This is the first of three of excerpts fromLooking for Trouble, the memoirs of the late, legendary Canadian journalist Peter Worthington, now available for the first time as an ebook. Worthington died a year ago, on May 12, 2013. All proceeds of book sales will go to a memorial fund in Worthington's name at Toronto General Hospital's Supportive Care Unit in Heart Failure.
After having witnessed Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy, I was sent to cover surely the strangest court case ever. The 24-day trial in 1964 of Ruby had everything -- except dignity, decorum and the law.
For starters, Ruby was an unlikely candidate to be the avenger of Jack Kennedy. He was the antithesis of what Kennedy stood for: grace, style, a sense of mission, hope.
Born Jake Rubenstein in 1911, the son of an alcoholic Russian immigrant, Ruby had no home life or normal childhood to speak of. His mother was institutionalized for paranoia after her husband walked out on her and eight kids when Ruby was 12. He grew up on the fringes of the Chicago underworld, shrewd, vain, touchy and sensitive about his Jewishness.
Though he consorted with prizefighters, hookers and hoods, he yearned to be taken seriously and to be seen with celebrities.
After shooting Oswald in a Dallas underground police station garage, he was immediately buried under a pile of cops who ignored his plaintive cry: "Hey, you know me, I'm Jack Ruby...."
Melvin Belli, "Ole Doc," one of America's most spectacular lawyers, acted in Ruby's defense. He had won more $100,000 settlements for clients than any lawyer in captivity, and was known for his innovative courtroom tactics.
He was assisted by Joe (Bullmoose) Tonahill, a Texan who at six-foot-four and 260 pounds, had all the elegance of a longhorn steer.
On my return to Dallas three months after the Kennedy slaying, things had settled down. It was considered a right-wing, ultra-conservative city, with a frontier approach to justice. Special sales offered two pistols for the price of one: $49.95. Small wonder it was known as the murder capital of the U.S., holding that title temporarily over Detroit.
Into this atmosphere hove Mel Belli, a big, brash, blustering liberal who thrived on headlines and controversy. Belli made one big insurmountable error in judgment in his defense of Ruby in Dallas: he argued the law, presenting a legitimate if controversial defense rather than throwing himself on the mercy of the court and appealing to emotion.
Dallas was not prepared to consider a defense for Ruby or listen to an outsider from San Francisco. Ruby was a condemned man before the jury was even picked, although no one realized it at the time.
The Ruby trial was pure showbiz. While the witnesses and characters who surfaced during the trial were Damon Runyon, the judge and lawyers seemed straight out of Al Capp and Dogpatch. Judge Joe B. Brown's legal education before he was elected to the bench consisted of three years of night school 35 years earlier. In Dallas he was known as Necessity - "because Necessity knows no law."
Locals shuddered every time he appeared on TV. One day before court convened, the 350 or so assembled journalists failed to notice him enter at the rear. Judge Brown bellowed "Fire!" and thus attracted an impromptu press conference.
The air in the courtroom was turgid with blue cigarette smoke. To add a touch of class in deference to the foreigners, Judge Brown banned the smoking of cigars. He himself preferred chewing tobacco and rarely missed the green spittoon beside his raised bench.
An all-white jury of eight males and four women was finally chosen (Belli was to later complain that one juror had boasted he was going to see that Ruby got the chair).
Belli's assistant Joe Tonahill was more entertaining than Belli when questioning prospective jurors. He was fond of asking them: "Would yuh like to be a member of the first Texas jury to send an ex-G.I. (Ruby) to the 'lectric chair for killin' a dirty Communist?
The prosecution's assistant district attorney Bill Alexander was known as "The Burner" because of his record of sending some 20 men to the electric chair.
Outspoken to a fault, when I asked Alexander what he thought would happen to Ruby, he replied casually: "We're treating this as jest another nigger killin'; we'll give him a fair trial -- then fry him."
Belli's defense that Ruby had brain damage called psychomotor epilepsy which caused him to lose control during highly emotional situations, caused merriment in the court and was referred to variously as "motorcycle epilepsy " or "psycho-motor-pool epilepsy".
Typical episodes included Judge Brown's confusion over Ruby's roommate who referred to the five dachshunds Ruby owned, which he referred to as his "children".
"I thought you said he didn't have children", the judge said, puzzled. "They weren't children, they were dawgs", the witness replied.
"Then why did he call them children?" the judge asked, as the confusion escalated.
One day as a stripper who worked at Ruby's nightclub called Little Lynn (who was over nine months pregnant at the time), was waiting to testify, seven prisoners in the connecting county jail grabbed a woman hostage and fled. They had fashioned a pistol of soap, pencils and shoe polish, persuaded guards that it was real, and made their break, witnessed by some 100 million viewers.
Little Lynn fainted and Belli prepared to play midwife. A BBC reporter on the phone to his office was describing the action and repeatedly swore to his editors that he was neither kidding, nor had he been drinking. "Listen, you bloody fools, this is America, this is Texas ... any bloody insane thing is possible here!"
The next day, the New York Daily News ran an eloquent black headline: "Oh, Dallas!"
The jury returned in 140 minutes with a guilty verdict. In Texas, where the juries set the penalty, they opted for the electric chair. Belli returned to San Francisco in disgust. "I shall never return here; it's an evil, bigoted, rotten, stinking town."
As it happened, Ruby died three years later and won a form of immortality and a place in criminal and political legend. And as for conspiracy theories, the flaw is that Oswald was an ideologue, a semi-literate left-wing extremist, while Ruby wouldn't know what an ideologue was unless he did a strip-tease for him.
To choose two such perfect foils on which to base a presidential murder plot challenges credulity. There has been so much official deceit, perjury, rationalization and cover-up that the deeds seem more sinister than they actually have been.
We will probably never know the truth.
Tomorrow: "The Spy I Brought in From the Cold."