Few things are so simultaneously commonplace in occurrence and mysterious in its causes and consequences as mental illness. Few witnesses to the trail of Jack Ruby could miss his mental illness, best expressed in his — not just silence, but — apparent disconnection from his own trial.
ABC News Legal Analyst Dan Abrams and his coauthor, our guest today, David Fisher, show in meticulous detail in their new book Kennedy’s Avenger, the emotional disturbances that put Ruby in the defendant’s chair began in his childhood and may well have been inherited from his two psychologically damaged parents.
Ruby’s mental instability was frequently on display in petty tantrums and brutal beatings given and taken during his career running a series of strip clubs in Dallas. There seems little reason to doubt that Jack Ruby’s mental illness played a big role in the act that brought him to Texas judge Joe Brown’s court — the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who had killed Ruby’s and much of America’s bright, shining hero — President John F. Kennedy.
But mental illness is an insufficient defense against a charge of what in Texas was called “murder with malice.” Many defendants suffering from mental illness have been charged, convicted and executed for intentionally killing another human being. To beat that rap, the defendant must convince a judge or a jury that they are not just mentally ill, but criminally insane, literally unable to know right from wrong when they did what they did.
Proving criminal insanity is very hard to do, and convincing the jury you’ve done so is even harder, and Ruby’s bull-throwing barrister, the flamboyant defense attorney Melvin Belli, failed to do so. The jury rather quickly and unanimously found Ruby guilty and he was convicted and sentenced to death.
Significantly, Ruby probably agreed with the jury. His lawyer’s arguments notwithstanding, Jack Ruby always contended he wasn’t crazy.
But the guilty verdict was overturned on appeal and Jack Ruby died of cancer before a second trial could be held.
The trials at the heart of Abrams and Fisher’s three previous books, Lincoln’s Last Trial, Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense and John Adams Under Fire showed American jurisprudence at its best. The trial of Jack Ruby was annulled because it was, in so many ways, American courtroom incompetence and borderline abuse at its worst. But what could be more interesting than that?
For more than three decades, David Fisher has been writing about an extraordinary variety of subjects, ranging from major league baseball umpires to Nobel Prize winning biochemists. He is the author of more than 80 books, among them 24 New York Times bestsellers, and has been a frequent contributor to major magazines and newspapers. He is the only writer ever to have a work of non-fiction, a novel and a reference book offered simultaneously by the Book-of-the Month Club. His latest book, written with Dan Abrams, is Kennedy’s Avenger, their fourth book about historic American trials, following Lincoln’s Last Trial, Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense and John Adams Under Fire.