The lawyer who defended Jack Ruby understood the new power of television in the courtroom
Editor’s note: Jack Ruby was a Dallas nightclub in 1963, when he took a place in the history books by strolling into the police headquarters downtown and killing Lee Harvey Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s assassin. A new book tells the story of Ruby’s trial, one of the first real courtroom dramas that America followed on television, and the center of a network of conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death. The following is an excerpt from “Kennedy’s Avenger: Assassination, Conspiracy, and the Forgotten Trial of Jack Ruby.”
Dallas had a colorful criminal history; Bonnie and Clyde had set out from there to shoot their way across the Southwest. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, along with the rest of the Wild Bunch, kept their headquarters in a hotel over a grocery store in nearby Fort Worth. Sam Bass, “Texas’s Beloved Bandit,” and his gang had robbed trains and stagecoaches, including the Union Pacific “Gold Train,” before being killed in a shoot-out with the Texas Rangers. And Ben Long, the former two-term mayor of the city, had been shot dead in a saloon by a man angry about his bar bill in 1877.
But the city had never experienced anything like the whirlwind that was about to storm through the country. No one had.
With the exception of the occasional salacious scandal, like Harry K. Thaw’s Girl on the Swing Murder or the 1954 trial of Cleveland neurosurgeon Sam Sheppard, who had been convicted of bludgeoning his wife to death supposedly to be with his mistress, crime reporting mostly had been limited to a regional audience.
Recently though, the new medium of television had knitted together the entire country. People in California could watch what was happening in New York as it took place.
San Francisco State University professor S.I. Hayakawa predicted the spread of TV was as revolutionary as the invention of the printing press, telling thousands of students at a civil rights conference, “The impact of nationwide networks enables [all Americans] to laugh simultaneously at the same joke, thrill at the same adventure, detest and admire the same good guys and bad guys yearn for the same automobiles [and] dream the same dreams.”
And few events enthralled Americans more than a great courtroom battle. Great orators dueling in a courtroom with lives at stake. While throughout history Americans had always considered trials a source of great local entertainment, the legal system suddenly had become a font of popular culture.
The award-winning 1955 Broadway show and subsequent movie Inherit the Wind, the story of the 1925 Scopes trial, had secured lawyer Clarence Darrow’s place in history. Perry Mason, the first weekly one-hour series in TV history, had remained an award-winning top-rated show since its debut in 1957. After debuting in 1961, the courtroom drama The Defenders had won three best dramatic program Emmys.
Courtroom-set movies like Witness for the Prosecution, 12 Angry Men, Compulsion, Anatomy of a Murder and To Kill a Mockingbird had made trial lawyers glamorous figures. Trial lawyer Louis Nizer’s 1961 memoir, My Life in Court, had remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 72 weeks.
The trial of Jack Ruby instantly became the new national sensation. Within a day of appearing for Ruby, filing a petition with the criminal district court demanding his client either be brought before a magistrate to be legally arrested or released, Tom Howard received numerous phone calls from media outlets clamoring to buy the exclusive rights to his story.
“Saturday Evening Post, Life and several others have been calling,” he said. “But I just can’t do it.” And then he added, “At least not for the time being.”
Howard’s desire to keep the case “among us Dallasites” soon was overwhelmed as reporters from around the world flooded into the city. Ruby’s brother Earl and his sisters, Eva Grant and Eileen Kaminsky, quickly determined that he should have a far more high-profile defense lawyer, believing Howard lacked sufficient experience in major cases to lead the defense.
In addition to his courtroom fisticuffs from his early days, Howard had also once been fined and suspended from the practice of law for six months after failing to file tax returns, an issue that could become magnified in this sort of high-profile trial.
With the case in the headlines everywhere, many lawyers were eager to offer their services, but the family wanted one of the emerging superstar attorneys, high-powered lawyers willing to travel anywhere in the country to participate in the most complex or highest-profile cases. Men as adept at navigating the intricacies of the legal system as they were dealing with the demands of reporters. A man who was comfortable in the limelight and in the headlines.
The decision to bring in an outsider did not set well with the local legal establishment. Assistant District Attorney Jim Bowie pointed out, “They forgot that even though Tom Howard defends whores and pimps he does it damn well.”
The Ruby family, primarily Earl, Eva and Eileen, making decisions in consultation with their brother, informed Howard of their decision and asked him to help with the search, assuring him that he would remain a critical part of the defense team.
Howard and the Ruby family considered or contacted several of the best-known trial lawyers in America. Houston’s Percy Foreman, whom Time described as “The biggest, brashest, brightest criminal lawyer in America,” turned down the case for reasons never clearly explained.
Famed defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, whose celebrity clients included Errol Flynn, Billie Holiday, Howard Hughes and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (charged with obscenity for selling Allen Ginsberg’s book Howl) and who had been rumored to be the inspiration for actor Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason as well as a second legal drama, the NBC show Sam Benedict, supposedly was encouraged by that network to defend Ruby. The family finally decided against retaining him; the speculation was they didn’t want to bring a Jewish lawyer into the case to defend this Jewish defendant.
Finally the Ruby family settled on square-jawed, silver-maned, impeccably groomed Californian Melvin Belli, arguably the most famous lawyer in the country. Belli, who was credited with bringing medical science and intricate displays into the courtroom in personal injury cases, had been awarded record-setting monetary judgments in more than a hundred cases. Mel Belli was a master performer in the courtroom, among the first lawyers to appreciate the value of publicity.
He once explained, “You have to ring the bell in order to get people into the tabernacle.”
Belli’s courtroom antics were already legendary: he once brought in a pickled brain for a jury to examine. He was known to display artificial limbs and even assembled a section of a San Francisco cable car in front of the jury to prove his client had been injured by a defective gearbox. He would have his crippled clients stumble across the courtroom to demonstrate the damage a defendant had caused.
When the New York Giants baseball team moved to San Francisco he bought season tickets, then sued the team for fraud and breach of warranty because, he said, its Candlestick Stadium effectively became a frozen wind tunnel at night.
After delivering his closing argument in a winter parka and boots, a jury ruled the team owed him over $1,500; when they were slow in paying, he convinced the sheriff to serve a writ of execution on Giants’ property — specifically on centerfielder Willie Mays, whom he claimed to own a piece of until the judgment was paid.
“Even Texas has never seen a performance that can match Belli at his best,” warned an editorial in the Knight Newspapers chain. “The urbane Belli, with his cowboy boots and Savile Row suits, is the greatest actor since Barrymore.”
His flamboyant lifestyle reinforced the image: he had, he admitted, “A zest for life, a penchant for all good things bright and beautiful, kinky and flawed, for good wines, great tables, wide travels and beautiful women.”
While living in Europe he and swashbuckler Errol Flynn made headlines enjoying the best Parisian delights. He boasted he’d been to every country in the world other than Tibet. He drove a Rolls-Royce.
His San Francisco law office mostly resembled a 19th-century bordello; with mahogany paneling, Persian carpets, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves explored on a velvet-covered ladder, lavender tinted windows and four crystal chandeliers suspended from a gold-trimmed ceiling. It included a mahogany bar, a huge brick fireplace, red velvet drapes and upholstered chairs, an antique safe and rolltop desk and assorted Victorian pieces.
The office was decorated with items he picked up on his travels. Prominently displayed were demon masks from Katmandu, a buffalo hide from Nigeria, a skeleton, a cuckoo clock from Germany’s Black Forest region, numerous apothecary jars from his grandmother’s drugstore in Sonora including one labeled “The great ghonorrhea and fleet remedy. Prepared only by Penn Drug Co. inc. Price $1.50.” A cannon on the building’s roof was fired and the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger, was hoisted to celebrate each of his legal victories.
His personal fashion also was classically stylish, or at least memorable. Judge Joe Brown described Belli as “my notion of a grandee of Italian extraction.” He was known for wearing expensive European-cut suits with vests, both lined with bright scarlet silk, a gold chain draped loosely across the front, his handmade pastel shirts set off by Byronesque ties, and high-heeled, polished black boots. When appropriate he wore a Chesterfield overcoat with a fur collar and almost always carried his legal papers in a red velvet carpetbag.
In court though, to emphasize his respect for the system, he wore a gray suit, an expensive gray suit, the finest fabric cut and sewn by the most-skilled tailors on the continent. But still a gray suit.
Beneath the show, 56-year-old Melvin Belli was as brilliant as he was controversial. “The King of Torts” as he had been dubbed had revolutionized personal injury law. Among the 18 books he had published were several highly respected texts, including Medical Malpractice and the six-volume set Modern Damages.
He had waged a continuous battle with the stuffy American legal associations, who discouraged his courtroom flamboyance. The American Trial Lawyers Association, which he had co-founded, once barred him from speaking at a convention to maintain propriety.
But no one, absolutely no one, doubted his ability in front a judge and jury. During a trial he was always charming, extremely well-prepared, and knowledgeable about the nooks and crannies of the law.
When a restricted California neighborhood tried to enforce a covenant prohibiting Belli’s Chinese client from living there, for example, he found an obscure 1854 State Supreme Court decision that ruled under California law the Chinese actually were American Indians because Columbus believed he had landed on an island in the China Sea “which washes India,” and therefore named the inhabitants Indians.
The claim became moot before the jury had to make its decision, as his client divorced his wife then temporarily moved into Belli’s house and together they opened an exotic restaurant, Fong’s Iroquois Village. (Featuring dishes ranging from strawberry omelets to boiled cabbage O’Fong.)
While Belli’s reputation had been earned primarily representing plaintiffs in just about every conceivable type of personal injury case, from brain concussions to severed toes, during his career he also had been involved in a great variety of criminal cases. He’d represented the gangster Mickey Cohen, who was accused of murdering infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel; he defended comedian Lenny Bruce multiple times on obscenity charges and renowned stripper Candy Barr in a drug possession case; he represented the legendary comedienne Mae West and his friend Errol Flynn. After Flynn’s sudden death, he represented Flynn’s teenage girlfriend Beverly Aadland, who applied for a share of Flynn’s estate claiming unsuccessfully that he had involved her in “immoral debauchery and sex orgies and taught her a lewd, wanton and wayward way of life.”
In addition to high-profile clients, Belli also took the case of a San Quentin inmate accused of stabbing to death another inmate, winning an acquittal by arguing self-defense. To prove to jurors that the defendant’s life was in danger in the prison, Belli “accidentally” tripped in the courtroom, causing a boxful of knives and sharp objects taken from other prisoners to scatter across the floor.
During World War II he represented God, or at least the leader of a religious cult who claimed to be God and was facing one hundred years in prison for encouraging sailors not to fight in the war. Describing the man as a harmless “crackpot” in his summation, he won an acquittal by pointing out the government had waited more than a year to bring charges. As a reward, his client named him “Second Typical God” rather than paying him.
Defending Jack Ruby seemed like a perfect fit. The trial would generate worldwide headlines, which was always good for business, and it was a seemingly hopeless case: an estimated ten million witnesses had seen Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald. He really couldn’t lose. No one would blame him if Ruby was convicted, but imagine if he could get an acquittal.
For the publicity-loving lawyer, the lure of worldwide attention could not be ignored. And that might translate into money: in addition to his $50,000 fee, which the Ruby family believed could be raised by selling Jack Ruby’s story, Belli also planned to profit from a documentary he would assist with about the trial and was confident the enormous publicity eventually would result in a book deal. He arrived in Dallas accompanied by a writer to assist him with the book and a documentary filmmaker.
But he told reporters that the money was not a factor in taking the case. The Ruby family, which was spread around the country, could not possibly pay his normal fee upfront.
He took it, he said, because it was a great legal challenge: “Here was the first time in the history of man and the law that anyone was going on trial for murdering another man on live television with a national audience.”
Dan Abrams is a legal analyst for ABC.
David Fisher is an author.
This column is an excerpt from their new book, Kennedy’s Avenger, published in The Dallas Morning News with permission of Hanover Square Press.
Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor and you just might get published.