Seen through the limousine's windshield as it proceeds along Elm Street past the Texas School Book Depository, President John F. Kennedy appears to raise his hand toward his head within seconds of being fatally shot in Dallas, Nov 22, 1963. Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy holds the President's forearm in an effort to aid him. Gov. John Connally of Texas, who was in the front seat, was also shot. (James W. (Ike) Altgens/AP Photo)
ReelzChannel is getting back into the Kennedy family business, and once again likely to make some waves. In November, the network that aired the Emmy-winning 2011 miniseries "The Kennedys" will debut "JFK: The Smoking Gun," a new documentary offering the theory that John F. Kennedy was killed, not by Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle, but by the friendly-fire bullet of an inexperienced Secret Service agent. It is a theory that has been around awhile and has had a difficult track record and the news that Reelz is airing a show based on it has already ignited anger in this hotly disputed stretch of history.
But despite the controversy and the theory's troubled past, Reelz is defending its decision to air the documentary.
"There's been lots of theories about the grassy knoll and everything else, but a bullet came from behind the car [Kennedy was in]," ReelzChannel CEO Stan Hubbard tells Yahoo! TV of the evidence that will be presented in the Nov. 3 special. "The only possible gun that could have been in that area is that Secret Service gun. So the finding is that it was an accidental discharge. Nobody's claiming anybody did anything wrong. But at the time, in the middle of the Cold War ... remember, it wasn't a time that the U.S. government would have liked to admit a botched security detail in the most important mission they had."
According to Hubbard's explanation of the docudrama, the timeline of the events of Nov. 22, 1963, will go something like this:
After Lee Harvey Oswald fired an initial shot at the Kennedy motorcade in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, a Secret Service agent named George Hickey responded. Hickey, an inexperienced agent who had never been on follow-up car duty, grabbed his AR-15 Secret Service rifle and, while standing in the back of the car that was behind the Kennedy vehicle in the motorcade, fired a shot, he hoped, towards the enemy fire. But the car he was riding in suddenly lurched forward, and, the theory suggests, Hickey's hand faltered, sending his bullet towards the president’s head. Oswald had fired a second shot that also hit Kennedy, but it was not necessarily the shot that fatally wounded JFK, according to the theory.
While sure to provoke strong reactions when it airs during the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, the theory is not a new one.
"The Smoking Gun" revolves around the work of author Bonar Menninger and detective-turned-author Colin McLaren. Menninger wrote the 1992 book "Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK," which included the theory.
Presented by Menninger, the theory draws on the work of a Maryland ballistics expert named Howard Donahue, who for a 1967 CBS special re-created the three shots captured in the famous Zapruder film of the assassination. Donahue, who died in 1999, agreed with the Warren report conclusion that Oswald acted alone, but he also believed, until he died, that the shot that killed Kennedy came from "a position behind and to the left of the president," he told the Baltimore Sun in 1977.
Menninger and McLaren told TV critics at the ReelzChannel Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills on Sunday that the "Smoking Gun" documentary will lay out, in scientific detail, the decades-old theory of Hickey's accidental shooting of JFK, including information that the bullet sizes of Oswald's and Hickey's guns were different (and that the bullet in the fatal shot was too small to have come from Oswald's gun). Pouring gasoline on the fires, the documentary will also allege that the Secret Service agents assigned to protect JFK had been drinking the night before the assassination, and that Robert Kennedy — JFK's brother and the U.S. attorney general at the time — knew about the alleged Hickey shot and helped cover it up to shield the Secret Service.
"['JFK: The Smoking Gun'] isn't setting out to damage, to point fingers at, George Hickey,” Reelz’ President Hubbard states. “George Hickey had an accident take place when a gun discharged in his hands. Anybody who's around firearms at all knows that guns do accidentally go off."
Hickey filed a defamation suit against Menninger and "Mortal Error" publishers St. Martin's Press and Simon & Schuster in April 1995. But "Mortal Error" was published in 1992, and Hickey's lawsuit, filed in Maryland, was dismissed because it was filed well beyond Maryland's one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims.
In 1998, however, Hickey received an undisclosed settlement in the case. Menninger said at the TCA panel that St. Martin's only offered him a "nominal" amount to try to prevent him from appealing the dismissal of his previous suit, so they wouldn't be caught up in a lengthy and expensive legal battle. But Hickey's attorney, Mark S. Zaid, told the Baltimore Sun that Hickey was "very satisfied" with the settlement.
"To think that someone could have fired an AR-15 rifle on that day and that no one would have noticed, of the hundreds of people that were watching on either side of the street, just bends the imagination," Zaid said of Hickey, who retired from the Secret Service, in good standing, in 1971.
Hickey died two years ago, according to McLaren, leaving theorists free to present their case without fear of further lawsuits.
Not surprisingly in what is the most famous and polarizing ongoing crime investigation in history, critics have poked holes in the Hickey premise since Menninger published his book more than 20 years ago.
Debunkers have dismissed the Hickey theory as just one of many flimsy JFK conspiracy theories. Others have echoed attorney Mark Zaid's belief that if Hickey had fired his gun that day in Dallas, witnesses would have reported it.
Author David Pietrusza, in his 1996 book "Mysterious Deaths: John F. Kennedy," points out that "elastic recoil of the skull" could account for the discrepancy between the size of the bullet that hit Kennedy's head and the size of the wound it produced.
Representatives of the Kennedy family did not respond to requests for comment.
McLaren, during the TCA presentation, offered a broad response to these assertions: "We're talking about 1963. It was the black and white era. It was 'Leave It to Beaver.' It was 'I Love Lucy.' And whatever you rolled out to the public, generally speaking, was acceptable. The Warren Commission rolled out a 'lone gunman' theory. It was nonsense, because they didn't apply the crime-scene principles and procedures of today, of 2013. They didn't apply a forensic analysis, as we do today, as we expect today."
"I came to this as a skeptic," Hubbard says. "From day one, the American public has not believed that there was a lone gunman. The story just didn't make sense. And there have been hundreds of conspiracy theories on how to explain it. 'JFK: The Smoking Gun' explains it ballistically and through what would be considered rules of evidence in a criminal investigation.
"I don't expect anybody to take this as the end-all, definitive answer, but I do hope ['JFK: The Smoking Gun'] will at least kick off a discussion that can put some finality to the assassination of a great president in 1963."
With tempers still raw about this matter fifty years later, and charges such as those made in this documentary still inflaming them wildly, that civilized discussion may have to wait a decade or two more.