Eyewitness testimony, memory, and assassination research

Dennis Ford, Ph.D.* and Mark Zaid, Esq.**
Copyright 1993
Proceedings of the Second Research Conference of The Third Decade
, Pages 21–40
Omni Biltmore Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island, June 18–20, 1993

Between four to five hundred witnesses awaited President Kennedy’s arrival in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. Few probably expected what lay ahead. Of these eyewitnesses to the murder of the century, less than two hundred testified on record as to what they observed or heard.[1] Since then many additional witnesses have come forward and as the years passed many eyewitnesses have told their stories to family, friends, journalists and researchers. Some have even entered the foray of assassinologists and published their views on what was seen, heard and occurred that fateful Fall day in November.[2]
Were multiple gunmen present in Dealey Plaza? Did the shots originate from the School Book Depository Building, the Grassy Knoll or perhaps both or neither? How many shots were heard? Who were the unidentified men in the railroad parking lot described only as Secret Service Agents? Were photographs and films of the assassination confiscated by government agents? Depending upon the eyewitness these questions may have extremely different answers.
Yet since many researchers have placed their undivided attention and trust into the recollections of these witnesses entire theories rest solely upon these perceptions. Unfortunately, few people understand the dangers involved with relying on witness testimony and so often accept reports to be accurate. After all, the researcher will assert, that eyewitness was on the scene and is certainly in a better position to describe the events as they occurred than an investigator who was hundreds of miles away. But this confidence in the accuracy of eyewitness testimony—the “sacred element of evidence”—is contradicted by proven experimental data accumulated and verified by one hundred years of research undertaken by teams of psychologists and attorneys.[3]
Studies have demonstrated that eyewitness testimony is, in fact, extremely unreliable. “Research and courtroom experience provide ample evidence that an eyewitness to a crime is being asked to be something and do something that a normal human being was not created to be or do … to play the role of tape recorder on whose tape the events of the crime have left an impression.”[4] It is therefore a topic that must not be ignored, particularly in light of the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination. As more and more time passes eyewitness accounts will become more difficult to verify thus necessitating a higher degree of scrutiny than has previously been occurring within the research community.
Quite clearly the exclamation of a witness declaring, without a doubt in their mind, that a particular person was the perpetrator that they witnessed at the scene of a crime has a profound effect on a listener. Based on the sole testimony of even but one witness countless alleged offenders have been found guilty.[5] But while the unreliability of such evidence is now widely accepted among attorneys and psychologists, the average person on the street—the Kennedy researcher—continues to embrace most witness statements as unequivocally accurate.[6] Strangely, while the research community displays a healthy skepticism towards evidence produced by the Warren Commission or the FBI, this doubt nearly completely disappears in the face of a witness whose allegations point towards a possible conspiratorial plot. Why?
Many researchers might disagree with this article’s premise that witness statements have cause such a profound impact on their conclusions. What must be demonstrated, therefore, is the persuasive power eyewitness testimony has on people when they voluntarily listen to testimony and then attempt to reach a conclusion. For example, consider the following study undertaken by a preeminent psychologist:

      [M]ock jurors were given a description of a grocery store robbery in which the owner and his granddaughter were killed. The jurors also received a summary of the evidence and arguments presented at the defendant’s trial, after which each juror was asked to arrive at a verdict of guilty or not guilty.
Some of the jurors were told that there had been no eyewitnesses to the crime. Others were told that a store clerk had testified that he had seen the defendant shoot the two victims, although the defense attorney claimed he was mistaken. Finally, a third group of jurors heard that the store clerk had testified to seeing the shootings, but that the defense attorney had discredited him by showing that the clerk had not been wearing his glasses on the day of the robbery and that his vision was too poor to allow him to see the face of the robber from where he stood.
In the first instance, where there was no eyewitness, 18% of the jurors felt that the defendant was guilty. This rose to 72% when a single eyewitness account was added to the evidence. Interestingly, in the example above where the eyewitness had been substantially impeached, 68% of the jurors still voted to convict. The study suggests the extent to which jurors [or researchers, perhaps] will believe even contradicted eyewitness testimony.[7]

      The first section of this article will present an outline of the “memory model.” This model serves as the psychological basis for the analysis of eyewitness testimony. The second section will discuss how and why the principles of memory affect the study of the assassination. Finally, the concluding section will apply these principles to the statements of an actual eyewitness to the tragedy. However, it must be noted that this article serves neither to refute or support the notion of a conspiracy. Nor does it accuse any specific witnesses of lying or fabricating their stories. Quite the contrary, it is likely that the witness truly believes the events happened as described yet fails to realize the role their own mind has played in continuously shaping their memory.[8]
This article strongly suggests to the research community that a greater degree of analytical evaluation of witness statements is necessary rather than the typical face-value acceptance observed for so long.[9] In the same way that events in Dealey Plaza must conform with physical laws, so they must comply with psychological laws. Researchers should not place themselves in a position of having to rely on eyewitness accounts without understanding the dynamics which may create and distort such accounts. At the very least, consideration of such factors might provide a standard by which the innumerable statements in this case—whether favorable to conspiracy theories or to the belief of a lone gunman—might be fairly and skeptically evaluated.

A. The Memory Model
Memory is the persistence of experience over time.[10] It is a complex phenomenon which includes the capacity to acquire, retain and retrieve information. Each of these capacities operates within three separate storage systems: (a) the sensory register, (b) short-term memory, and (c) long-term memory.
The sensory register is a brief (one second) and thorough “registering” of events. The fundamentals of such a process fall outside of the scope of this article for it has been identified only though the use of specialized laboratory equipment. Although it is always operative this system is not what most people identify as “memory.”
Short-term memory is a brief (20 second) and limited (five–nine pieces of information) storage of data. Data is retained in short-term memory by repetitive rehearsal. Common examples include the retention of pieces of conversation or your anguished efforts to memorize a telephone number just given to you by the operator.
Long-term memory consists of a lengthy duration and sports an enormous capacity. Information need not be rehearsed when in long-term memory, but must acquire its place through an elaborative rehearsal in which new information is associated with previously acquired information. Such a function is an active, effortful process rather than a passive or automatic process. If long-term memory is conceptualized as a house with many entries, elaborative rehearsal would be the main door to the house. Notwithstanding the fact that sometimes information comes in through the windows most of what enters does so by way of the main door.
The process of retrieval is also an active process. It is often pictured as a search through one’s memory—usually, long-term memory. The process of retrieval is perhaps best observed when it fails, as in the “tip-of-the-tongue dilemma” experienced by us all when we cannot recall a specific item yet know we know it.
Retrieval is often studied in terms of states and contexts. State-dependent memories are retrievable only when the person is in the same psychological state as when the information was acquired. The classic example involves the consumption of alcohol but more common are subtle examples involving emotions. Context-dependent memories are retrievable only when the person is in the same physical environment as when the information was originally acquired. In a manner not clearly understood, context-dependent memories become linked to the setting in which the experiences took place. Examples include “revisiting the scene of the crime” or returning to a childhood home where the mere structure and scenery evoke recollections otherwise not previously available.
Most forgetting of newly learned information occurs within twenty-four hours after acquisition. The process of forgetting previously acquired information occurs at a slower rate. Forgetting, or the loss of information, can occur at various places along the memory model.[11] Events may not have entered short-term memory because the temporal or storage limitations were exceeded. It is possible that repetitive rehearsal encountered a form of interference. Events may have entered short-term memory but not long-term memory because elaborative rehearsal may have suffered such interference. Then again events many have entered long-term memory successfully yet still be inaccessible due to state or context failure. The presence of other memories may also have caused interference.
Modern psychology views interference as the major cause for forgetting. Two types of interference are generally recognized: “proactive,” or the interference of older memories on the recall of recently acquired information, and “retroactive,” or the interference of recently acquired information on the recall of older memories. Interference is a fundamental process in the construction of blended memories where the retrieval of one event mixes in and is distorted by other memories. The effects of both forms of interference are conjectured to become stronger as the passage of time increases between the original experience and recall of the experience.
For instance, retroactive interference should be considered as a factor in the sightings of Oswald before the assassination.[12] That is not to say that such sightings did not occur—at such locations as the Carousel Club, a rifle range, a car dealership, etc.—but it is to suggest that some of the details may have been inserted into memory at a later time. Certainty about the identity of Oswald may have been clarified only when his appearance became known after the assassination. Normally people do not retain details of insignificant encounters, but rehearse only what is required at a particular moment and then rapidly forget the information.
Although memory for faces may persist for a lengthy time, it is unlikely that memory of the specifics of the conversation would persist for weeks or months afterward.[13] Since the latter part of the nineteenth century it has been known that the loss of information obtained through verbal communication occurs almost immediately after acquisition. Concepts such as these are more fully explored in the next section.

B. Application to Research on the Assassination of President Kennedy
There are several misconceptions about memory that have a direct effect on the study of President Kennedy’s assassination. First, it is generally assumed that the more violent the crime, the more likely a witness will be able to remember the details. Most people of age can remember exactly where they were when Kennedy was shot. They can recall not only what they were doing, but the emotions they felt and with whom they were shared.[14] However, studies have demonstrated that witness accuracy is consistently poorer in violent or stressful situations [See Addendum A].
It has been theorized that a mental shock disrupts the process necessary for full storage of memories.[15] Another postulation is that in situations where emotions run high, such as would occur during a violent assassination, people tend to become more distracted, more self-preoccupied[16] or more worried.[17]
Second, the more stressful the perception the less likely the witness will be able to accurately judge the length of time that passed during the event. The assassination of President Kennedy occurred during a time frame of 4.8 to 7.9 seconds. Witnesses are always asked, among other things, to describe the actions of themselves and/or others during and after the shooting and the length of time that elapsed during shots. But how accurate are witnesses likely to be in their descriptions—not very, particularly in light of the complexity and violence surrounding the assassination.[18]
Studies have shown witnesses are likely to overestimate the duration of the event by twice the amount and greater, especially in situations where the event was of a very short duration.[19] One study involving a simulated bank robbery even resulted in witnesses describing a thirty second event as having taken fifteen minutes![20] Therefore, we must be wary of those witnesses that have connected a happenstance that appears to be of significant importance because it might actually have occurred minutes or even hours later.
In fact, one study conducted provides fascinating insight into the accuracy of eyewitness identification. A staged assault of a professor was held in front of 141 unsuspecting witnesses and videotaped for subsequent evaluation. Immediately after the incident sworn statements were taken from everyone detailing everything they remembered. Most were inaccurate when compared to the videotape. The elapsed duration of the assault was overestimated by two and a half to one. The attacker’s weight was overestimated by an average of 14% and his age was underestimated by 2 years. Most enlightening, however, was that after seven weeks 60% of the witnesses, including the professor himself, identified the wrong man as the attacker from a group of photographs. 25% identified an innocent bystander as the culprit.[21]
Third, we are often faced with having to reconcile known facts with the determined confidence of witnesses statements. Was Jack Ruby really in Dealey Plaza? Did Lee Harvey Oswald leave from the rear of the building in a Nash Rambler?[22] The fact is that there is little or no relationship between the confidence of a witness and the accuracy of their statements. This raises several issues. What is the effect of supplemental experiences upon a witness’s memory and for what extent of time does accuracy in remembering details really last?
These questions should be of the greatest importance to Kennedy researchers when making their determinations as to a witness’s accuracy. Clearly, one must accept the fact that many witnesses’ memories have become tainted over the years by newspaper accounts, television documentaries and even the researchers themselves. By the time witnesses were testifying before the Warren Commission members and staff, mere months after the occurrence of the assassination, witnesses were indicating they were unsure of whether certain facts had come to their attention because of the media or were bonafides memories of their own.[23]
Various witnesses over the years have been “taken under the wing” of assassination authors and researchers and have more than likely endlessly discussed the many mysteries of what occurred during the events surrounding the assassination. Ten, twenty, now thirty years later, when they tell their stories, are they really theirs or are they ours?
New information can do more than supplement a memory it can serve to alter it as well. In fact, the mere use of a word can distort a witness’s recollection.[24] One study had students witness a filmed auto accident and answer various questions. “The subjects estimated a higher speed when the question, ‘About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’ was asked than they did when the verb ‘smashed’ was replaced with the verb ‘collided,’ ‘bumped,’ ‘contacted,’ or ‘hit.’ When tested one week later, those subjects who had been given the verb ‘smashed’ were more likely to answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Did you see any broken glass?’—even though broken glass was not present in the film.”[25] Consider for a moment how many researchers have noted that the Warren Commission attorneys continuously led witnesses with highly leading and persuasive questions.
Yet witnesses also distort their own memories.[26] Again, a variety of reasons may exist for this to occur. For one thing, witnesses are affected by their own internal thoughts, wishes and desires. People often wish to place themselves into a better light or help contribute to an important project such as solving the assassination of a President. This does not have to be done purposefully nor does it have to be even consciously noticed by the witness. In these situations it is virtually impossible to determine which memories are real and which are not.[27]
Unfortunately, memories are not in place forever. The passing of time, rather than serving to burn a memory in place, lessens the likelihood that the memory will be retrieved with as much accuracy as before (Addendum B). As the assassination now took place thirty years ago, this fact is important to consider. But even more crucial is that there is significant memory loss after several years or even months. One study examined the ability of eyewitnesses to recall a distinct face.[28] The subject was professors who had taught a class of approximately forty students for two weeks, one year, four years, or eight years prior to the study. In the test design chance accuracy was 20%. After two weeks the accuracy of the identification was at 69%, after one year it dropped to 48%, at four years it was 31% and after eight years it was just above chance at a mere 26%.[29] Thus, even though these students had viewed the same professor for weeks on end, after several years the accuracy of their memory was not much better than if a stranger attempted to identify their professor.
How many people have identified Oswald as having been in a particular place, at a particular time, doing a particular activity? How many of those had never seen Oswald before and would not see him again until they identified him for the record? Why do we accept these stories as definitive facts when “[w]ith a single encounter lasting a brief period, the [memory] trace has been estimated to be effectively gone in less than a year.[30] Recall for a moment that many witness identifications of Oswald stemmed from chance encounters months prior to the time Oswald was thrust into the limelight. Few of these meetings exhibit any noticeable reasons why a witness should be able to accurately identify Oswald in a definitive manner so many months later.[31]
Of course the accuracy of memory is only just one area of witness reliability that must be understood by assassination researchers. We must also be cognizant of the ability witnesses possess to accurately identify the source of a sound. Rather than eyewitnesses, these persons are ear witnesses, a field of study that has not received nearly as much attention as the studies previously discussed. However, the importance of such witnesses can not be underestimated for the question of the origins of each of the shots fired in Dealey Plaza remains a hotly debated topic to this day.[32]
The official interpretation of the origin of the shots, of course, remains that they were fired from above and to the left rear of the motorcade. Hence, depending upon where a bystander was positioned the shots would have been heard from either the left or right but always from above. Other theories, particularly those that include shots fired from the grassy knoll, factor in sound impulses as originating at ground level from either the left or right. Unless, regardless of the theory, the witness was situated in a position in front of or behind the location of origin. This would include such witnesses, for example, as Mary Moorman and Gordon Arnold for shots occurring from the grassy knoll and Howard Leslie Brennan and Amos Euins for shots fired from the Depository Building.
Witnesses are generally very adept at locating the source of a sound if it originated from the left or right of the person. This is due to the fact that a “person’s ability to determine the direction of a sound is rooted in the time differential as the sound wave strikes the ear closer to the source of the sound and then the more distant ear.”[33] Of course, other factors may interfere with this ability—i.e., the existence of a cold or hearing impairment. In fact, the witness may not even be aware of this impairment. But, most importantly to the context of assassination research, the ability of a person to accurately distinguish sounds originating from above or below or to the front or the back is very poor.
When such an incident occurs people unconsciously rely on their higher order stratagems for determining the origin of the sound. Essentially, they choose a location that appears to make the most sense to them in relation to their other sensory perceptions.[34] Therefore, if a witness standing directly across from the picket fence hears a shot and then sees a person running from or to that area that witness might come to the unconscious decision that the shots originated from the picket fence. The witness, unaware of the role her other senses played, would continue to believe that she heard the shot coming from the fence.
The American public was originally led to believe that the evidence in favor of Oswald’s culpability in the assassination was highly incriminating and originated from several sources. Over the years, officials, whether they were police officers or part of a government investigation, have pointed to the discovery of Oswald’s palm print (and possibly his fingerprints) on the alleged murder weapon, information obtained from Oswald’s alleged diary, and, most often, eyewitness accounts implicating Oswald in the assassination. During the trial of Claw Shaw in 1967–69 by the late Jim Garrison, formerly the District Attorney of New Orleans, the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness, Perry Russo, was largely brought forth under hypnosis and utilized polygraph tests as supporting evidence. To what extent then, we must ask, do such factors as fingerprint identification, handwriting analysis, hypnosis and eyewitness identification play a role in persuading “objective” researchers? One such study attempted to answer this question.
Mock jurors were presented testimony involving a hypothetical cashing of a bad check. The defendant was accused of purchasing a television set by check knowing that insufficient funds existed to cover such a purchase. Four separate groups of jurors were created each of which were told numerous details about the case. But one specific critical fact, of which there were four different ones, were separately presented to each of the groups. The first group was informed that an eyewitness (the store clerk who had sold the television) had identified the defendant. Group two was told that a polygraph expert had tested the defendant and, in their opinion, the defendant was lying. The third set of jurors heard that a fingerprint expert had matched prints left on the counter to those of the defendant. Lastly, the final group was given the results of a handwriting analysis of the defendant that was compared to the check. Both signatures were a perfect match.
When the conviction results from each of the groups were tabulated based upon the one distinct fact presented to each group, the results were as follows. Group one came back with the highest rate of conviction—78% The lowest was that of group four, who possessed the handwriting analysis, at a mere 34%. Fingerprint evidence and polygraph testimony resulted in convictions of 70% and 53% respectively. As demonstrated by most studies, actual witness testimony is most persuasive.[35]
Finally, while hypnosis has not been greatly used by assassination researchers, it has certainly played a role in the case, as evidenced by the trial of Clay Shaw and in the use of PSE equipment (which is outside of the scope of this article). Although a few studies have shown that hypnosis can have some beneficial effects on memory recall,[36] most studies have demonstrated that hypnosis rarely, if ever, improves a witness’s memory.[37] In fact, hypnosis sometimes renders people more susceptible to being misled by post-event suggestions as was evidently demonstrated in the case of Perry Russo.[38]

C. Memory Application to the Statements and Recollections of Jean Hill
Of the many witnesses to the assassination Jean Hill provides us with the most ample opportunity to apply the principles of memory recall. This is so because her statements can be effectively traced over the entire thirty year period since the assassination commencing with her initial statement taken on November 22, 1963, to various interviews with authors/researchers during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s through to the publication of her book, JFK: The Last Dissenting Witness in 1992. The final conclusion of the authors is simple and straightforward: Mrs. Hill has developed into one of the most unreliable eyewitnesses and her statements should be discounted or, at least, minimized in their application to future works on the assassination.[39]
This is not to say that Mrs. Hill is being accused of lying. To say that a person’s memory might be false is not synonymous with an accusation that the person is deliberately lying, although that is always a possibility to consider. Rather, it is the conjecture of the authors that the principles previously discussed, particularly the influence that certain researchers have effected upon Mrs. Hill, has led her stories to become unreal or perforated with false memories.
Mrs. Hill was awaiting the arrival of the motorcade with her friend Ms. Mary Moorman on the southeastern area of Elm Street, directly across the street from the grassy knoll. Following the assassination both women were immediately interviewed by a local television station and a reporter from the Dallas Times Herald[40] and eventually were taken to the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office across the street from the Texas School Book Depository Building where her first statement was taken by law enforcement officials.[41]
In that statement Mrs. Hill recollects how she heard two shots ring out before President Kennedy appeared to react followed by three or four more shots until the motorcade sped away. Initially she felt that “men in plain clothes [were] shooting back but everything was such a blur…”[42] Upon directing her attention to across the street “and up the hill I saw a man running toward the monument and I started running over there.”[43] But by the time she reached the railroad tracks policemen turned her away. When she returned to her original location Jim Featherstone, of the Dallas Times Herald, was attempting to obtain the original photographs taken by Ms. Moorman. Mr. Featherstone then took the two of them over to the press room which was down the hall from the Sheriff’s office.[44]
By the time she testifies before Assistant Warren Commission Counsel Arlen Specter on March 24, 1964, her story had already undergone a transition into a more richly detailed and specific account of the event and her actions. In order to best demonstrate the discrepancies within Mrs. Hill’s accounts through the decades four specific instances will be analyzed: (a) the sighting of a dog within the limousine; (b) her chasing of a man up the hill and the encounter with police officers/secret service agents which (c) led to her experience with officials while in the Sheriff’s office; and (d) her current story that she noticed a flash of light, a puff of smoke and a gunman in the act of firing from the knoll or picket fence.
In her first statements to the press and police officials Mrs. Hill mistakenly identifies the flowers Mrs. Kennedy had been given earlier as a little dog;[45] a quote that she quickly regretted as it served as the basis of a significant amount of ridicule, particularly from her estranged husband. The fact that this misidentification occurred does not reflect on the veracity of Mrs. Hill’s other accounts but certainly serves as an excellent example of how easily an eyewitness can be misled when their memory process is overburdened or incomplete.
Not having paid any significant amount of attention towards what was actually placed between the President and Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Hill became the victim of a form of unconscious transference. As she explained to Arlen Specter Mrs. Hill related that because she was aware that Elizabeth Taylor or the Gabor sisters would usually take along small dogs on their trips, evidently her mind assumed that perhaps what she had seen was a dog as well. Unconsciously, her memory of other events fused with what her eyewitness perception was unsure about. Combined together a conclusion, albeit incorrect, was drawn and until shown proof of the error the incorrect conclusion would be retained as the accurate memory. Perhaps it might be simple to overlook this misperception as an honest error, but why should this instance be any less indicative of the problems with memory perception than the details that Mrs. Hill has given supporting the notion of a conspiracy?
What happened behind the picket fence alongside the grassy knoll as President Kennedy’s limousine reached an angle of perpendicularity is perhaps the one piece of information that until explained will always provide pure circumstantial evidence of a conspiracy. Plainclothes men identifying themselves to law enforcement agents and bystanders as agents of the Secret Service where none were known to be stationed does more than just raise harmless suspicions.[46] An attempt by the House Select Committee on Assassinations to uncover these “agents” identities failed and to this day no evidence seems to exist that would lead to an innocent explanation.[47]
The question, therefore, is not whether these men were present, for we know they were, but did Jean Hill suffer a physical altercation with such men or is her recall of such an incident another false memory placed there accidentally over the years by well-wishing researchers?[48] Mrs. Hill had volunteered to the police that she had seen a man “running towards the monument” and, as she told Arlen Specter, she ran up the hill “looking for him” with the hope to capture him.[49] After seeing Oswald himself assassinated by Jack Ruby, Mrs. Hill came to the erroneous conclusion that the man she saw running was Jack Ruby.[50] She later recanted this story after speaking to the FBI and having suffered further ridicule by friends and family members.
But the identification of this “running man” as someone who was involved with the shooting and even perhaps as Jack Ruby is another example of how your mind unconsciously affects your conscious decisions. Because Mrs. Hill’s attention became transfixed on a running figure at a moment where she and many others remained frozen she determined that this person must somehow be involved otherwise he would not be running. This type of unconscious determination often occurs at crime scenes. It is only natural that someone suspects a person who is running away from a crime scene to have been involved, otherwise why would they feel compelled to run if not guilty?[51]
Identifying Jack Ruby as the running man is also understandable as Mrs. Hill apparently merged the two events she witnessed into one since to her this made the most sense. It was this type of misidentification that resulted in the public disclosure of the Mexico Mystery Man photograph as Mrs. Marguerite Oswald, after seeing Jack Ruby subsequent to the shooting of her son, misidentified Ruby as the person in the photograph. The FBI and CIA were compelled to produce the photograph in order to dispel the accusation that Mrs. Oswald was shown a picture of Ruby the day before he killed Lee Harvey Oswald.
Between the time of Mrs. Hill’s public statements on the day of the assassination to the time she was interviewed before Arlen Specter four months later the men who prevented her from completing her trek after the running man underwent a startling transformation; one that would continue to alter throughout the years. Originally these men were “policemen” and from her description to Mr. Specter these officers were in uniform rather than in plainclothes. You might recall that Patrolman J.M. Smith of the Dallas Police Department described the agents whom he encountered as dressed in plainclothes.[52] Mrs. Hill was quite lucid when she declared that the only secret service agents she spoke to was when she was held at the County Courthouse. No story of any altercation on the hill with secret service agents was ever indicated. That is, until the story of unidentified men had become sufficiently publicly known and Mrs. Hill had become the fancy of assassination researchers. By 1988 Mrs. Hill was describing a completely different incident as that probably occurred, at least to her.
Appearing as a guest on Geraldo’s JFK 25th anniversary program Jean Hill told of her heroic attempts to capture the running man and encountering secret service agents demanding she halt her pursuit and turn over copies of photographs within her pocket. When Mrs. Hill rejected this request the man “put some sort of hold” on her neck which was “extremely painful.” After another man joined them and utilized a similar hold on her other shoulder they forced her to accompany them to the Courthouse and smile as if nothing was wrong. In an article written for the anniversary Mrs. Hill was quoted as stating that “a guy in plain clothes came up to me and flashed some I.D. on me. He said he was with the Secret Service. He said, ‘You need to come with me’—and took me over to the Sheriff’s office to question me.”[53] Unfortunately, this scene was memorialized by Oliver Stone in the 1991 film JFK and has led to a dramatic increase in Mrs. Hill’s suggested importance to the conspiracy movement.
Notwithstanding the fact that in 1963–64, when the events were current, Mrs. Hill described how she returned to Ms. Moorman’s side only to find her being hassled by Mr. Featherstone. It was he who directed them both to the press room in the Courthouse but Mrs. Hill now apparently fails to understand the significance in these discrepancies nor has explained them.[54] This is so because she more than likely cannot tell the difference between her true memories and her false memories. Both appear as vivid as the next.
The events that occurred to Mrs. Hill and Ms. Moorman have also been subject to transformation over the years although the premise of the story appears to be based upon actual factual circumstances that have become distorted. After being taken to the courthouse by Mr. Featherstone Mrs. Hill and Ms. Moorman were questioned, and by her account literally harassed, by members of the press and local and federal law enforcement agents over what they had seen, heard and, most importantly, the photographs Ms. Moorman had taken. By her own account:

      I had realized we were in a pressroom and that he [Featherstone] had no right to be holding us and he had no authority and that we could get out of there, and they kept standing in front of the door, and I told him—I said, “Get out.” … And so I jerked away and ran out of the door and as I did, there was a Secret Service man. Now, this I was told—that he was a Secret Service man, and he said, “Do you have a red raincoat?” And, I said, “Yes; it’s in yonder. Let me go.” … He said, “Does your friend have a blue raincoat?” And I said, “Yes, she’s in there.” He said, “Here they are,” to somebody else and they told us that they had been looking for us.[55]

      Apparently, someone was under the impression that Ms. Moorman had been hit by one of the shots. The following discourse then occurred between Mr. Specter and Mrs. Hill:

      Mrs. Hill. [A]nd I talked with this man, a Secret Service man, and I said, “Am I a kook or what’s wrong with me?” I said, “They keep saying three shots—three shots,” and I said, “I know I heard more. I heard from four to six shots anyway.”
He said, “Mrs. Hill, we were standing at the window and we heard more shots also, but we have three wounds and we have three bullets, three shots is all that we are willing to say right now.”
Mr. Specter. Now, did that Secret Service man try to suggest to you that there were only three shots in any other way than that?
Mrs. Hill. That’s all he said to me. He didn’t say, “You have to say three shots”—he didn’t tell me what to say.
Mr. Specter. He didn’t try to intimidate you or coerce you in any way?
Mrs. Hill. No; that’s all he said.[56]

      In 1992, the encounter had taken a dramatic turn as Mrs. Hill herself wrote in her “historical documentation” (of which it is noted that Ms. Moorman’s recollections of the period do not coincide with those of Mrs. Hill):

      “How many shots did you hear?” “I’d say at least four to six. Maybe more.” The man stared coldly at her for a moment. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “You had to be hearing echoes, not shots. We can account for only three bullets, and that means there were only three shots, maximum. The evidence shows they were all fired from a window in a building overlooking the site, not fired from this ‘grassy knoll’ of yours.”
“All I know is I heard more than three shots and at least one of them came from behind the fence at the top of the knoll,” Jean said. “Why are you treating me this way, like I’m a criminal or something? Why do you keep asking me these questions if you don’t want to hear my answers? “Because your answers are wrong—and potentially dangerous,” the interrogator said, “They’ll only confuse matters, and they could cause you a lot of grief if you aren’t careful.” He shook his head in disgust and disbelief.[57]

      Finally, caution must be advised with respect to acceptance of Mrs. Hill’s statements that she witnessed a flash of light, a puff of smoke and a gunman in the act of firing from the knoll or behind the picket fence. Nowhere in any of her written or public accounts during the 1960s is there evidence of any such statements attributed to Mrs. Hill. Yet by 1978, Mrs. Hill was telling stories of seeing smoke “like from a gun” coming from the knoll.[58] Ten years later there was now a distinct individual—a gunmen—behind the fence, according to Jean Hill.[59] The passage of four more years, into 1992, brings the inference, at least publicly, to include a flash of light at the moment of the fatal head shot.[60] But the culmination of her story is recounted in her own book where the dramatic events join together as if the jigsaw puzzle was finally complete: “It was a sight that was destined to haunt her for the rest of her life: A muzzle flash, a puff of smoke, and the shadowy figure of a man holding a rifle, barely visible above the wooden fence at the top of the knoll, still in the very act or murdering the president of the United States.”[61]
This elaboration of detail is exactly opposite of what the memory model predicts—at least in regards to recollections uninterfered with and unblended with subsequent experiences. Part of this elaboration may have involved the motivation to present a coherent account of events: Mrs. Hill, after all, has to account for why she ran towards the knoll.[62] Part may have been due to the real possibility of retroactive interference accomplished through interview-after-interview, some conducted under stressful conditions. Still another plausible reason is the effect those who were sympathetic to the theories of conspiracy had upon her memory over the years.[63]
From the time the shots rang out, a witness’s short-term memory would have been close to or over its storage capacity: four to six shots; details of the appearance of the running man; Mary Moorman’s comments; Mrs. Hill’s encounter with Mr. Featherstone; the massive confusion erupting all around Dealey Plaza, etc. There appears to be precious little opportunity for the kind of elaborative rehearsal necessary to place such details into long-term memory. By her account, Mrs. Hill underwent a remarkable amount of events within a short time span.[64]
Unless Mrs. Hill possesses supernormal memory attributes, she seems not to have been able to engage in either repetitive or elaborative rehearsal. She also seems likely to have suffered interferences of later experiences retroactively on whatever initial recall was present. Furthermore, much in her account can be interpreted in a way that does not violate the known principles of memory. The new and exciting details coming forth during the 1980s and particularly those contained in Mrs. Hill’s book cannot be considered without very, very serious reservations. They directly contradict the inevitable simplification of memories over time and very curiously mimic descriptions of events that more or less came to prominence in the 1980s—a fence assassin replete with muzzle blast where none was before, references to the unproven existence of the figure known as “Badgeman,” suspicious civilians with “secret service” credentials, etc.
It appears that Mrs. Hill is incorporating new revelations about the assassination into her memory framework. It cannot be denied such blends fit but it is of great importance that such details were not elaborated or even mentioned in her earlier statements or during the first fifteen years following the assassination. In fact, many of her statements now not only contradict the official explanation or statements of other eyewitnesses but contradict the most important witness of them all: Jean Hill.

No matter what members of the research community may think of the conclusions of this article, there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that human memories are fallible. There can be no doubt that eyewitnesses, no matter how confident and sincere they may be, can be wrong in their description of an event or a person. And there cannot be any doubt that because of this unreliability innocent people have suffered and the truth has been inadvertently diverted.
“Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but subjective, interpretative realities … it is not fixed and immutable … but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoebalike creature with powers to make us laugh, and cry, and clench our fists. Enormous powers—powers even to make us believe in something that never happened.”[65] This power led one legal text to report that forty-five percent of the convictions that were examined were the result of mistaken eyewitness identification.[66] A 1983 doctoral dissertation estimated that 0.5 percent of people arrested and charged for what the FBI calls “indexed crimes”[67] are wrongfully convicted. While that number appears to be statistically insignificant, it amounts to nearly 10,000 innocent people each year being convicted of a crime they did not commit.[68]
The Statesman Samuel Johnson once wrote “[I]t is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.” If assassination researchers strive to understand the many influences and factors that tend to structure our memories and perceptions, then perhaps one day we may become closer to discovering what happened on November 22, 1963. But if we continue to unequivocally accept the stories that are told by eyewitnesses and allow such stories to be spread without challenge, then perhaps we are destined to remain as “assassination buffs” rather than as “researchers” or “scholars.”

      Postscript: In December of 1992, it was announced that ABC television was developing the television movie “JFK: The Last Dissenting Witness” based upon the book by Jean Hill.


* Professor of Psychology, Kean College, 3247 Kennedy Blvd., Jersey City, New Jersey 07306.
Attorney-At-Law, Albany, New York, 47 South Lake Avenue, Ste. #4, Albany, New York 12203.

[1] Josiah Thompson, Six Seconds in Dallas (1967). On record indicates that the witness either testified before the Warren Commission or its staff or spoke with a law enforcement officer whose report was placed into the Commission’s files. Id. at 26. Of course, since Thompson’s work additional witnesses have come forward.
For example see Jean Hill, JFK: The Last Dissenting Witness (1992) [hereinafter cited as Hill]; Howard Leslie Brennan, Eyewitness To History (1987); Roger Craig, When They Kill A President (1971) (unpublished manuscript).
Katherine W. Ellison & Robert Buckhout, Psychology And Criminal Justice 80 (1981).
Gardner, D.S., 50 J. Crim. L. & Police Sci. 20 (1959) cited in Taylor, Eyewitness Identification 2 (1982).
Consider the results of a study undertaken by the renowned criminal jurist Lord Patrick Devlin in 1973 which involved the use of a lineup. Of 850 individuals chosen from a lineup 82% were eventually convicted before a jury. In 347 of the cases the only incriminating evidence was the identification. Yet the conviction rate in these cases was a resounding 74%. In half of these trials, there was only one witness. Devlin, P., et al., “Report to the Secretary of State for the Home Department of the Departmental Committee on Evidence of Identification in Criminal Cases” (1976), as cited in Taylor, at 3.
One reason perhaps is that because people generally trust their own memories they then often place their trust in the memories of others. Another reason is that people are just not aware of how many different factors influence the accuracy of memory recall. Elizabeth Loftus & Patrick Doyle, Eyewitness Testimony: Civil And Criminal 26 (1987) [hereinafter cited as Loftus & Doyle].
Loftus, “Reconstructing Memory: The Incredible Eyewitness,” 8 Psychology Today 116 (1974) as cited in Loftus & Doyle, supra note 6, at 24. Another interesting study involved a mock crime which witnesses viewed unaware of what was to transpire. The incident, a theft of a wallet, merely lasted a few minutes. Id. Afterwards the witnesses were asked to describe the thief and identify her from a set of photos. A second group of participants acted as jurors and were then told about what had occurred. The “jurors” were to decide which witnesses were correct after watching the witnesses be cross-examined. Id. at 25. The results indicated that the jurors believed the witnesses 80% of the time, yet this was so whether the witness was mistaken in their identification of the criminal or had made a correct observation. It appeared that those witnesses who were highly confident in their testimony were believed more often than those who appeared unsure. However, there is no measurable correlation between the confidence of a witness and their accuracy. Id.
Elizabeth Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony (1979). Dr. Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is considered to be the preeminent pioneer in the field of memory research.
For instance not one of the many conferences, at least in recent years, held in Dallas, Chicago or elsewhere have ever discussed the veracity of the evidence derived from eyewitness testimony whether in support of Oswald’s complicity or against. Even the April 1993 Midwest Symposium on Political Assassinations’ panel convened to discuss exactly this type of evidence failed to mention the unreliability of eyewitness perception.
John P. House, Fundamentals Of Learning And Memory (1991).
“One reason that we forget is that we never store the information we want to remember in the first place. Because we do not pay enough attention to it, it is lost from our memory system in a matter of seconds.” Loftus & Doyle, supra note 6, at 73.
Similar caution must be exercised with respect to the sightings of Ruby in Dealey Plaza.
Deffenbacker, “On the Memorability of the Human Face,” in Aspects of Face Processing (1985) [hereinafter cited as Deffenbacker].
These types of memories are sometimes called “flashbulb memories.” Loftus & Doyle, supra note 6, at 44.
One example of this would be the actions of Bill and Gayle Newman who immediately upon hearing the shots attempted to shield their children by falling to the ground and covering them.
Id. at 46.
For example, eyewitness Emmett Hudson testified that the assassination took place during a span of two minutes. Hearings Before The President’s Commission On The Assassination Of President Kennedy, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.: 1964, Vol. VII at 585 [hereinafter cited as W.C. followed by the volume and page number]. Another witness, J. C. Price, felt the shooting continued for over five minutes. W.C. Vol. XIX at 492.
In one study subjects watched a forty-two second film in which a man was chased away from the scene by a woman. When the subjects were questioned one week later on the average the subjects estimated that the event had lasted about a minute and a half. Id. at 37 citing J. Marshall, Law And Psychology In Conflict (1966).
Loftus & Doyle, supra note 6, at 38 citing Loftus, Schooler, Boone & Kline, “Time Went by so Slowly: Overestimation of Event Duration by Males and Females,” 1 Applied Cognitive Psychology 3 (1987).
Arnolds, Carroll, Lewis & Seng, Eyewitness Testimony: Strategies & Tactics 4 fn. 9 (1984) [hereinafter cited as Arnolds].
As a side note, without passing judgment on the credibility of Deputy Sheriff Roger Craig, while some evidence does exist that special training, such as that undertaken by law enforcement personnel, may assist in the noticing of special details, most studies demonstrate that between lay persons and police the retention of memory is no different. See for example Clifford, “Police as Eyewitnesses,” 36 New Soc’y 176 (1976).
For instance, in her testimony Jean Hill admits that her “story is probably colored by what I have heard.” W.C. Vol. VI at 208.
Even the mannerisms of an interviewer may have an extraordinary impact on a witness’s memory. Depending upon how an interviewer exchanges glances, nods or vocalizes questions may convey a sense of opinion to the witness as to whether the details they are expressing are correct or not. In fact, witnesses many times assume that if a question is not asked the answer is unimportant. That assumption, of course, may be seriously flawed. Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony 90 (1979).
Loftus & Doyle, supra note 6, at 76. Over seventy years of tests have definitively confirmed how persuasive an influence questions can be. Questions such as “Did you see the gun?” or “Did you see the broken headlight?” would more often lead to erroneous “yes” responses than would questions asking “Did you see a gun?” or “Did you see a broken headlight?” Lawyers are well aware of the persuasiveness of their words. This is why the federal rules of evidence does not permit the use of leading questions with witnesses who might be receptive to suggestions (such as their own witness). Leading questions are permitted, however, with hostile witnesses who are more likely to resist the suggestion.
Common everyday examples include: married couples tend to overestimate the extent of their responsibility for household chores; those who have engaged in conversation tend to overestimate the extent to which they contributed to the conversation; and people generally remember themselves as having held a higher level of job, received higher pay, purchased fewer alcoholic beverages, contributed more to charity, taken more airplane trips and raised smarter-than-average children. Loftus & Doyle, supra note 6, at 83.
See Schooler, Gerhard & Loftus, “Qualities of the Unreal,” 12 J. Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition 171–81 (1986).
See Bahrick, “Memory For People,” in Everyday Memory, Actions And Absentmindedness 19 (1983).
Deffenbacker, supra note 13 (emphasis added).
The possibility that an unconscious transference occurred in the witness is also a factor to explore. The term is used to refer to the phenomenon in which a person seen in one situation is confused with or recalled as a person seen in a second situation.
For examples of analyses on the acoustical origins of the shots, see Harold Feldman, Fifty-one Witnesses: The Grassy Knoll (1965); Thompson, Six Seconds In Dallas at 254–71; Letter of James E. Barger, Chief Scientist, Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Inc. to Professor Robert Blakey, Former Chief Counsel, HSCA, dated February 18, 1983, reprinted in full in: Harrison E. Livingstone, High Treason 2 612–617 (1992).
Arnolds, supra note 20, at 85 citing Woodworth & Schlossberg, Experimental Psychology 350 (1958).
Loftus & Doyle, supra note 6, at 25–26.
Geiselman, Fisher, Mackinnon & Holland, “Enhancement of Eyewitness Memory With the Cognitive Interview,” 70 J. Applied Psychology 401 (1985), cited in Loftus & Doyle, supra note 6, at 92.
Orne, Soskis, Dinges & Orne, “Hypnotically Induced Testimony,” in G.L. Wells & E.F. Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony: Psychological Perspectives 171 (1984).
See Milton E. Brener, The Garrison Case 97–109 (1969). But see Jim Garrison, On The Trail Of The Assassins 155–58 (1988).
The authors are indebted to Canadian researcher Peter Whitmey for his meticulous analysis of Mrs. Hill’s statements throughout the years in his work, “Jean Hill—the Lady in Red” (March 23, 1993) (unpublished manuscript) which he was kind enough to share with us.
The interview appeared in the Dallas Times Herald’s late edition on November 22, 1963 at page 17.
Her statement, along with Mary Moorman’s, appears within Decker Exhibit No. 5323, W.C. Vol. XIX at 479.
Id.; Testimony of Jean Hill, W.C. Vol. VI at 214; and Dallas Times Herald, November 22, 1963 at 17.
For example see W.C. Vol. VII at 107 (testimony of Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman); Id. at 535 (testimony of Patrolman J.M. Smith).
The Final Assassinations Report 228–230 (Bantam edition, 1979).
The misconstruction of Mrs. Hill’s memories, or of any of the eyewitnesses’, is certainly not only the fault, deliberate or otherwise, of the research community. Beginning almost immediately following the assassination the media began to address the possibility of other scenarios and many eyewitnesses were faced with never ending requests, and therefore suggestions, for alternative explanations. Mrs. Hill told of one such instance that occurred approximately ten days after the assassination. A television camera crew came to her house and offered her hypothetical situations. Due to this line of questioning Mrs. Hill got “the idea from them, that there was speculation or some reasonable doubt that I—that Oswald did not do all the shooting and that all these shots did not come from the window.” W.C. Vol. VI at 218.
Id. at 213. Mrs. Hill apparently thought that some of the shots she heard were being directed by the secret service towards this running man. She came to this conclusion from “the TV and the movies” because when “somebody shoots at somebody they always shoot back….” Id. at 209. Mrs. Hill’s explanation that she was intent on catching this “suspect,” while certainly possible, does not accord with what might be expected of a young woman and contradicts the literature on diffusion of responsibility in emergencies. See J.M. Darley and B. Latane, “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility,” 8 J. Personality & Soc. Psychology 377–383. It does accord with the movie-like aspect of the testimony.
Mrs. Hill based her identification on the fact that the man “looked a lot like—I would say the general build as I would think Jack Ruby would from that position.” W.C. Vol. VI at 212.
Psychologists have termed these types of occurrences as “event factors”—those factors inherent within a specific event that can alter perception and distort memory. Expectations and anticipations play a large role in these determinations. A tragic example of these types of cases occurred in rural Montana when two young hunters were returning home one evening after hunting for bears. As they were walking they were talking about bears when just off the trail they heard noises and saw a large object. Thinking it was a bear they fired their rifles in that direction. Instead the “bear” was a man and a woman in a yellow tent making love. The woman was killed. When the case was before a jury the jurors could not reconcile how someone could mistake a yellow tent for a bear and found one of the young men guilty on a count of negligent homicide. In the dark and in this young man’s mind, however, it was a bear. Loftus, Witness For The Defense 22 (1991) [hereinafter, Loftus, Defense].
W.C. Vol. VII at 535–37.
Oxford, “Destiny in Dallas,” American Illustrated History, November 1988, at 16.
Although in all fairness to Mrs. Hill she has publicly stated that her testimony, as printed in the Commission Hearings, has been altered.
WC Vol. VI at 220. She then told Mr. Specter that “when we were in the pressroom it was just our own ignorance, really, that was keeping us there and letting the man intimidate us that had no authority.” Id.
Id. at 221 [emphasis added]. It is more likely that these men did not make reference to the number of wounds inflicted upon the President but the fact that only three cartridge shells were found underneath the sixth floor window. In actuality, there was a person telling Mrs. Hill what she should or should not say. It was Mr. Featherstone of the Dallas Times Herald. Id. at 222.
Hill, supra note 2, at 30.
Summers, Conspiracy 61 (1980).
Geraldo (television broadcast November 22, 1988). Mrs. Hill also volunteered the information that it was a rifle blast that came from behind the fence.
Oprah Winfrey (television broadcast 1991); JFK Conspiracy: Final Analysis (Fox television broadcast hosted by James Earl Jones, 1992).
Hill, supra note 2, at 23 [emphasis added].
From her testimony to Arlen Specter and her later accounts one is left with the impression that Mrs. Hill was the only person, besides that of the running man, who ran towards the railroad yards. Of course, this is not true as many photographs and films prove otherwise. In fact, Bond Slide #4 contradicts Mrs. Hill’s statements that she stood her ground firm during the shooting and then immediately ran after this mystery man. The picture clearly shows Mrs. Hill sitting or crouching on the grass after the shots had ceased. Another example of how violent events distort the perception of time and memory.
For instance, as was explained earlier, the mere phrasing of a question might have had an impressive effect upon Mrs. Hill’s recollections. “Did you see the man behind the fence shooting the President, Mrs. Hill?” “Didn’t you see the smoke?”
Sometimes, perhaps, the research community in addition to applying the appropriate physical or psychological laws should also apply the principles of common sense. Why would these events, as described by Jean Hill, have occurred to her and only her? What is it that Mrs. Hill could have seen that no one else did? Exactly what information could she alone possess that would necessitate the threatening of her life? Were there not other eyewitnesses with better vantage points than she? Have there not been other eyewitnesses that have held similar viewpoints? No matter how you view her credibility she is certainly not the “last dissenting witness” to the assassination.
Loftus, Defense supra note 49, at 20.
Id. at 26, citing Borchard, Convicting The Innocent (1932).
These include murder, robbery, forcible rape, larceny, assault and arson.
Id. at 26.