The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The trial of the man who killed the man who killed Kennedy

Jack Ruby poses with women who worked in one of his nightclubs in Dallas. Two days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Ruby shot the gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, in a downtown Dallas parking garage. (Bettmann Archive)
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“Kennedy’s Avenger” is the fourth book in a series by Dan Abrams and David Fisher. The first three recounted largely ignored legal battles involving Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and John Adams. The authors claim that in “Kennedy’s Avenger” they are again telling “the story of an overlooked trial,” an assertion emphasized by their subtitle, “Assassination, Conspiracy, and the Forgotten Trial of Jack Ruby.” In fact, they have stood their formula on its head. Instead of an illustrious president they have given us Ruby, a paunchy, middle-aged, quick-tempered, mentally unstable, minor league hustler and strip-club owner who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald two days after Oswald murdered President John F. Kennedy. Throughout the book they repeatedly refute their own subtitle, writing that Ruby’s trial “instantly became the new national sensation,” that “for millions . . . the coming trial of Jack Ruby dominated their attention” and that “an audience of millions followed every twist.” So much for “overlooked.” But put aside this thematic jujitsu and what remains is an engrossing, lively and expertly crafted courtroom drama filled with colorful characters and having significant resonance for the present.

Abrams and Fisher adroitly narrate the trial, making the legal maneuvering understandable and fascinating, while offering some well-chosen digressions. We hear Ruby, “the owner of tawdry nightclubs and strip clubs,” telling a reporter in a choked voice, “I love this city because there is so much culture here.” We learn that until 1923 Dallas hanged condemned prisoners in a room in the Criminal Courts Building outfitted with a claw-footed bathtub to accommodate last-chance baptisms, and that during Ruby’s trial seven prisoners brandishing a gun carved from a bar of soap mounted a jailbreak from cells four flights above the courtroom. A BBC correspondent speaking over the telephone to disbelieving colleagues in London was overheard shouting, “Listen, you bloody fools, this is America, this is Texas . . . any bloody thing is possible here!”

In Abrams and Fisher’s telling, Ruby’s trial refutes the conspiracy theories that would have the mafia, the CIA, communists, Big Business or new President Lyndon Johnson hiring Ruby to silence Oswald before he could finger them. On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, a day after the assassination, Dallas newspapers and television stations announced that Oswald would be moved from police headquarters to the courthouse at 10 a.m. on Sunday. At the last minute his transfer was delayed for an hour when a U.S. postal inspector suddenly arrived and insisted on interrogating him. Meanwhile, Ruby had driven to a nearby Western Union office to wire $25 to an employee. The clerk handed him a receipt stamped 11:17 a.m. and recalled him appearing calm and collected. Upon leaving, Ruby noticed a crowd gathered around a ramp leading up from an underground police headquarters garage. He crossed the street and walked down the ramp and into the garage without being challenged. Oswald emerged from a door in the garage at 11:21, handcuffed and flanked by police officers.

Ruby idolized Kennedy and during the two days following his assassination had frequently burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably. Faced suddenly with an opportunity to avenge the president’s death, he stepped forward from a crowd of reporters, pulled out the loaded .38 caliber revolver that he carried to protect the cash receipts he collected from his clubs, and fired point blank into Oswald’s stomach, mortally wounding him. It was an impulsive and opportunistic murder, not the final act of a conspiracy. Had he planned the killing in advance, he would have driven downtown an hour earlier, when Oswald was scheduled to be transferred, and he would not have left his beloved dachshund Sheba (a dog he sometimes called “my wife”) locked in his car, where she could easily have died following his arrest.

Ruby’s lead defense attorney was Melvin Belli, a celebrated and flamboyant trial lawyer known for his Savile Row suits, cowboy boots, meticulous preparation and courtroom shenanigans. But Belli’s customary legal magic failed him in Dallas, and the jury deliberated for only two hours and 19 minutes before pronouncing Ruby guilty and sentencing him to death. Abrams and Fisher acknowledge disagreeing on the wisdom of Belli’s defense, with Abrams criticizing his decision to argue that Ruby had been temporarily insane. Belli successfully appealed the verdict, but Ruby died of cancer before he could have a new trial.

Scattered throughout “Kennedy’s Avenger” are reminders of how much, and how little, America has changed since 1964. Consider that there was not a single Jew, Catholic or union member among the 500 people in the jury pool, and that the prosecution challenged the handful of Blacks, calling them by their first names while addressing Whites as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” (Congress was still debating the Civil Rights Act, and faded letters saying “Whites Only” guarded courthouse water fountains.) Only married men and women and property holders could serve on a Texas jury, and the eight men and four women composing Ruby’s panel were all White Protestants. Prosecutors dropped hints that Ruby was gay, prompting one witness to report that he had never seen Ruby with a woman and another to say that he “seemed to enjoy being pressed in amongst all those men” in the garage. The indictment was read out in court as “the state of Texas versus Jack Rubenstein, alias Jack Ruby,” leading Belli to shout, “He answers to the name of Jack Ruby.” The trial also fertilized some QAnon-esque theories, among them that Oswald and Ruby were secret half-brothers and that conspirators had injected Ruby with cancer cells.

By killing Oswald, Ruby made it impossible for the American people to receive a full accounting of his motives, playing a role not unlike that of Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose objections to a bipartisan investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection may have put a full understanding of that traumatic event out of reach.

Kennedy’s Avenger

Assassination, Conspiracy, and the Forgotten Trial of Jack Ruby

By Dan Abrams and David Fisher

Hanover Square. 400 pp. $27.99