The conference was optimistically titled "Cracking the JFK Case," but it was widely noted that many of the speakers and members of the audience had grown gray hair or lost much of it while looking for the answers.
One of the presentations at the three-day session revived doubts about the famous "single bullet theory" that the House Select Committee on Assassinations thought it had resolved in the late 1970s. Another demolished persistent claims that the Zapruder film -- the "clock" of the Kennedy assassination -- had somehow been altered or contradicted by other photographic evidence. Still another speaker demonstrated how the sounds on Dallas police tapes showed that four and perhaps five shots had been fired -- meaning that at least one other person besides alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had squeezed a trigger.
None of that solved the whodunit, although the conferees could still count themselves and like-minded historians and researchers winners in a way. Three out of every four Americans think President John F. Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, was the result of a conspiracy. Almost as many think there was a coverup.
But the proposition that drew about 135 people to a Bethesda hotel this past weekend -- that it is not too late "to solve the greatest mystery of the 20th century" -- has less traction with the public. According to the most recent poll, conducted in 2003 for the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination, 75 percent of the public does not want another government investigation.
Washington lawyer Jim Lesar, president of the nonprofit Assassination Archives and Research Center, the main sponsor of the conference, was undeterred. "The lone assassin theory" -- the Warren Commission's conclusion in 1964 that Oswald was solely responsible for the killing -- "is more discredited than it has previously been," he said in opening remarks.
A key reason, he said, is that the CIA not only withheld crucial information from the commission about its assassination plots against Cuban President Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders, but it also held back other vital information from the House assassinations committee, which concluded in 1979 that Kennedy was "probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy."
The committee's chief counsel, G. Robert Blakey, whose main suspect remains the late New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello, explained his loss of confidence in the CIA in a talk Saturday night. The committee had relied on the late George Joannides, a CIA officer called out of retirement, to help it find and review CIA documents during its investigation. But the agency never told the committee that Joannides had been the case officer for a CIA-funded anti-Castro exile group that had contacts with Oswald and an ostensible confrontation with him in New Orleans before the assassination.
"The agency set me up," Blakey said. Joannides, he recalled, frequently blocked the efforts of the House panel's young researchers to obtain relevant CIA records, but when they complained to him, Blakey said he accepted the CIA's assurances that his aides were being too pushy and suspicious. Looking back on it, he said, "I have no confidence in anything the agency told me."
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Dyck said the agency had no immediate comment.
Other highlights of the conference included a study by two scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who said that bullet fragments taken from Kennedy's brain, from Texas Gov. John Connally's wrist and from the floor of the presidential limousine were too small and too metallurgically complex to be identified as having come from only two Mannlicher-Carcano bullets such as those Oswald is believed to have fired.
The House committee said neutron activation tests showed it was "highly likely" that the fragments from Connally's wrist came from a largely intact Mannlicher-Carcano bullet found on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital after first hitting Kennedy -- the so-called magic bullet -- and that the other fragments came from a second bullet that hit Kennedy in the head.
But the Livermore scientists said the fragments could have come from one or as many as five bullets and could have been fired by a Remington or some other rifle. The neutron tests, they said, were inconclusive and new technology has shown them to be unreliable.
Josiah Thompson, author of "Six Seconds in Dallas," a 1967 study contending there was more than one gunman, produced a slide show to demonstrate that no discrepancy has ever been found in any of the films taken in Dealey Plaza.
Prizewinning scientist Richard Garwin offered a long-promised report to show that gunshot-like sounds on Dallas police tapes were random noises that took place 30 to 60 seconds after the assassination.
He was upstaged, however, by Donald B. Thomas, an entomologist and admittedly no acoustics expert, who showed how the noises coincided precisely with frames from the Zapruder film and echoes off buildings in Dealey Plaza reflecting the gunfire. Garwin held his ground, but said he had not studied the echoes.
Many experts have rejected the theory that Oswald worked alone.