Revisiting the legacy of JFK's assassination in Dallas

More than 50 years later, Dallas remains synonymous with one of the most controversial events in US history. CNET visits Dealey Plaza during Road Trip 2014.

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A replica of the rifle said to have been used by Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The Sixth Floor Museum

DALLAS -- I'm not a conspiracy theorist and don't subscribe to the often outlandish explanations for some of history's most shocking events.

Yet after a few hours at one of the most infamous locations in America, it's easy to understand why so many have a hard time accepting the official line, told by the US government, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he shot President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Texas.

I traveled to Dallas to begin CNET Road Trip 2014. Though the stop wasn't originally on my itinerary, I was drawn to the area around the downtown intersection of Houston and Elm Streets. This is one corner of Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was shot. The Warren Commission, the group tasked by President Lyndon Johnson with investigating the murder, said the shots came from the sixth floor of a seven-story brick building that at the time was the Texas School Book Depository. Walk around to the front of the building, on the east side, and you're confronted with a chilling view: Dealey Plaza and the gentle downhill slope of Elm Street.

It's a scene made famous in the many photographs of the assassination.

Dallas hasn't run away from this dark chapter in its history. The Book Depository building today is home to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which offers a comprehensive look at Kennedy's life and presidency. It also serves as focal point for discussion around the complex circumstances surrounding the president's assassination.

The museum houses important artifacts related to the event, including a Bell & Howell model 414PD camera, just like the one Abraham Zapruder used to take his famous movie of the day's events; the fedora worn by Jack Ruby when he shot Oswald; and a rich set of exhibits, including many short movies, that offer context around the major issues of 1963.

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More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

    This isn't the place to try explaining the political environment of those times, or the specifics of Kennedy's killing. Countless volumes have been written about both. But trying to avoid the reality you face when you walk into Dealey Plaza is just as futile.

    My take-away: The official story is perfectly plausible. The various conspiracy theories are equally compelling.

    One of the most impressive exhibits in the museum is a scale model of Dealey Plaza constructed by the FBI and used to try to establish whether a shooter hiding in the northeast corner of the sixth floor of the book depository had a clear line of sight to the spots on Elm Street where Kennedy was shot. Lacking 3D computer modeling, investigators constructed their own physical 3D model. One look at it -- it's preserved inside a thick, clear case -- shows that, yes, a shooter in that location did have a clear shot.

    Yet just as clear is that a shooter -- or shooters -- hidden in what has come to be known as the Grassy Knoll, the green hillside on the west side of Elm Street, had an equally direct shot into the killing zone. Walk into the middle of Elm Street, as endless numbers of tourists do when traffic is stopped at the red light, and you see two white X marks on the pavement -- the exact spots of Kennedy's two injuries. From there, you can see straight into the corner of the sixth floor of the former book depository, and the Grassy Knoll. It is spine-tingling.

    So too is walking to the place, near the Grassy Knoll, where Zapruder, in Dealey Plaza to see Kennedy drive by in his motorcade, captured what is probably the most famous home movie ever made -- the only known footage of Kennedy getting shot. (You can watch it below -- but beware of extremely graphic content)

    In Oliver Stone's film about the assassination, "JFK," prosecutor Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, uses the phrase "turkey shoot" to describe how several assassins could easily have triangulated their fire at that exact spot. Whatever you believe about the movie, or about Garrison's attempts to hold someone other than Oswald responsible for the killing, he makes a great point that's impossible to ignore, especially as you look out the window from the sixth floor. As Garrison says in a scene in court in the film, "They don't shoot him coming up Houston, which is the easiest shot for a single shooter in the Book Depository."

    That sure seems true. Someone sitting in what is known as the "sniper's nest" in the corner of the sixth floor would have had ample opportunity to fire multiple times at Kennedy as his limousine moved up Houston Street. Waiting until the motorcade turned the corner and moved down Elm made little sense -- unless the plan was to triangulate fire.

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    The view out onto Dallas' Dealey Plaza from the Sixth Floor Museum. The Sixth Floor Museum

    At least I can't escape thinking that as I peer out that window. Even today, more than 50 years after the assassination, the view from the sixth floor is a view into the history books. It's easy to imagine the huge crowds, the waving flags, the men and women nearly beside themselves as the youngest president in US history drove by in a convertible Lincoln, sitting along with his glamorous wife Jackie and accompanied by then-Texas Gov. John Connally.

    Then again, it's also reasonable to imagine a lone Oswald, a sharpshooter in the Marines who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, crouching in that corner and then sticking his 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle out the window and murdering Kennedy before sneaking off into the Dallas streets.

    This debate seems fated to continue for generations. Unlike our contemporary era, the assassination took place at a time when every single moment wasn't filmed from 10 different angles.

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    The presidential limo that Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated in 1963 was rebuilt and used until 1977. It is currently housed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out the most interesting technology; military and aviation sites; architecture; and other destinations our country has to offer. From US Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 offers you a chance to journey along with me.

     

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