Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV, but his trial was not a slam dunk

Two days after the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas in November 1963, the accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

Ruby – born Jacob Rubenstein to a Jewish family in Chicago – would stand trial for murder in 1964. Her shot of Oswald had in fact been captured on live television with millions of viewers. Still, the lawsuit that followed was far from a slam-dunk, as a new book explains, “Kennedy’s avengerBy Dan Abrams and David Fisher.

Famous lawyer Melvin Belli helped turn the Ruby case into a protracted one that featured a defense based on allegations of Ruby’s mental illness, a rare tactic at the time.

Belli fought the charge objection after objection – including allegations of anti-Semitism – in a trial punctuated by testimony from Ruby’s rabbi and a hostage-taking by prisoners escaped from an upstairs jail. Meanwhile, a larger investigation was underway with the Warren Commission examining the assassination, as JFK’s conspiracy theories circulated among the public.

In a phone interview with The Times of Israel, Fisher said Ruby’s niece contacted the authors after reading the book and sharing untold stories about her late uncle. She told them that after the Kennedy assassination, Ruby called her mother in Chicago later that day.

“He was crying hysterically,” Fisher said. “He said he wanted to come home because he was so emotionally overwhelmed by it. Her mother said ‘don’t come home, stay there.’ He did. Two days later, he killed Lee Harvey Oswald.

The book is part of a series co-authored by the authors on individual court cases illustrating key moments in American legal history. Each case dates from a different century, and all involve US Presidents to some extent, including future President Abraham Lincoln working as a defense attorney in a murder case in 1859.

Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, is shown with his pets. This undated photo was on Ruby’s office wall. (AP Photo)

Fisher has co-authored numerous other books with many other authors – including separate titles with the late George Burns, former New York Mets pitcher Tug McGraw and then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Asked about his collaboration with America’s 45th President, Fisher laughed and mentioned some of his other collaborators, from Nobel Prize winners to sports stars to famous Liberal MP Robert Wexler.)

He noted a few other accomplishments, from becoming the only journalist to gain full access to the FBI criminal lab to witness Russian rocket launches in the Ural Mountains.

“I had the privilege of spending time with amazing people, really amazing people,” he said.

One of them is her current co-author Abrams, a lawyer and head of legal affairs at ABC. Their partnership began after Fisher found a transcript of the 1859 murder case defended by future President Lincoln – his 29th and last such case. He contacted Abrams and a book was born. The streak is now at four, with six planned in total.

The case that is the subject of their current book revolved around the series of relentlessly resonant events that unfolded on Sunday, November 24, 1963.

David Fisher, co-author of “Kennedy’s Avenger”. (Randall Arthur)

That morning, Ruby drove to downtown Dallas with her favorite dog, whom he called his wife. Leaving the dog in the car on a hot day, he went to a Western Union office to send $ 25 to a stripper he employed who was to pay him rent. Subsequently, he went to the Dallas Police Headquarters, where Oswald was being transferred to jail.

Ruby often carried large sums of money with him due to his nightclub job, and he also carried a gun. His profession had familiarized him with the Dallas Police Force, some of whom visited his nightclubs, though Fisher denies rumors that he also had Mafia ties.

Unhindered, Ruby entered the basement of the police headquarters and approached Oswald. Ruby fatally shot Oswald in the stomach – an event captured on live television by NBC with millions watching at home. This widespread coverage made it one of the thorniest issues to settle when selecting a jury for trial.

Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, escorted by Dallas Police Detective Jim Leavelle (left), November 24, 1963. (Robert H. Jackson / Wikipedia)

“Here is this heinous crime committed on national television,” said Fisher. “Two questions arose. It was brand new. If a person had seen the crime being committed, could they stand for jury duty? Second, do you allow the television cameras to enter the courtroom? None of these issues had been discussed or resolved.

The book details the ensuing debate on these and other issues, including whether or not to completely change the location of the trial. Yet the location remained in Dallas as a legal confrontation ensued between Ruby Belli’s attorney and prosecutor Henry Wade, who would return to fame a decade later as an abortion opponent in the Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court.

“[Belli] was America’s most flamboyant lawyer at the time, ”said Fisher. “This case was going to make his reputation … It was going to be his biggest moment.” As for Wade, “he boasted of having made 24 death sentences and of the 24, 23 people had been executed. He wanted to execute Jack Ruby.

To save her client, Belli turned to an unorthodox strategy and claimed that Ruby suffered from a rare and recently discovered mental illness.

Protesters hold placards outside the courthouse where Jack Ruby’s trial and conviction took place in Dallas, Texas on March 9, 1964. (AP Photo)

“You read the transcripts, you read the characters who testify, telling their stories, you definitely end up nodding,” Fisher said.

Still, there were at least two defense witnesses who gave poignant testimony: Ruby’s longtime former girlfriend Alice Nichols and Ruby’s rabbi Hillel Silverman.

“[Nichols] described Jack as a somewhat confused but good person, ”said Fisher. “His rabbi told stories about Ruby allegedly showing up at his house when the [assasination] arrived, crying hysterically. Basically, the two actually said Ruby’s behavior at different times was inappropriate for the scope of the event, ”which was part of what Belli was trying to show the jury to strengthen the mental illness argument.

“There were other people beyond those two, but they were two of the key witnesses,” Fisher said.

An article on the Shearith Israel congregation website describes Silverman as giving a talk last year about his experiences in Dallas, including encounters with Ruby, as well as with another congregation member – Abraham Zapruder, who has filmed the Kennedy assassination.

“Kennedy’s Avenger”, by David Fisher and Dan Abrams. (Courtesy)

“I think what’s important is that the lawsuit marks the start of the Kennedy conspiracy industry,” Fisher said. “It doesn’t work without Jack Ruby, the whole plot claim. It fills a lot of gaps for a lot of people who want to say or show that there was a conspiracy.

The authors delve into the conspiracy theories in the book, writing that “Conspiracy buffs, as they were becoming known, suggested that Ruby was part of a larger plot and killed Oswald to prevent him from naming the people who had hired and paid Oswald – and possibly even shot the president this afternoon from Dallas.

“Several people have claimed to have seen Oswald and Ruby together before the Kennedy assassination,” but prosecutor Wade refused to call any of them to testify at Ruby’s trial, write Abrams and Fisher. They quote Wade as saying he felt “there was no evidence that Ruby and Oswald knew each other,” while three people who argued otherwise had passed lie detector tests and failed.

For Fisher, “I never believed in the conspiracy,” he said, citing interviews with FBI investigators on the case. “I don’t believe for a minute that there was a conspiracy.”

Mugshot of Jack Ruby, taken after his arrest. (Dallas Police Department)

When Ruby’s trial ended in 1964, jurors did not believe he had a mental illness and returned a guilty verdict.

“I felt the defense actually had a pretty good record,” Fisher said.

This was not the end of the story and there were several unusual developments. Ruby has been questioned twice by the Warren Commission in prison and underwent a lie detector test. His conviction was overturned but he faced a new trial. Shortly before he returned to court, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died two weeks later, in 1967, of pulmonary embolism.

Two of Jack Ruby’s brothers, Sam (left) and Earl (right) leave a Chicago funeral home after services to Jack on January 6, 1967 (AP Photo / Charles Knoblock)

Fisher remembers reviewing the results of the lie detector test.

“You can hear this terribly damaged person pleading for someone to pay attention to him, to believe what he said at the time,” Fisher recalls. “It’s heartbreaking.”

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About Charles D. Goolsby

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