A Review at the National Archives of the ARRB enhancements of the exposed roll of 120 Ektachrome E3 film from the JFK autopsy

On November 23, 2015, authorized by Senator Paul Kirk acting for the Kennedy family, I visited the National Archives at College Park.  My intent was to review and re-study the original JFK autopsy materials, as well as the autopsy photographs made from the exposed roll of 120 Ektachrome E3 autopsy film. These enhanced photos were created by Kodak for the ARRB in 1998 and they produced images that had been recorded – but were not seen by anyone since the night of the autopsy in 1963.

Burke Marshall, representing the Kennedy family, initially granted me access to NARA's then-existing materials by virtue of my status as a board certified diagnostic radiologist with a historical interest in the assassination. I viewed them several times during the early and mid 90's.  The impetus for this recent visit was to see if these newly available pictures could, or could not, provide some degree of validation of the authenticity of the original materials.  As they were taken at the same time but never seen, they could also be important in determining whether or not there were photographs that had been altered, forged, or disappeared.  The Deed of Gift specifically prohibits the reproduction of any of the autopsy materials including the newly available photos made by Kodak for the ARRB. While representative photos of the originals are in the public domain, the newly available photos are not and will most likely never be in the public domain. I present my observations in written format which can only describe in broad brushstrokes the photographic detail I have seen with my own eyes.

These 120 Ektachrome E3 color photos of the President were taken in the early stages of the autopsy the night of November 22, 1963. Shortly after the photos had been taken, the film was deliberately exposed to light by Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman in order to destroy them. The photographs were then deemed un-viewable. Thirty five years later in 1998, at the request of ARRB, Kodak was able to digitize and enhance the first three frames of the roll of 120 Ektachrome E3 film using then-state of the art technology. A few members of the ARRB have seen these images.

Left Profile

I was able to determine that these three frames are consecutive because of their overlaps and the dark intervening bands that appeared between each frame. These photos were determined to be the first three on the film by the large length of black preceding the first frame which was several times wider than the black inter-frame width between the other images. The images were printed on paper in color and in one instance black and white.  None of them contain information that enables a forensic diagnosis.  Unlike the original multiple photos taken at the same time with the 4X5 Graphic film - in color and B&W - the three frames from the 35 mm camera loaded with the #120 color film consist of only a single photo for each shot, and each mirrored the positioning of the President as seen in three 4x5 Graphic original photos.  From this I inferred that both photographers, Stringer and Riebe, began photographing from the left side of the autopsy table and continued counterclockwise around the table.  None of the photographs show a Y incision. None show a change in body position between the photos.

The first 120 film photo, designated A3.02, was taken from the left side of the head from a position further away toward the foot of the table, and from a slightly steeper angle, than the 4X5 Graphic photos. It shows a towel across the lower abdomen, the tracheotomy wound, JFK’s face and upper torso, and his arms at his sides.  The bilateral incisions for the chest tubes are visible. Chest hair is visible. The President's head rests on the metal support with his hair and facial features appearing as they did in the previously available photos. The towels are unchanged in position. In the dark depths of the photo a portable x-ray machine appears in the background on the far right side of the table, and someone's hand is visible to the left side of this machine in the picture. The printed picture is dark and grainy with a sepia tint, giving the overall appearance of a photo taken by candlelight. I saw no discrepancies between the gross features seen on these newly available 120 film pictures -- and the original 4X5 Graphic pictures also made at the same time the night of the autopsy.

None of them contain information that enables a forensic diagnosis.

Photo #2 in the sequence, designated A2.02 shows the top of the head from a perspective just slightly different than that taken by the 4X5 Graphic camera. This image was the least clear for several reasons. First, it was inexplicably and inexcusably printed in negative format.  This is obvious because a band of dark color on this image was reversed to light where there was overlap between this second and the subsequent third frame. I don't know the nature of this band, but it extends from the mid-upper portion of the photograph to the high upper right hand corner, and is similar to a ribbon crossing the upper right hand corner of the page of a book. There is no way that this band could be obscuring forensic findings. Peculiarly, #2 has an overall light blue hue. I am certainly not a photographic expert, but I question whether this photo was generated using only the blue filter-scanning channel because, for some unexplained reason, it apparently does not include the red and green spectrum. It appears that JFK’s nose and right cheek are visible at the top of the photo.  Beneath this is his damaged head in very poor resolution, but there are strands of hair visible on the periphery in a manner consistent with the 4X5 Graphic photos.  Again this printed picture is of very poor quality of an almost intentional nature.  Without foreknowledge of the original photos, these observations would be difficult to make.  I have been told by James Toner, who worked on the project for Kodak, that the full digital data set could provide images of greater clarity than has been printed on paper for review.

Top of the Head

The third photo, designated A1.02, is of a quality comparable to the first photo. It is also somewhat sepia-toned, dark and grainy and looks as though it was taken by candlelight. There are actually two prints of this same photo. The second is designated B4.02 and is printed in black and white, but contains the exact same perspective and information. These prints show a towel across the lower abdomen, and the upper chest and torso is visible, as is the tracheostomy wound and bilateral incisions for chest tubes. Chest hair is visible. The head remains supported by the metal holder. The hair and facial features remain essentially unchanged as does the large flap of scalp hanging from the rear of the head. The towels are unchanged in position. I am unable to resolve the blood droplets on the towel beneath the head. As for the two previous photos, I saw no discrepancies between this photo and the numerous 4X5 Graphic photos I had previously seen multiple times in color and black and white. In the background on the left side of the autopsy table is what appears to be a little fence of vertically spaced round metal bars somewhat similar to those used in crowd control. This is the last latent image on this roll of film. Later photos taken only with the 4X5 Graphic camera do not show the large flap of scalp hanging downward near the midline but instead show this flap having been manually returned to its original anatomic position covering the defect in the underlying bone.

The original data for the scans is stored on JAZ storage cartridges which the Archives can’t access at this time due to technical obsolescence. A thorough evaluation of all three of these prints should be undertaken and accomplished by properly digitizing and enhancing them with 21st century technology or, at minimum, the original Kodak data should be made available in its entirety.  Certainly either process could generate images much improved over the three single images that were printed on paper - one in negative mode. The National Archives was not involved in the decision process determining how these three images were to be printed. Future enhancements may improve these images but these will not detect any discrepancies because it is an inescapable conclusion that two different cameras were both capturing at the same time the condition of the President’s body at the start of the autopsy. None of the staff of the ARRB who have seen these images has gone on record as seeing any discrepancies between these and the originals.

It is clear that these most recently processed 120 images were intended to be forensic, but I found no significant new forensic findings in any of them and no discrepancies between these newly available original photos and those I had seen in the 90’s -- and on this same date in 2015 . But the mere nature of these newly available photos raises interesting questions.  Chief photographer John Stringer and his assistant Floyd Riebe have testified that Riebe, with a camera loaded with a roll of 120 Ektachrome E3 film, was taking general photos of those in attendance in the room to provide historical documentation. These three photographs mirror the same perspectives and relative distances from the body captured by the 4X5 Graphic camera. It is clear that these 120 photos only partially and incidentally included only one out of focus individual observing the autopsy in contradiction to Stringer and Riebe’s contention that these were primarily intended to show individuals observing the autopsy.

Right Superior Profile

•  Did the autopsy doctors request Stringer and Riebe to take these 120 Ektachrome E3 photographs in order to retain a copy for their own use knowing that the Secret Service was going to have possession of all the 4X5 Graphic film holders during the period when the written autopsy results were being completed? 

•  Did Stringer and Riebe both purposely mislead official investigators to hide the fact that forensic photos had been destroyed?  Or were they taking an additional set of forensic photos exclusively for the autopsy team, even knowing that this would conflict with Agent Kellerman’s desire to retain all photos? Or did Kellerman believe that Reibe was taking pictures with his own camera for personal use or profit? Could this have been the reason for the confrontation between Kellerman and Riebe?

•  Kellerman was present when Riebe took additional photos with this same 35 mm camera, but flashed Riebe’s roll of 120 film to light after only three photos had been taken. It could not have been motivated by their content because Kellerman must have seen that the 4X5 Graphic camera had recorded these same views in both color and black and white. In fact the Secret Service did go on to process Riebe's roll of exposed 120 film to verify that its images had been destroyed. Unfortunately, the motivations for Stringer and Riebe to obfuscate about the nature of these photos, and the impetus for Kellerman’s early attempt to destroy these redundant images remains unknown.

•   Although the autopsy team claimed film taken that night contained exposures of the interior of the chest and the beveling of the skull at the entry point, the documentary and photographic record does not support that any such photographs were taken by either camera. Contemporaneous Secret Service receipts and F.B.I. notes both recorded the same number of film holders. Any alleged additional photographs would had to have bypassed this inventory process. F.B.I. agents Sibert and O’Oneill’s report incorrectly stated that 5 exposures were contained on the roll of exposed 120 film.

I found no . . . discrepancies between these newly available original photos and those I had seen in the 90’s — and on this same date in 2015 .

•   A clear conclusion is that none of the photos, old or new, support Parkland physician Dr. Robert McClelland’s diagrammatic representation of the wound to the back of the President’s head. Both sets of photos, taken at the same time the night of the autopsy but only seen and comparable after 35 years, show a large contiguous flap of scalp hanging from the rear of the head. This contiguous flap of scalp, situated near the midline, had to originate anatomically from the top right rear of the head. Dr. McClelland’s diagram, taken from memory, shows a complete absence of scalp in this same area and reveals no recollection on his part of this large flap of scalp seen on the autopsy photos. The autopsy radiographs and photographs clearly delineate the true extent of underlying bone loss.  The documented bone loss in the rear of the head is in actuality higher than in Dr. McClelland’s diagram and is much more faithfully represented by Ida Dox’s HSCA diagram determined from the photographs and radiographs.

Scalp Manually Returned to
Original Position

•  Ultimately, we still don't know why Agent Kellerman deliberately exposed the film, or whether this was his sole decision.  It would seem to have been quick and rash -- because the film could have easily been processed, and any photos not desired in the historic record could have been easily removed. This would have been a much simpler process than the alleged altering or forging the photographs and documentary record at a later time.

•  The apparent disparities between my memories and the films are based on the incidental findings in the un-cropped background portions in the original photographs that aren’t in the public domain. Despite Kodak’s skillful digitization, enhancement and enlargement, all other findings between the sets of photographs remain unchanged.  Between my visits to view the original materials in the 1990s and this visit, I have only been able to study further those autopsy photographs found in the public domain.  From a personal perspective, it's been disconcerting to find that some of my recollections of the films I examined closely 20+ years ago differed from the photographs I've just studied. It is not that the photographs have changed or been altered over the years. It is just that my memory, like most, is fallible and not photographic.

In summary, after having reviewed the entirety of the autopsy photographs and x-rays, I believe that there are three major conclusions:

I can attest with absolute conviction that all these materials are authentic and unchanged since they were taken the night of the autopsy.

#1. Autopsy photographers Stringer and Riebe, intentionally misled official governmental investigators about the true forensic nature of the images contained on the roll of exposed 120 film. Their motivation, as well as that for Kellerman’s early attempt to destroy these duplicative images, remains unknown.

#2. Parkland physician Dr.Robert McClelland and many others were mistaken in their memories as to the exact size and nature of the wound to the back of the President’s head, as it appears in Dr. McClelland’s diagrammatic depiction. Both the original autopsy photographs and radiographs show the actual extent of the wounds.  This does not impugn the veracity of any other observations that Dr. McClelland has made.

#3.  Again, the original photographs and radiographs provide a degree of fidelity unchallengeable by any eyewitness attempts to describe the wounds to the President’s head in any manner. There are no internal discrepancies between the original and newly available photographs taken at the same time during the autopsy, or between any of the individual photographs or radiographs. Two cameras were simultaneously recording the true condition of the President’s body at the start of the autopsy. 

I can attest with absolute conviction that all these materials are authentic and unchanged since they were taken the night of the autopsy.

Randolph Robertson M.D. November 2015