They were born a year apart to Jewish immigrants in rural towns as the Great Depression took hold.
Both served in the Air Force during the Cold War, studied law, went into politics. They nearly served together in the Senate. They wrote books and fought public battles.
Yet 3 centimeters of copper-jacketed lead forever separated Dr. Cyril Wecht of Squirrel Hill and the late Sen. Arlen Specter of Philadelphia.
When gunfire in Dallas 50 years ago this Friday ended the life of President John F. Kennedy, Wecht and Specter were on different professional trajectories.
“What I’ve done and who I am, in Pittsburgh, for better or worse, I don’t think you can link to JFK,” said Wecht, 82, a forensic pathologist who was elected Allegheny County coroner and county commissioner around a decades-long medical-legal consultant business.
Exhibit 399 — the single bullet — made Wecht and Specter national names.
As a junior attorney for the Warren Commission, Specter developed the single-bullet theory of the assassination. He concluded the 161-grain slug fired by Lee Harvey Oswald entered and exited the bodies of Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally a combined seven times as the president’s convertible rolled through Dealey Plaza.
“It began as a theory, but when a theory is established by the facts, it deserves to be called a conclusion,” Specter wrote in his 2000 book, “Passion for Truth.”
Wecht poked holes in the commission’s findings during a 1965 meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He has spent 48 years explaining how Specter’s “conclusion” fails, and with it the commission’s finding that Oswald acted alone in Dallas.
“It was an American conspiracy,” Wecht said. “It was a coup d’etat.”
‘Impossible to explain’
On a recent October night in Oakmont, about 240 people pay $10 each to hear Wecht discuss the case.
Wecht’s voice starts low with a clinical tone. He then starts pacing and describing the president’s horrifying wounds in a louder, staccato style. Halfway through his description of a botched autopsy in Bethesda Naval Hospital, he is yelling.
“How does it grab you as an American citizen?” he asks the crowd that had just heard that two Navy doctors called to examine the leader of the free world had never performed a bullet-wound autopsy.
The crowd gasps upon seeing frame 313 of bystander Abraham Zapruder’s film of the assassination. They murmur when Wecht mentions “a fairly young attorney, a junior legal counsel for the Warren Commission, Arlen Specter.”
They ask, given the evidence he just described, how anyone can believe the commission’s findings.
“It’s impossible to explain,” Wecht said.
“If they heard him talk, everybody would know the truth,” said Jannie Saxon, 48, of Oakmont, one of dozens who asked Wecht to sign their books after the speech.
Case a ‘launching pad’
Wecht said he did not set out to become famous for this case. A series of consultations led to what he called an “unplanned launching pad.”
Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi called Wecht to consult on slain Sen. Robert Kennedy’s autopsy in 1968. Work on other famous cases followed.
Back home, Wecht started his first term as coroner. When he got access to evidence at the National Archives in 1972 and found the president’s brain was missing, a front-page article in The New York Times introduced him to America. So did Geraldo Rivera, who invited Wecht to appear on TV with him for an airing of the Zapruder film. Then came testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
“I was always into politics,” Wecht said recently in his Strip District office, where a wall contains a half-dozen photos of the Kennedy brothers. “But on a national level, it’s certainly possible that I began to get these cases because of the name, the attention.”
After losing a Senate race to John Heinz in 1982, Wecht stayed active in Democratic politics and returned to the coroner’s office from 1995 until 2006. Federal investigators accused and later dropped charges alleging he used his elected office to conduct his high-profile consulting career.
“He bucked the system and paid for it,” said longtime Warren Commission critic Robert J. Groden, who like Wecht served as an adviser on Oliver Stone’s 1991 controversial film, “JFK.”
Specter was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia when Howard Willens, Robert Kennedy’s deputy at the Justice Department, asked him to work for the Warren Commission. Specter said he initally balked at the request because he was fighting the Teamsters in City Hall and considering a run for state Senate. His friends urged him to join.
In his book, Specter described missteps by the commission, the ways politics and Chief Justice Earl Warren pushed members to cut corners, and a few outright mistakes — such as the commission’s failure to review autopsy photos and X-rays.
He defended the commission’s conclusion, though.
In his book, he said he nearly sued Stone for libel because of the movie.
No convincing each other
Fifty years later, the debate has not abated.
Last month, about 500 people gathered at Duquesne University for a JFK symposium sponsored by the university’s Institute of Forensic Science and Law, which is named for Wecht. Appearances by Stone and a doctor who tended to Kennedy brought national attention.
People sneered when they mentioned Specter’s name or the single-bullet theory.
Across the state, the Single Bullet exhibit opened on Oct. 21. It’s the first exhibition in Philadelphia University’s Arlen Specter Center for Public Policy. Willens, the former Kennedy aide, delivered a speech.
The center’s coordinator, Karen Albert, said he was looking forward to defending his conclusion on the 50th anniversary.
Wecht said he endorsed Specter for Senate in 2004, the only time he supported a Republican.
They joined for a few public debates on the bullet and the commission. But Wecht said they never discussed their differences in private.
“I wasn’t going to convince him,” Wecht said. “He wasn’t going to convince me.”
David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or [email protected].