And this year, the event will be joined by Rob Reiner and Alec Baldwin.
This is just the third time the Wecht Institute has delved into the JFK assassination: once in 2003 (to coincide with the 40th anniversary), again in 2013 (to mark the 5oth), and this year on the 60th. Since its founding in 2000, the institute has explored diverse programs on the intersection of forensic science and areas of study such as the collection of digital evidence, adjudicating political violence, mental health, and the law, as well as public safety, social justice, and policing in America’s streets. The whole impetus behind the creation of the institute, says Ben Wecht, Cyril’s son, a former journalist and administrator of the program, “was to achieve a greater marriage between science and law.”
All this began with Cyril Wecht himself, who was born in a small mining town in Pennsylvania to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Russia. He obtained his MD at the University of Pittsburgh and JD from the University of Maryland. He trained as a forensic pathologist while serving in the Air Force.
Wecht forged a path in the study of the JFK assassination that led to many of the discoveries of the key mistakes made during Kennedy’s autopsy (failing to section the back and neck wounds, the destruction of notes, and the inexplicable loss of autopsy photos and X-rays) and the corresponding flaws (some would say deceptions) of the Warren Commission (chief among them: that a single shooter was responsible for the assassination). Wecht presented a paper at the February 1966 convention of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences that was critical of the Warren Report, just a year and a half after the report was issued.
Then, shockingly, in 1972, Wecht discovered that the president’s brain and slides of tissue, taken from the body during the autopsy, were missing from the National Archives. Wecht turned out to be the first critic of the Warren Report to be allowed to examine official autopsy materials. His report of the lost brain landed on the front page of The New York Times.
These bombshell discoveries and extraordinary screwups, whether through malign conduct or otherwise, are the very things that continue to cast doubt on the JFK assassination probe—and trouble people like Reiner and Baldwin.
Rob Reiner says that the revelations about the assassination have come in “dribs and drabs” over the last six decades and that is why people have a hard time placing it all into context. In a Zoom call, he takes me back to his days as a young comedian before he began his career as an actor, director, and producer. He recalls that a couple of years after the Warren Report came out, he and entertainer Joey Bishop’s son, Larry, were performing at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco as an opening act before jazz singer Carmen McRae, when Mort Sahl, the brilliant political satirist, was playing in an adjacent room. Reiner took in Sahl’s act, but instead of his normal political parody, Sahl spoke only of the Warren Report. “That’s all he talked about,” Reiner says. “That they had lied.” That was Reiner’s trigger for further inquiry.
He devoured all the books he could on the assassination. He watched all the documentaries. He eventually found himself in Dallas in Dealey Plaza reconstructing the assassination for his 2016 feature, LBJ, starring Woody Harrelson as President Johnson. “I’ve been to Dealey Plaza many, many times,” he tells me. “I’ve looked at every single angle, actually recreated the event for [the LBJ] film.” In the process of his research for the movie, Reiner ended up speaking to many JFK researchers, people like author Dick Russell (The Man Who Knew Too Much, about Richard Case Nagell), and Gaeton Fonzi, an author and investigative journalist who was hired by the Church Committee and House Select Committee on Assassinations.
Reiner remains in the thick of it. He is currently teaming up with journalist Soledad O’Brien on a 10-part podcast series for iHeartPodcasts titled Who Killed JFK? He has pored over the Zapruder film—the home movie, shot by a Dallas citizen on the route of the motorcade, that inadvertently captured the entire sequence of the assassination.
As Reiner sees it, the telltale frames of that footage indicate that the bullet that hit JFK could not have struck Governor Connally as well. He insists that “the single bullet theory”—which is a key conclusion of the Warren Report—“is where everything falls apart…. If you look at the Zapruder film, the one thing that really is clear is that the bullet that went through Kennedy’s neck didn’t hit Connally, because when you watch the film, you see that the bullet hits Kennedy, goes like this to his throat, and then you see Connally turn to his right and look back to see what’s going on, and then he gets hit. Even Connally himself said, ‘That bullet didn’t hit me.’”