to the skull that result in blowing out a significant hole upon exit result in skull recoil towards the bullet entry direction. The dynamics of this are a little complicated, but are more related to the pressure inside the skull cavity created by the bullet passage than to effects directly related to the bullet movement. The dynamics of this kind of impact were demonstrated independently in testing by Dr. Luis Alvarez and by Dr. John K. Lattimer, et al. . . . The main aspect of the Kennedy assassination that would surprise most people is how uncontroversial the wound ballistics aspects are among the physicians in the country who are most experienced in gunshot trauma. (I am not one of these, but have talked to several.) It is a sad truth that most autopsy reports are full of errors and inconsistencies which are obvious to any careful review; it shouldn't be like this, but it is. The problems with the Kennedy autopsy do not require a conspiracy to explain, they are more or less business as usual exposed to the glare of careful examination.



Some Final Thoughts


Gus Russo began his inquiry into the assassination believing that a conspiracy including several gunmen had taken President Kennedy's life. While he still is not convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted without guidance or assistance (see his book, Live by the Sword), he learned long ago that the facts preclude a gunman on the grassy knoll.

Russo writes:


When one first stands behind the picket fence, he/she is struck by a number of sensations. First, there is no clear shot at the middle lane of Elm Street [where the limousine was] until the instant of the head shot, allowing for no earlier shots or tracking of the moving target. It turns out that the intended victim is obscured by road signs and a white retaining wall about ten feet in front of the fence.

An even more compelling problem was driven home during the filming of JFK. I was fortunate to be able to stand near the camera as this scene was reenacted. With the street crowd added as it appeared on the day of the shooting, it became clear that, insofar as the first two shots are concerned, a grassy knoll shot was also obstructed by the crowd that lined the sidewalk. The assassin would thus [have] had to shoot through the white wall, the road signs, and bystanders to get to the President. If the assassin shot Kennedy in the head, he had to shoot in the first second the car emerged from behind the retaining wall, again past (or through) the heads of spectators.(7)


Such a shooter would have been standing only a few yards to the right of Abraham Zapruder and his receptionist, Marilyn Sitzman, who were perched on a pedestal several feet above the ground. When asked by Gus Russo about the possibility that someone was shooting from the knoll area, Sitzman replied, "That's absurd. I was only a few feet away, and I didn't hear or see anything suspicious."(8)

In fact, not a single person that day reported seeing anyone fire from the grassy knoll, despite the fact that the stockade fence is only five feet tall. Moreover, such a gunman would have been completely exposed on the sides and in the back, yet eyewitness Lee Bowers, in an elevated railroad tower some yards away, saw no one with a rifle, nor did he see anyone flee the area.(8)

In the end, perhaps it is appropriate that the fabled grassy knoll gunman was brought to life in a Hollywood fantasy; certainly, no such individual has any basis in reality.



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1. Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Applause, 1992), p. 165. All quotations are from the shooting script and may vary slightly from the finished motion picture.

2. Harrison Edward Livingstone, High Treason 2 (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1992), p. 360.

3. Gus Russo, Live by the Sword (Baltimore: Bancroft, 1998), p. 474.

4. As none of the extant films of the assassination other than that taken by Abraham Zapruder depict the motion of the President's body in sufficiently clear detail, I have been informed that a precise, photogrammetric model of the trajectory is impossible.

5. It should be emphasized that Fiester's analysis is based solely on the position of the limousine, the President's location in it, and her beliefs about the President's wounds, not the movement of the President's head in the Zapruder film.

6. Gus Russo, Live by the Sword (Baltimore: Bancroft, 1998), p. 474. Russo states the figure as "thirty feet in the air"; in an e-mail to this author, Myers noted the correct figure to be thirteen. Click here for more information.

7. Gus Russo, Live by the Sword (Baltimore: Bancroft, 1998), p. 474. It should be emphasized that Russo's analysis is based solely on on the position of the limousine, the President's location in it, and widespread beliefs about the locations of the President's wounds, not the movement of the President's head in the Zapruder film.

8. Gus Russo, Live by the Sword (Baltimore: Bancroft, 1998), p. 474.

9. Years later, of course, a few people did come forward to claim they had seen a grassy knoll gunman. One is Jean Hill, who explicitly stated on November 22, 1963, that she did not see anyone fire from the knoll. Another is Ed Hoffman, a deaf-mute who claims he tried to relate his tale of seeing a man fire from the grassy knoll to a police officer, who did not understand him. Hoffman's story remains unverifiable.



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