Book excerpt: Ruby trial had everything, but dignity, decorum, law

Peter Worthington at the Dallas police station where Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby in...

Peter Worthington at the Dallas police station where Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby in 1963.

Peter Worthington, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

Looking for Trouble, by late Sun founder Peter Worthington, is now available for the first time in e-book form. This new digital edition coincides with the first anniversary of Pete's death. Excerpts will be published in the Sun.

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After having witnessed Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy, I was sent to cover surely the strangest court case ever. The 24-day trial in 1964 of Ruby had everything – except dignity, decorum and the law.

For starters, Ruby was an unlikely candidate to be the avenger of Jack Kennedy. He was the antithesis of what Kennedy stood for: grace, style, a sense of mission, hope.

Born Jake Rubenstein in 1911, the son of an alcoholic Russian immigrant, Ruby had no home life or normal childhood to speak of. His mother was institutionalized for paranoia after her husband walked out on her and eight kids when Ruby was 12. He grew up on the fringes of the Chicago underworld, shrewd, vain, touchy and sensitive about his Jewishness.

Though he consorted with prizefighters, hookers and hoods, he yearned to be taken seriously and to be seen with celebrities.

After shooting Oswald in a Dallas underground police station garage, he was immediately buried under a pile of cops who ignored his plaintive cry: “Hey, you know me, I’m Jack Ruby….”

Melvin Belli, “Ole Doc”, one of America’s most spectacular lawyers, acted in Ruby’s defence. He had won more $100,000 settlements for clients than any lawyer in captivity, and was known for his innovative courtroom tactics.

He was assisted by Joe (Bullmoose) Tonahill, a Texan who at six-foot-four and 260 pounds, had all the elegance of a longhorn steer.

On my return to Dallas three months after the Kennedy slaying, things had settled down. It was considered a right-wing, ultra-conservative city, with a frontier approach to justice. Special sales offered two pistols for the price of one: $49.95. Small wonder it was known as the murder capital of the U.S., holding that title temporarily over Detroit.

Into this atmosphere hove Mel Belli, a big, brash, blustering liberal who thrived on headlines and controversy. Belli made one big insurmountable error in judgment in his defence of Ruby in Dallas: he argued the law, presenting a legitimate if controversial defence rather than throwing himself on the mercy of the court and appealing to emotion.

Dallas was not prepared to consider a defence for Ruby or listen to an outsider from San Francisco. Ruby was a condemned man before the jury was even picked, although no one realized it at the time.

The Ruby trial was pure showbiz. While the witnesses and characters who surfaced during the trial were Damon Runyon, the judge and lawyers seemed straight out of Al Capp and Dogpatch. Judge Joe B. Brown’s legal education before he was elected to the bench consisted of three years of night school 35 years earlier. In Dallas he was known as Necessity – “because Necessity knows no law.”


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