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Sometime last year, my wife brought home an old paperback copy of Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy by David S. Lifton. She bought it out of a bin in an antique store, because she thought I’d be interested in a book on the topic and this one was cheap. Neither of us had ever heard of it.

I actually wasn’t looking forward to reading Best Evidence. The opportunity cost seemed high. It’s over 850 pages, excluding any appendices, and I probably only manage to finish about 10 books in any given year. I pictured myself forcing myself to read fact after fact, utterly bored, only to realize that after months I still really knew nothing, either because the book was poorly researched or I just couldn’t remember anything.

But once I started it, I was immediately drawn in. Best Evidence isn’t just a book about the Kennedy assassination. It’s about the author’s process of piecing together evidence through time, and the frustration of feeling out how to craft a message for people who are engrained in an opposing conclusion.

One aspect of Best Evidence that I think has allowed the book to age well is that it gives at least some sense of the experience of the author as a witness to history. I found Lifton’s account of what it was like to buy a copy of the Warren Commission investigation, for instance, as interesting as his description of its content.

The single element of Best Evidence that I found most interesting is that the author — David S. Lifton, computer engineer turned professional conspiracy theorist — developed a relationship with Professor Wesley Liebeler, an attorney on the Warren Commission.

In the opening chapter, Lifton relates that he completely dismissed the premise of a conspiracy around the Kennedy assassination until September 1964, when he attended a lecture by Mark Lane. He expected the lecture to be ironically funny, because the idea of a conspiracy was so ridiculous (“too many people who have to be involved”). At the lecture, Lane presented contradictions in various newspaper reports and the official narrative. Lane’s lecture even included early frames of the Zapruder film that had been published in Life.

The presentation opened Lifton’s mind, and he went on to purchase the Warren Commission’s report once it was published. As Lifton read the report, the manner in which one specific lawyer questioned witnesses particularly annoyed him — Wesley J. Liebeler. When Lifton subsequently learned that Liebler would be appointed an assistant professor at UCLA’s law school (where Lifton had entered a graduate program with the intent of studying physics or engineering), Lifton decided that he would confront him “partly out of curiosity, partly out of anger.”

Lifton began lightly stalking Liebeler’s office. One afternoon, Lifton walked in unannounced, ready for confrontation. The meeting did not go as anticipated. Lifton came away with the sense that Liebeler was not “in” on an intentional conspiracy. When Lifton showed Liebeler that a frame of the Zapruder film included in the Warren Commission investigation appeared to be spliced and that some frames were completely missing, Liebeler seemed genuinely surprised. Liebeler wrote a letter to the former U.S. Solicitor General about the matter, and encouraged Lifton to speak publicly about oddities he found in the report.

The two began speaking regularly, and Lifton even assisted Liebeler in teaching a course at UCLA law’s school. Lifton served as devil’s advocate for arguments against the Commission’s conclusions.

It was in his relationship with Liebeler and his experience with Liebeler’s law students that gave Lifton the phrase to serve as the book’s title. The beginning pages of Best Evidence includes the following quote:

What you believe happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, depends on what evidence you believe. Every day, in courtrooms, juries are confronted with conflicting evidence. The usual legal approach is not to seek new information to resolve the conflict; rather, it is to decide which evidence is credible. Lawyers often call that the “best evidence.”

Lifton stated that he was not successful in persuading Liebeler’s students to dissent from the Commission’s report nor in converting Liebeler himself. Their disagreements didn’t stem from access to different information, but simply from which set of evidence they gave the most credence to. “The puzzle” for Lifton became not just what happened in the Kennedy assassination, but how others could possibly believe the official narrative.

Lifton gave the most credence to physical and primary evidence, while Liebeler and his students were persuaded by conclusions made by experts and by general consensus. Lifton wrote on his experience with Liebeler’s students:

I cannot overstate how upsetting I found that class. I often went home with a spitting headache. My standard for perceiving reality was different. Many of my views were based on interpretations of the Zapruder frames. Liebeler’s students simply disagreed. But there was more to it than that. A fundamental difference in approach, a difference intimately connected with vocabulary. Liebeler and his students talked like ordinary laymen, but their words often had special meanings.

My first confrontation was with the rather innocuous word “fact.” “Fact” had a significantly different meaning for Liebeler’s students than for me. To me it was a “fact” that two plus two equals four, that a rectangle has four sides, and that the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180 degrees. But in law, facts were not the immutable truths established by science — facts were merely the opinions of a jury. After hearing both sides present evidence, this group of twelve reasonable men (another expression bandied about quite a bit in Liebeler’s class — the “reasonable man,” the ideal juror) determined what the facts were, and rendered a verdict.

Lifton felt like he hit an impasse. He placed faith in physics and the Zapruder film. Liebeler and those who defended the official narrative placed faith in the conclusions drawn by the doctor who wrote the Bethesda autopsy report. However, Lifton didn’t set out to necessarily debunk the autopsy or Warren Commission report.

In a chapter titled Breakthrough, Lifton wrote:

I was trapped inside a labyrinth. I would say to myself: “Humes is telling the truth. The bullet entered from the rear.” But the head snap on the Zapruder film, I was certain, showed the fatal shot struck from the front. I was missing something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I had to relax and go through the steps methodically, logically.

I rephrased the problem slightly. “Assume Humes was telling the truth,” I said to myself. “What would have to be true for Humes to have told the truth, yet for that to be reconciled with the motion on the Zapruder film?”

Lifton reread the Sibert and O’Neil report, which had been submitted by two FBI agents present at the Bethesda autopsy. He caught something in their description of opening JFK’s coffin that no one else seemed to have noticed before:

“The President’s body was removed from the casket in which it had been transported and was placed on the autopsy table, at which time the complete body was wrapped in a sheet and the head area contained an additional wrapping which was saturated with blood.”

The agents continued: “Following the removal of the wrapping, it was ascertained that the President’s clothing had been removed and it was also apparent that a tracheotomy had been performed…” My heart started to pound as I read what came next.

“…it was also apparent that a tracheotomy had been performed as well as surgery of the head area, namely in the top of the skull [emphases added].”

“…surgery of the head area…”?!

“…in the top of the skull…”?!

I knew exactly what that meant — this was the missing piece of the puzzle.

The Dallas doctors had operated only on the throat. No one had touched the President’s head — certainly not with a surgical instrument.

Yet those words, if true, meant that some time after the President was pronounced dead in Dallas, but before the coffin arrived in the Bethesda autopsy room, somebody had performed “surgery” on President Kennedy’s corpse.

I was exhilarated, terrified. I wanted to vomit.

Lifton felt the best evidence of what happened to President Kennedy was the record of his physical body, but that his body must have been altered so that the conclusion could be drawn by experts that Kennedy was shot from behind by Oswald. If you can accept that Kennedy’s body was altered, then you don’t have to accuse either sets of doctors (Dallas versus Bethesda) of being either liars or incompetent. It could also resolve the conflict between the evidence of the Zapruder film and the conclusions of Commander Humes (responsible for the Bethesda autopsy report) by just making them both true at their respective moments in history. However, this leads to a “punching up” of complexity that can feel more bizarre in retrospect.

While the first few hundred pages of Best Evidence felt like a quick read, the next several hundred were more of a slog. They describe Lifton combing through the conflicts in the reports of the Dallas and Bethesda doctors, trying to understand various operational and anatomical descriptions as a non-medical professional. He recounts hunting down doctors and x-ray technicians from the events that day for additional comments. He gives his numerous accounts of making freedom of information act requests on FBI reports.

The “biggest leap” Lifton has to make is to find a time and place where Kennedy’s body could have been unaccounted for, serving as a plausible time in which alterations could have been made. Lifton tries to interview and make sense of the memories of every member of the casket team that received Kennedy’s body at Bethesda, years after the actual event. This can become tedious to read. Meanwhile, a portrait of a scene gets painted that feels un-fucking-believable, of “men in civilian clothing” leading doctors to their conclusions and orchestrating what medical military personnel are allowed into what rooms at what time, of Kennedy’s body being brought into Bethesda twice in two different coffins for the sake of two sets of witnesses, of Kennedy’s body being revealed in Bethesda completely missing a brain. And yet, Lifton is led there by witness testimony.

I believe that Lifton wrote the book as a narrative through time so that the reader could understand his thought process. If he started with his conclusion, you could dismiss him as crazy without considering the evidence. However, this format can make it difficult to map what exactly Lifton believes are the most important points and the overall narrative that he’s formed.

But focusing on Lifton’s attempted reconstruction of events misses something significant. What will really stick with me from Best Evidence is the sheer amount of significant discrepancies in government documentation, and the bizarre eyewitness accounts of the autopsy proceedings — and that so many of them seem to have just kind of been shrugged off by Americans.

Here are some examples of the things I found odd:

  • Commander Humes, the doctor primarily in charge of the Bethesda autopsy, burnt his preliminary autopsy notes in the fireplace of his recreation room two days later.
  • The Warren Commission report included medical drawings meant to realistically depict President Kennedy’s body at the time of the autopsy, instead of including the actual pictures and x-rays.
  • The single bullet that allegedly killed both President Kennedy and hit Governor Connally was reportedly discovered in nearly pristine condition, with minimal damage and minimal tissue and bodily artifacts.
  • The Dallas doctors initially concluded Kennedy was likely shot from the front, with a bullet entering his throat and exiting the back of his head, and Dr. Perry said so at a press conference.
  • Humes, while conducting the autopsy in Bethesda, was seemingly not aware that the tracheotomy performed on President Kennedy in Dallas had been done so over a bullet wound.
  • Humes testified that the tracheotomy performed at Dallas was 7 or 8 cm, while Dr. Perry from Dallas who performed the procedure told Lifton over the phone that his incision was 2 or 3 cm.
  • The size of the head wound in Dallas was measured and reported as 2 3/4”, but was recorded as 5 1/8” in Bethesda.
  • Aubrey Rike, a funeral attendant in Dallas, said he put President Kennedy’s body in a bronze, ceremonial casket, but Paul O’Connor, a medical in technician in Bethesda, said the body arrived in a grey metal casket and a body bag.
  • Jerrol Custer, an x-ray technician, claims he had already taken x-rays of President Kennedy when he witnessed Jacqueline Kennedy arrive in Bethesda, supposedly accompanying the President’s body.
  • Jerrol Custer and Paul O’Connor both claimed President Kennedy’s body arrived without a brain. Custer claimed the wound was so large he could fit both his hands inside President Kennedy’s skull.
  • The FBI did not rescind the statement of their agents that surgery of the head area had performed, and claimed a doctor had stated it at the scene.
  • Sibert and O’Neill, the two FBI agents present at Bethesda, seem to have been barred from the autopsy room for some time, per both language in their report and eye witness testimony.
  • James Curtis Jenkins, an assistant at the Bethesda autopsy, told Lifton that there were civilians present that seemed to be arguing with or chastising the three military physicians and that no conclusion had been drawn by the end of the autopsy, though he immediately believed the President had been shot from the front based on the wounds.

While I enjoyed Best Evidence, I came away feeling that the book felt short of its potential. Although the length of the book felt inaccessible to me at first, the version of the book that I imagine that I want is probably twice as long. I wanted more of what it was like to be David Lifton. I wanted more of the cultural and historical context of his later years in the book. I also would have liked more summary and recap of the most important evidence. That said, I’m very glad I read this book, and I expect that I will think about it from time to time for the rest of my life.

Finally, in a move that feels ahead of its time, Lifton recorded and released a VHS tape as a companion to the book. It contains portions of interviews he conducted with witnesses, and the quick summary that felt missing from the book itself. It seems to survive on Rumble: