Jack Ruby Trial: 1964

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Jack Ruby Trial: 1964

Defendant: Jack Leon Ruby
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Melvin Mouron Belli, Phil Burleson, Robert B. Denson, Elmer Gertz, Tom Howard, William Kuntsler, and Joe Tonahill
Chief Prosecutors: William F. Alexander, Jim Bowie, Henry Menasco Wade, Jr., and Frank Watts
Judge: Joe Brantley Brown
Place: Dallas, Texas
Dates of Trial: March 4-14, 1964
Verdict: Guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The significance of the Jack Ruby trial is simple and obvious: this was the trial of the man who killed the man who killed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

At 12:30 p.m. on Friday, November 22, 1963, nightclub manager Jack Ruby was at the Dallas Morning News turning in his advertising copy for the weekend editions. Word of gunshots in nearby Dealey Plaza burst into the room. Stunned, Ruby and newspeople there tuned into their television sets to learn of the shooting of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Ruby instantly raced to Parkland Hospital's emergency room. There he and a handful of reporters heard acting White House Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff announce that the president had died.

A Police Buff

Newspeople were not surprised to see Ruby there. Nor were Dallas policemen when he turned up Friday evening and again on Saturday at the police station where the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was being held. They knew Ruby as a police buff who liked to hang around and hear what was happening on the police blotter. He often made financial contributions to police causes. As they worked through Saturday evening, he brought them sandwiches and helped out-of-town reporters identify key officers.

That Sunday morning, November 24, the police were ready to move Oswald to the county jail, a mile away. At 11:20, as millions of viewers glued to their TVs watched in amazement, Captain J. Will Fritz led two detectives escorting Oswald through a basement garage toward a car. Suddenly, Jack Ruby lunged from the mob of detectives and reporters and fired a handgun pointblank at Oswald's chest. Oswald died at 1:07 p.m.

Most Jurors Saw the Shooting

Nationally known lawyer Melvin Belli, planning to write a book and produce a movie about the trial, undertook the defense of Jack Ruby free of charge. Belli tried but failed to get a change of venue from Dallas. Ultimately he had to accept, among the 8 men and 4 women jurors, 1 who, watching television at that instant, had witnessed Ruby's act.

Twenty prosecution witnesses testified during the trial. Of those, Detective James R. Leavelle, who had been handcuffed to Oswald, testified that as he lay bleeding, Ruby said, "I hope the son-of-a-bitch dies." Officer D.R. Archer testified that he told Ruby, "I think you killed him," and Ruby's reply was, "I intended to shoot him three times."

Officer Thomas D. McMillon testified that he heard Ruby say, "You rat son-of-a-bitch, you shot the president." A review of television tapes, however, showed that, as Ruby fired at Oswald, McMillon was far to the rear and looking away from the action and therefore couldn't have heard anything.

Sergeant Patrick T. Dean's testimony was damaging. Ten minutes after the shooting, he said, Ruby told him that on Friday night, "when he noticed the sarcastic sneer on Oswald's face," he thought he would kill him.

Psychomotor Epilepsy

The defense set out to prove that Jack Ruby had a troubled mind. Attorney Belli first called Little Lynn, a 19-year-old stripper, who said Ruby "had a very quick temper. He'd fly off the handle." Another stripper, Penny Dollar, told of Ruby's fighting with a taxi driver, beating his head on the sidewalk, then stopping suddenly and asking, "Did I do this?"

Next came testimony from the experts. Dr. Roy Schafer, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale University, had performed psychological tests on Ruby. "I determined that he did have organic brain damage," Schafer said. "The most likely specific nature of it was psychom6tor epilepsy." He added that Ruby suffered from "mood swings" and "impulsiveness."

Would Ruby be subject to states of rage? asked Belli. "Yup," said Schafer. What might set him off? "Very strong emotional stimulation states of fatigue certain kinds of light stimulation, a certain kind of flickering light."

Dr. Martin L. Towler, neurologist at the University of Texas in Galveston and a court-appointed expert who had examined Ruby, testified to the defendant's history of head injuries and probable "psychomotor variant epilepsy." During a seizure, asked Belli, "Will he know what he is doing?"

"No," replied the witness. "He is behaving as an automaton. Most patients will be amnesic."

Dr. Manfred S. Guttmacher, chief medical officer of the Supreme Court of Baltimore and an expert on criminal psychology, testified, "I don't think he was capable of knowing right from wrong or understood the nature and consequences of his act. I think he was struggling to keep his sanity I think he had an unusual degree of involvement in the whole tragedy [there was] disruption of his ego, a very short-lived psychotic episode in which the hostile part of his makeup, which is very strong, became focused on this one individual. Homicide was the result."

EEG Tracings

Late on the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, the prosecution presented its rebuttal of findings on Ruby's electroencephalograph (EEG) testified to by a leading expert, Dr. Frederic A. Gibbs of Chicago. His written conclusion had been that the EEG recordings "show seizure disorders of the psychomotor variant type." Gibbs had refused earlier invitations to appear in person as a witness. Now, hearing disagreement on his opinion, he flew to Dallas that Thursday evening and testified the next morning without a fee. Standing before the jury with the EEG tracings, he said, "Jack Ruby has a particular, very rare, form of epilepsy. The pattern occurs only in one-half of one percent of epileptics. It was a distinctive and unusual epileptic pattern."

Prosecutor William Alexander tried to get Dr. Gibbs to say that psychomotor variant epilepsy was not a disease. "I say it is a disease," said the doctor, "that is diagnosable from a brain-wave reading."

Judge Joe Brown's charge to the jury and defense and prosecution closing arguments went to well past 1:00 a.m. on Saturday, March 14. That afternoon, the jury deliberated for only two hours and 19 minutes before finding Jack Ruby "guilty of murder with malice, as charged in the indictment, and [we] assess his punishment at death."

More than two and a half years of appeals followed. On October 5, 1966, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that Ruby's statements to police immediately after shooting Oswald should not have been admitted as evidence and that he should have been granted a change of venue.

A new trial was scheduled for Wichita Falls, Kansas. However, when that city's sheriff traveled to Dallas to get Ruby in December 1966, he found him too sick to move. Jail doctors had not taken Ruby's stomach complaints seriously, but Parkland Hospital physicians now found cancer in his liver, brain, and lungs. He died on January 3, 1967, before being able to receive a new trial.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Belli, Melvin M. with Maurice C. Carroll. Dallas Justice: The Real Story of Jack Rulb and His Trial. New York: McKay, 1964.

Hartogs, Dr. Renatus and Lucy Freeman. The Two Assassins. New York: Crowell, 1965.

Hosty, James P., Jr. with Thomas Hosty. Assignment. Oswald. New York: Arcade, 1996.

Kantor, Seth. Who Was Jack Ruby? New York: Everest House, 1978.

Kaplan, John and Jon R. Waltz. The Trial of Jack Ruby. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Posner, Gerald. Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. New York: Random House, 1993.

Scott, Peter Dale. Deep Politics and the Death of JFK. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

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