A decade after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a small group of University of Virginia students convinced Congress to reopen its investigation and determine if a conspiracy was behind the assassination.
In 1975, those students saw something remarkable: The Zapruder film in slow motion.
“When you slowed it down, you could see movement that typically you wouldn’t have necessarily picked up by watching it at its regular pace,” said Mike Holm, who was then a senior at UVa.
That movement was the president’s head jerking backwards as if he had been shot from the front. Lee Harvey Oswald was behind him.
“Just about everyone believed we would prove there was a conspiracy involving more than one gunman,” said Andy Purdy, another of the students, who was then a second-year law student at the university.
Purdy and Holm first showed the slowed-down film to members of the Virginia delegation to Congress. Then, over a year, they showed the film and circulated a legal brief they wrote to more than 200 other members of Congress.
They got a congressional committee to re-open the investigation, and Purdy was named to head up the investigation into the medical evidence.
“We created a panel of nine forensic pathologists,” Purdy said. “We went to the National Archives and investigated and looked, actually, at the autopsy photographs and X-rays. My colleagues and I interviewed all the doctors that were at Parkland Hospital treating the president.”
For more than two years they pored over the evidence, convinced that it would crack open the Warren Commission findings, which pointed to just Oswald.
In the end, their panel of experts agreed with the original findings.
“Eight of the nine forensic pathologists said they believed the shots came from the back, Purdy said. “They did not see evidence that there was more than one gunman whose bullets struck the president.”
The lone pathologist who disagreed said a shot did come from a second gunman in front but it went into the same bullet hole created by a previous shot from behind.
Holm and Purdy thought that was impossible.
“If you’re in the grassy knoll … how could you fire and miss?” Purdy said. “That’s a great shot.”
And what about the president’s head jerking backwards on the Zapruder film?
“You look at the film at normal speed, it’s more of an impact thing,” Purdy said. “When you look at it in slow motion it’s this whole, exaggerated kind of movement, and you say, ‘Oh, that had to come from the front,’ but when you’re looking at full speed and you talk to eight of the nine forensic pathologists who examined it, they say it came from the back.”
If it was a conspiracy, there is no evidence to prove it, but 50 years later, the conspiracy theories persist.
“People want to believe that these major tragedies that occurred in our history – President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King – they want to believe that there is some greater purpose, some malevolent force that would have an impact on history rather than some arbitrary, semi-minor figure in life by himself changing the course of our history,” Purdy said.