The paroxysm of horror, fear and cynicism ignited by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 28 years ago still lives in the national consciousness, feeding on the doubt that the true events of that day have ever been told.
Conspiracy theories abound, and instead of fading with time they gain credence in the face of fresh discoveries. Last month, for example, ABC News opened the KGB file on Lee Harvey Oswald to find official Soviet doubt that the misfit American could have carried out the shooting alone. And Friday, Hollywood weighed in with "JFK," another denunciation of the Warren Commission's exhaustive yet seriously flawed examination of Kennedy's death.
Credit Rhino Home Video, then, with superb timing in bringing "Best Evidence: The Research Video" ($14.95, 35 minutes) to market. Produced and directed by David S. Lifton, the program presents the shocking arguments first stated in Mr. Lifton's best-selling 1981 book, "Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception the Assassination of John F. Kenne
dy" (Macmillan). A special package of the tape with the book is $24.95.
Mr. Lifton's central contention: In the six hours that the body of the dead president was traveling from Dallas to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, his wounds were altered to suggest he was killed by one gunman firing from behind. In Mr. Lifton's words, the body became a "medical forgery."
In November 1963, Mr. Lifton was a graduate student in physics at UCLA. When the Abraham Zapruder home movie of Kennedy's being shot came to light, he says on the tape, the initial backward snap of the president's head proved to him "scientifically" that at least one shot came from the front. His reading of the Warren Commission report led him to question the rampant contradictions between the observations of the Dallas doctors and the Bethesda autopsy.
Much of the video is devoted to interviews Mr. Lifton conducted in 1980 with medical workers who were neglected by the Warren Commission. In "60 Minutes" style, the editing shifts back and forth between Aubrey Rike, a Dallas funeral attendant, and Paul O'Connor, a Navy medical technician. The Dallas witness says he wrapped the body in a sheet and helped place it in a ceremonial bronze casket. But Mr. O'Connor says the body arrived in a cheap shipping casket and was zipped inside a body bag.
Furthermore, Mr. O'Connor says the plain casket arrived at the hospital's rear entrance 20 minutes before a Navy ambulance and escort with Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy appeared at the main entrance in front of TV cameras. Mr. O'Connor was told at the time there was a second, fancier casket being brought in for "security reasons," and he and other workers were sworn to silence in a written statement that threatened them with court-martial.
Mr. O'Connor and Jerrol Custer, an X-ray technician, also tell Mr. Lifton that when the corpse was uncovered, there was a "gasp in the room" because the brain was absent from the cranium. Mr. Lifton argues it was secretly removed to extract bullet fragments and later replaced.
"Best Evidence" is a genuinely disturbing document. Despite the incredible claims of body-tampering, Mr. Lifton and his witnesses seem level-headed and quite convincing. Mr. Lifton even bolsters his theory with actual autopsy photos of Kennedy (obtained, he says, from a former Secret Service agent) that point out the differences between the Dallas medical sketches and the actual condition of the body.
These were published in his book, but this is their first use on video. Be warned that the photos may be too strong for some viewers.