After a struggle lasting slightly more than 24 hours, Robert Kennedy succumbed to the effects of a bullet that crashed through his skull in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. The accused assassin sits in jail today, having been convicted of 1st-degree murder by a jury of his peers. While there is no doubt that Sirhan Bishara Sirhan fired a gun at RFK, the question: "Did Sirhan fire the bullet which actually killed Robert Kennedy?" has never been fully investigated. Nor has the import of ballistic and medical evidence been litigated, not even at Sirhan's trial during which his legal team arbitrarily stipulated both to the integrity of the physical evidence and the prosecution's version which has Sirhan as the sole assassin.
It turns out that information overlooked for thirty-eight years sheds new light on the RFK assassination and evidences conspiracy in a way heretofore unappreciated. This first of a two-part essay explores the entry wound in RFK's head and the round that was supposed to have caused it. In part two, we will examine the bullet fragment recovered during surgery, the size of that fragment as seen in the pre-op X-rays, the troubling way in which it moved through the LAPD chain of custody, and the bullet fragment recovered during the autopsy which fell off the face of the planet.
To date, the strongest controversies pointing to multiple shooters have centered around two issues: the number of shots fired, and Sirhan's position relative to RFK during the shooting. The evidence indicates that at least 9 shots were fired that night, yet Sirhan wielded an 8-shot revolver, which he did not reload. The second main controversy revolves around eyewitness testimony that places Sirhan in a position from which he could not physically have inflicted RFK's wounds. While both issues are of paramount importance to a finding of conspiracy, they are, and will likely remain, irresolvable. This is so for two reasons: the LAPD destroyed key physical and photographic evidence, and eyewitness testimony, no matter how powerful, sincere, and corroborated cannot be considered "proof." Today, however, we can move past those tantalizing possibilities to what I believe amounts to proof of conspiracy; a round fired from Sirhan's gun could not have caused the wound that actually killed RFKthe headshot. As inconceivable as it sounds thirty-eight years after the fact, the "proof" comes straight from RFK's autopsy report.
The "Perfect" Post Mortem?
L.A. County Coroner and Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi conducted RFK's autopsy between the hours of 3:00 and 9:30 AM on June 6th, 1968. Noguchi's examination and subsequent autopsy report have long been touted as the exemplar of a precise, thorough, and meticulously documented medico-legal post mortem. Indeed, some have called it the "perfect" autopsy. However, a close inspection of RFK's autopsy report reveals astonishing facts; the description of the headshot damage not only represents a pathologic impossibility (detailed in Part 2), but actually rules out Sirhan's gun as the offending instrument.
The Gun in Question
RFK had just declared victory in the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary and was making his way to a press conference when shots rang out in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. Sirhan, still firing a gun, was wrestled onto a steam table in front of RFK. In addition to Kennedy, five bystanders were hit by gunfire. After a considerable struggle, the gun was recovered by RFK associate, Rafer Johnson, who turned it over to the LAPD approximately one hour after the assassination. That gun was a .22 caliber 8-shot Iver-Johnson revolver. Legitimate controversy surrounds the exact model Iver-Johnson recovered that night, but for the purposes of this essay only, we will grant that it was the same gun introduced during Sirhan's trial and the same gun that sits in the California State Archives today.
The Ammo in Question
The ammunition "known" to have been fired that night was CCI .22 caliber "Mini Mag" gilded lead hollow points, which are is designed to "mushroom" on impact. This construction has two advantages over regular ammunition: it imparts maximum kinetic energy into the target, and is less likely to emerge and strike a bystander. Fired at a velocity of around 1,280 feet per second, the 37 gr. round packs much less "punch" than a .38 or .45 slug, but still has the potential to inflict mortal wounds.
A hollow point round such as that allegedly used to kill RFK begins to deform as it strikes an object. The denser the object struck, the more the bullet will "mushroom." The result is a bullet that presents an "enhanced" surface area, and thus creates a damage path wider than its original diameter. Tests conducted by ballistic expert, Martin Fackler show that a .22 round 5.5 mm in diameter (or 0.22 inches) left a 9.5 mm permanent wound cavity in ballistic tissue simulant. Other test have shown similar resultsthe CCI .22 mini mag round can create a hole and permanent wound tract almost twice its original diameter, but not quite.
The critical question at issue becomes: "Do the head wounds suffered by RFK comport with the damage expected from Sirhan's round?"
A bullet entered RFK's head just behind the right ear and slightly above the level of the ear canal. It shattered and then tore through RFK's brain, severing a major blood-carrying "sinus" in its course. Kennedy crumpled to the ground, grievously wounded. Blood leaked into the cranial cavity and poured from the entry wound. The brain began to swell and blood accumulated within the inter-cranial space, exerting life-threatening pressure on the mid-brain, which controls the involuntary heart and lung functions.
Dr. Stanley Abo was among the RFK supporters in the Embassy Ballroom that night, and upon hearing of the shooting, rushed to the pantry to render aid and assistance to the wounded. Abo located the bullet hole behind RFK's right ear, but it was not bleeding at that point as a clot had plugged the hole. Abo understood that pressure was building up inside RFK's skull, and if it was allowed to continue would be imminently fatal. And so Abo stuck his finger in the hole to flush out the clot. It worked and blood began to pour from RFK's head once more.
Kennedy was eventually taken to Good Samaritan Hospital, where surgeons incised the scalp and removed a portion of skull bone to facilitate surgery to relieve the pressure and stop the bleeding. Initially, the neurosurgeons' delicate efforts were moderately successful. However, the extent and nature of the damage made the tragic outcome a virtual certainty. Noguchi would later be quoted in Newsweek magazine as saying, "The amazing thing is that he lived as long as he did."
Entry Wound Remnants at Autopsy: The Hole in the Scalp
According to Noguchi, "The wound of entry as designated by the [neurosurgeon]" who operated on Kennedy and was who present during the autopsy, was "more or less evident by inspection of the opposed craniotomy incision" [RFK Autopsy Report, Pg. 5, (AR5)]. Noguchi employed tentative phraseologymore or less evident by inspectionto describe the wound. Although he did not expressly so state, the implication is that the original entry perforation in the scalp was not obvious at the time the body arrived in the morgue. If it was evident, why would the neurosurgeon have to "designate" the bullet hole for the forensic pathologist?
Further on Dr. Noguchi writes, "the defect appears to have been about 0.5 cm in diameter at the skin surface." [AR5] Again the use of tentative languageappears to have been indicates that the original nature of the entrance wound in the skin was not apparent at autopsy. But Noguchi did not come right out and say that. The pathologic effects of missile penetration in skin and tissue have been understood for nearly as long as we've been shooting at one another. Taken in context with Noguchi's experiences in L.A., a county with no shortage of gunshot homicide victims, it seems reasonable to state as fact that Noguchi knew a bullet entry wound when he saw one. The question is, "Did he see one?" Unfortunately, Noguchi's choice of tentative language over a clear description does not help to answer that question.
At the bottom of page 5, under the section titled "Lesions in Detail (Neuropathology)" we find roundabout-style confirmation that little if anything was left of the original bullet entrance wound:
"about 2 cm above the tip of the mastoid process [bony bump behind the ear]...the anterior [frontward]
portion of the skin of the [craniotomy] incision shows a semi-circular defect said to be a portion of the
original bullet entrance wound (according to the surgeons who were present at the examination)."
Noguchi's report again indicates that he himself could not identify an entry wound, attributing such a finding to the operating neurosurgeons. Yet, in the section of the report detailing interpretations of X-rays of skin samples removed during the autopsy, Noguchi wrote that, "[t]wo fragments of the [headshot entrance tissue] wound are present." [AR20] X-rays of the tissue, we are told, revealed two "fragments" of the entry wound. According to Noguchi, the surgeons who'd operated on RFK's head and brain were standing over the body and were "consulting" him on the entry wound. [AR5, AR36] How is it, then, that two "fragments" of the entry wound could be definitively detected in an X-ray, but not by visual inspection of the body itself?
The surgeons who'd operated on RFK's head and brain attended the autopsy [AR5, AR36]. Those were the people who knew just where the wound was located and what was left of it after surgery, which is probably why Noguchi requested their presence in the morgue. One of those surgeons, Henry M. Cuneo, M.D. was shown an autopsy photograph of Robert Kennedy during his testimony at Sirhan's trial. Cuneo was asked, "Would it [the entry wound] be visible there?" Cuneo responded, "No, all that is visible is the discoloration in the back, the soft part of the ear." Cuneo was shown a different autopsy pose and asked, "Do you see there the area of the [headshot] gunshot wound that that you have testified to?" The photograph shown to Cuneo is reproduced in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The autopsy photo shown to Cuneo.
His response leaves no doubt. Cuneo related that, "the area of where the gunshot wound has occurred had been removed," which is exactly what we would expect. Why is that? Because the damaged skin surrounding the hole would have properly been removed to prevent infection and to provide fresh, clean surfaces with which to close the wound. This standard surgical technique is called "wound debridement." The man who operated on RFK testified that the entry hole was removed during ante-mortem surgery. If so, and every indication tells us that was the case, Noguchi never saw the entry in the scalp, and thus had no idea how large or small it was. Whatever Noguchi's based his comment that, "the defect appears to have been about 0.5 cm in diameter at the skin surface," is a mystery.
Entry Wound Remnants at Autopsy -- The Skull
According to the autopsy report, a 6 x 5 cm portion of skull had been removed from the back of RFK's head during the course of the emergency craniotomy [AR6]. Dr. Noguchi described what remained of the entry hole in the bone:
"The bullet wound in the skull appears to be located with its anterior [forward] margin 1 cm posterior [behind] to the right external auditory meatus [ear canal], 2 cm superior [above] to the tip of the mastoid process [bony bump behind your ear]; but the original configuration is obscured by the surgical enlargement and by the adjacent craniotomy" [AR6, emphasis added].
According to Noguchi's report, the hole in the bone had been "obscured" by the "surgical enlargement" and no longer visible at autopsy. Diagrams had been prepared illustrating the wounds as described in the autopsy report. On the last page of his report, Noguchi informs the reader that he elected not to publish the illustrations. Fortunately, the autopsy diagrams Noguchi tried to hide from you have surfaced. One depiction, if accurate, demonstrates that the entry hole was not "obscured" as Noguchi put itit was absent at autopsy. (See Figure 2.)
Notice that Noguchi placed the entry hole (large dashed ellipse denoted by the red arrow in Figure 2) completely within the circumference of the area of bone removed during the craniotomy (solid line denoted by blue arrows in Figure 2). If that were the case, the bullet entry could not have been visible on the body because the piece(s) of "craniotomy bone" containing the entry hole were never delivered to the autopsy suite.
The Cranial Bones and the X-rays
The bones containing the entry hole were removed during the surgical craniotomy and preserved at Good Samaritan Hospital -- the same hospital in which Kennedy died, and in which his autopsy was performed. Noguchi had his assistant rush up to the operating suite to retrieve the hair shaved from his head prior to the surgery. It was a smart move, for the hair was ultimately found to contain unburnt gunshot powder residue, which spoke to the closeness of the muzzle to RFK's head. Yet the skull bones containing the inshoot hole were never officially delivered to Noguchi during the autopsy. According to the autopsy report, "Surgical Bony Specimen[s]" were examined on June 7, 1968, which was a full day after the autopsy was conducted. Yet nowhere in the report are the "craniotomy bone[s]" described or discussed. Nor is the bullet hole that was supposed to be contained in "craniotomy bones" identified or commented upon. Why not? Noguchi described being able to see the entry hole in the pre-surgery skull X-rays on page 17 of his report. (See Figure 3.)
There, although he gave specific measurements locating the hole with reference to bony landmarks, Noguchi neglected to relate the size of the entry hole. Why? Noguchi knew in 1968 as well as we know today that the size of the hole speaks to the type of round that could or could not have produced the wound. And yet we find nary a peep about this most critical of determinations in the perfect autopsy's perfect autopsy report.
The possibility that the wound in RFK's head could have been caused by ammunition of a larger variety than fired by Sirhan is not precluded in the autopsy report. The question becomes: "Was it?" Information in the autopsy report indicates that the bullet that took RFK's life was indeed larger than a .22 CCI mini-mag.
Sirhan's Round and the Damage
On page 9 of the autopsy report Dr. Noguchi describes the damage to the cerebellum:
"In the anterior [forward] lateral [side] aspects of the right hemisphere of the cerebellum, there is an irregular penetrating wound. The opening measures 2 by 2 cm with irregular margins. The margins of this wound and adjacent areas are elevated to form a ring of tissue at the bone margin, 2 mm distal [beyond] to the internal bone surface. This indicates herniation of the cerebellum tissue into the bony defect."
Earlier, Noguchi related that only a small portion (if any) of the bullet hole in the skull was evident. Here, he described the dimensions of the original size of the skull defect by direct inference; swelling of the brain forced the cerebellum to press outward against the skull. As the cerebellar tissue expanded, its edges pushed outward on the skull bone. This was before the hole was enlarged by the surgical craniotomy, and so the only point at which the tissue could pass beyond the inner table of the skull was the original bullet entry hole. The tissues expanded up through the hole forming what would be akin to the rim of a volcano. Thus, the 2 x 2 cm rim of raised tissue (and the 2 x 2 cm wound tract in the cerebellum) tells us that the original entry hole was 2 x 2 cm. Therein lies the problem. Figure 4 below, shows a scale representation of a 2 cm bullet hole in the skull and the diameter of a .22 caliber CCI bullet.
Figure 4. The hole and the round.
The difference in diameter between the bullet and a bullet hole is substantial. Recall that Sirhan fired.22 mini-mag hollow point rounds designed to mushroom on impact. The question becomes: "Could a .22 round have mushroomed enough to created a 2 cm wide hole?" Figure 5 shows the mushrooming effect of .22 slugs (the CCI mini-mags are second from the left).
Figure 5. Un-credited photo taken from the internet.
Intuition and knowledge acquired during my investigation of the medical and ballistic aspects of the JFK assassination made me dubious about the wound/ammunition combination. It was while looking for a gunsmith who could remove the slug from my .22 CCI round that I ran across retired forensic expert, Robert Pacheco. As it turned out, he lived less than twenty minutes from my house. I telephoned Pacheco, who listened to my information. He was intrigued and we made arrangements to meet that afternoon. At his Sporting Goods store, I explained the 2 x 2 cm entry bullet hole in the skull and the particular round credited with having created the wound. I did not inform him of the victim's identity, and Pacheco did not ask. I laid out the scale representations reproduced in this essay, as well as those used in Part 2. I asked him if a round 0.22 in diameter (5.5 mm) could create a 2 cm (20 mm, 0.39 inches) entry hole. He said, No way. Absolutely not. We discussed the entry hole vs. the damage expected from various types of rounds for about an hour. Pacheco said that he would expect a hole of that size to be created by a .32 caliber round at a minimum, but more likely a .38 Hydrashock. (See Figure 6.)
At the end of our conversation, Pacheco finally said, OK. So who's the victim? Robert Kennedy, I replied. Pacheco flashed a wide, pearlescent smile, and the second hour of our conversation began.
I also contacted a well known forensic pathologist who was aware of my work on the JFK assassination. It was known to me that Dr. Burris (a pseudonym) had been friendly with Noguchi for many years. In fact, their acquaintance pre-dated the RFK assassination. Without informing him that we were discussing the RFK evidence, I asked Burris if he'd ever seen a .22 hollow point create a 2 cm entry hole in skull bone. Without hesitation he said, No. I asked what him what would be his response if told that a .22 was supposed to have made such a hole. He said .22s simply do not create entry holes that big. A one centimeter hole maybe. But not two centimeters, no, he said. Figure 7 shows the diameter of the bone hole (white circle), the intact .22 CCI round (red circle) and an slightly over-exaggerated maximum diameter for the mushroomed CCI round (green circle).
Figure 7. The wound, round, and mushroomed round show to scale.
I related that the information we just discussed came straight from RFK's autopsy report and Dr. Burris became very quiet. I knew the pathologist was quite familiar with the circumstances surrounding the RFK assassination. Finally he asked incredulously:
"Are you telling me that you think you've come up with something new that everyone investigating the case has missed for 37 years?"
"Yes," I responded modestly, but with certainty, "that is what I'm telling you." I sent him a brief write-up (which has since evolved into this essay) and he agreed to read it. Shortly thereafter I received a response in the mail. Dr. Burris did not offer a single comment on the substance of what I'd written. What could he do but put in black and white what he'd already told me over the phone? But to do that would be to speak unkindly not only of Noguchi, but his autopsy and report, which Burris has publicly lauded for decades. To admit the obviousthat there are serious problems with Noguchi's work and findingswould also be tantamount to admitting something potentially embarrassing. Something I noticed only after I talked to him; Dr. Burris had reviewed the autopsy report for Noguchi in 1968. Buried on page 37 of the 62-page autopsy report under the section entitled, Advisors Not Present At Autopsy, we find Dr. Burris' name.
I asked Burris if he would forward the essay to Noguchi. He said he would, but speculated that Noguchi was not likely to respond, which came as no surprise. If Burris did send the essay along, and I have no reason to doubt his word, Noguchi has chosen to remain silent.
In the interim between the Burris and Pacheco conversations, I ran the information by a renowned ballistics expert. This expert had helped confirm my understanding of wound ballistics over the course of many conversations. He listened to the particulars at issue then commented blindly on the evidence. His conclusions were identical to Burris and Pacheco'seven taking into account the mushrooming effect, a .22 caliber CCI mini-mag round could not have created the entry hole and brain damage as described in the autopsy report. When I informed the level-headed expert the particulars were from the RFK case, his attitude changed. He began offering highly implausible speculations to account for the damage to the skull and brain having been caused by a .22 mini-mag. I called him on it, and with a chuckle he admitted that his proposed explanations were "highly remote."
Today, thirty-eight years after Robert Kennedy was murdered, it remains unexplained how a bullet smaller than the diameter of a pencil eraser could create a hole slightly larger than a 1¢ piece. If it did not...if it could not...then Sirhan Sirhan did not kill Robert Kennedy. Whatever crimes Sirhan committed that fateful night, the evidence tells me that murder was not among them.
There is no question that Sirhan tried very hard to murder Robert Kennedy. If my conclusions are correct, he failed in that endeavor. Yet Sirhan was convicted of first-degree murder. If we are truly a nation of laws, then at a minimum Sirhan is entitled to some sort of judicial review where forensic and ballistic experts comment on the same issues and evidence I have presented here. If they confirm that what I have concluded is accurate, then questions arise for our legal scholars: If Sirhan did not kill RFK, was he convicted of the wrong crime? If so, what was the most severe crime Sirhan could have been charged with on June 5, 1968? Has the statute of limitations already run on that crime? What was the maximum sentence that could have been handed down on April 23, 1969?
Sirhan has been incarcerated for nearly thirty-eight years. If he has already served more time than the maximum sentence that could have been imposed in 1969 for a crime less than murder in the first degree, is Sirhan entitled be set free?