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The Jack Ruby Trial: A Teaching Moment

There was only one criminal trial in Texas related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jr, the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald killer Jack Ruby. And for the people of Dallas who wanted to clear their lawless name and fame after the hunting of the president, it was the only game in town. Though there remains much speculation over Ruby's relationships and role in the killings, his trial remains instructive to lawyers nearly a half century after the verdict forms were read.

Don't get hometowned and preserve error for appellate review.

Ruby was represented by the nation's then most prominent personal injury lawyer, Melvin Belli - who many would argue was handicapped by his lack of experience with Texas juries. Although he had local counsel, Belli ran the show. Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade and his assistants often ran rings around Belli with the judge and jury in large part on account of their familiarity with Texas law and Texans.

This was particularly evident when a locally respected Dallas pyschiatrist opined that Ruby was not insane at the time Oswald was killed, dismissing the seizure / insanity theories advanced by Belli's more nationally prominent experts. The jury went with the local boy, convicted, and sentenced the night club owner to death.

Belli had been afraid that Dallas County jurors couldn't be fair because their honor was at stake and on accout of the tremendous local negative publicity the killing and his client had received. He filed a motion and supported by witnesses, to have the trial moved, but the Judge ruled otherwise and kept it in Dallas.

Two and a half years later the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction on the grounds that Belli's pre-trial motion to change venue on account of publicity was correct. However, it made no difference as Ruby died before a re-trial could be had.

Both the judge and jury foreman have since penned their own memoirs and countless conspiracy theorists have also weighed in. But don't take anyone's word for it, read it.

Much of the March 1964, trial transcript is available in the Kaplans'The Trial of Jack Ruby, published a few years after the trial.

For most modern trial lawyers, venue changes on account of publicity may be very rare, but the direct and cross examination of the experts in Ruby's trial as discussed in the orginial 1966 volume are a valuable source of both strategic and tactical insight on presenting and defending expert mental health testimony.

The bottom line: Get Local and Get it On the Record.


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