Quite the Humbling Compliment

Quite the Humbling Compliment

I heard that Dan Abrams and David Fisher were coming out with a book about the Jack Ruby Trial called Kennedy’s Avenger: Assassination, Conspiracy and the Forgotten Trial of Jack Ruby. When the June 1st release date finally came, I went to the local bookstore and picked up a copy. Back at home and 14 pages later, I almost fell out of my chair:

“Texas Judge Brandon Birmingham, an expert on the Ruby trial, had access to many of the original documents and pieces of evidence in that trial…”

Quite the humbling compliment to receive on a Tuesday evening. Over the next few days, I received a number of texts from friends also interested in the Ruby trial, all asking in one form or another whether it was worth the read. The answer? 

Absolutely yes.

Abrams and Fisher make the trial come alive. By weaving together authentic transcripts, news accounts, law review articles, books and interviews, you’ll feel like you’re actually in court: “Ruby sat still, his hands clasped on the table, showing no emotion as Belli continued probing, looking for additional problems with the testimony.”1See p. 180 They animate the sterile environment of the courtroom: “Trying to disrupt the defense’s rhythm, Wade pointed out to Judge Brown, ‘I believe you instructed counsel to sit down.’ Belli was struggling to stay seated. He loved the histrionics of a trial; the dramatic steps toward the witness or the jury box, thrusting out his arms to make a point, sitting on the front of the defense table. All of those movements calculated to reinforce his case. But Judge Brown was practically keeping him hog-tied. It was confining, it was frustrating, as if he were a stage actor forced to say his lines while hidden in the wings.”2See p. 166. The toxic, snarky, vituperative3I’m using this word in honor of Bill Alexander in his closing argument to jurors: “Vituperation is not logic.” Full disclosure: I’d never heard that word before in my life, and I’m not sure how to pronounce it, but the definition sure fits the antagonistic clashes between the lawyers: “sustained and bitter railing and condemnation.” relationship between the prosecution and defense leaps off the page, too: “When suggesting the judge needed to read specific articles rather than the entire newspaper Belli said, “We don’t want Your Honor to read all of the corn ads or cotton ads…unless they are enlightening the District Attorney.”4See p. 55. 

Most interesting to me was the author’s insightful use of two specific types of context: current events surrounding the trial and legal context for the most impactful aspects of the trial. First, the current events: “Dallas was trying to leave its past behind; taking steps to reinforce its image as a modern city welcoming to all, a good place for growing businesses to find an educated workforce, affordable land and available housing….But other forces, powerful forces, envisioned a significantly more conservative Dallas. Texas oilman H.L. Hunt, reputed to be the richest man in the world, was a founding member of the John Birch Society, an anti-communist, anti-civil rights organization that had been actively campaigning against Catholic president John F. Kennedy.”5See p. 20.   Readers also get an idea of what was happening in America during the trial: “As lawyers on both sides began rehearsing their closing arguments and the jurors began preparing to go home, history was being made outside Judge Brown’s borrowed courtroom. In Washington, the Department of Justice had asked a federal court to order Alabama governor George Wallace to immediately allow integration in the state’s public schools. Secretary of State Robert McNamara announced that our military forces would begin pursuing Viet Cong guerrilla fighters into North Vietnam. At newly named Cape Kennedy, the fourth stage of a Blue Scout rocket failed, and its thirty-three pound gold-plated scientific probe plunged back into the Earth’s atmosphere and was destroyed.” 6See p. 325.

The Trial presented the first time that a killing was captured on live television. There were no rules of evidence or cases allowing for the introduction of a replay of a live feed. The authors take the reader through a tastefully concise history of the evolution of the admissibility of pictures that culminated in the introduction of the replay of Oswald’s killing for jurors: “The use of ‘Sun-Pictures’ in a courtroom was first mentioned by the Supreme Court in 1859…As early as 1920, moving pictures were used in civil trials…Any remaining questions about the value and impact of footage in criminal proceedings were answered in 1945 when the surviving Nazi leaders were placed on trial in Nuremburg.”7See p. 167-168. Incidentally, we learn that when the footage was played for jurors, it was the first time “Judge Brown and Jack Ruby had seen footage of the incident.” Abrams and Fisher take the audience through the history of the Defense adopted by Ruby’s lawyers, temporary insanity. They begin by discussing Congressman Daniel Sickles’ murder trial in 1859 where the “concept of temporary insanity became an accepted defense,”8See p. 215. tracing it’s development in famous trials leading up to Ruby’s, including Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. They even offer a brief history of jury trials: “The concept of an American Jury voting to determine a defendant’s fate was more than three hundred years old.”9See p. 345.

It’s a fascinating chronological read, steeped in legal history, and pulsing with the legendary personalities of the participants. Take a read and let me know your thoughts.

I promise it will be a dignified discussion, even if you think they totally missed the mark on designating one of their experts.