March 13, 1964: Closing Arguments

March 13, 1964: Closing Arguments

Today is Friday, March 13, 1964. Both Sides in the jack Ruby trial have rested their case. The high point of the trial is upon us – the lawyers make their final arguments to jurors. Continue reading for this episode’s script.

It’s been a week and two days since everything began. The jury has heard hours of testimony from Dallas police officers who saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. Many of them claimed Ruby said that he hoped Oswald would die. That becomes key on the charge that Ruby is guilty of murder with malice. Members of the local media and others who knew Ruby took the stand to offer what they knew about the night club owner. His love for attention, his desire to be where the action is and that he could very quickly become emotional. That is important for the main defense argument that Ruby suffered from psychomotor epilepsy when he jumped forward after walking down the basement ramp to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald.

While the lawyers involved on both sides of the trial have asked their pointed questions, they now have the painstaking task of turning over a week’s worth of testimony into an argument. Each will argue their side. They will take the answers from the witnesses and craft the witness’s words into why the jury should come to a certain conclusion.

But before the lawyers in the case make their closing arguments, the jury must be charged. They have to be told what they can consider and what they can’t. Most of the day will be spent with Judge Joe Brown going over the charge with District Attorney Henry Wade and his team and defense counsel Melvin Belli, Joe Tonahill and their team. This drags into the afternoon and then into the evening.

Finally! The jury is given the instructions in the jury charge in the State of Texas vs. Jack Ruby. Now comes the time when the attorneys stand up and present their closing arguments. Each side will take turns. Different attorneys will make the points they have studied. All of this is to convince the jury each side is right.

Let’s go into the courtroom now. Eric Bushman is standing by.

It’s a quiet yet very tense feeling inside the courtroom where nearly every seat is taken up by a journalist. This, by the way, isn’t Judge Brown’s assigned courtroom, his is much smaller. But because of the obvious international interest in this case, he has been given a courtroom that can fit about three times as many people as his.

This city has been rocked over the past four months and Dallasites finally see a light at the end of the very dark tunnel. This trial could mark the end to a tragic story… the assassination of a president, wounding of a governor and murder of a police officer. The man accused of firing those shots himself gunned down while surrounded by police. And now, the sole survivor of all that mess will soon know if he gets sent to an asylum or sent to the electric chair.

Prosecutor Bill Alexander is about to speak to the jury which has been waiting patiently all day for the lawyers and Judge Brown to come up with the jury charge. The jury elected to hear arguments this evening. It is 8 o’clock. And Bill Alexander is on his feet…

[Bill Alexander as read by Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Leighton D’Antoni]

Bill Alexander looks confident as he walks back to the prosecutor’s desk in the courtroom. Now we expect that lead prosecutor – District Attorney Henry Wade won’t speak until the end of their presentation. The defense will begin shortly. Brandon what were your takeaways?

Alexander makes the point that malice, or premeditation, doesn’t take days or weeks of planning, He argued it can happen in the blink of an eye. Also that Ruby had to be around Lee Harvey Oswald. Remember he was seen in the assembly room of the Dallas Police Department and some might argue Ruby was stalking him. Then he shows up on the November 24th in the basement and the rest is history. Are we coming up on the defense’s first argument?

It seems so. It looks like Phil Burleson is about to kick off the defense’s close. Here he is now.

[Phil Burleson as read by Dallas Nigel Redmond]

All right we are really getting underway. The night is setting in and it doesn’t seem like we will be breaking anytime soon. These lawyers will be going well into the night because this jury is ready to wrap this up. Now prosecutor Frank Watts is coming up. Let’s hear what he has to say.

[Frank Watts as read by Dallas County Prosecutor Bryan Mitchell]

Back outside the courtroom now where camera crews have created a bottle neck in an already packed area of Downtown Dallas. This trial has been going on the past 9 or 10 days literally around the corner from the Texas School Book Depository and up the road from where President Kennedy was assassinated. People from all corners of the world have come to either see the site or pay their respects. Now, people have gathered to be a part of this trial. You’ve heard defense counsel Phil Burleson argue that just because you didn’t go see President Kennedy’s motorcade… that doesn’t mean you aren’t a patriot. That defending the prosecution’s point that if Jack Ruby loved the president so much… why didn’t he go see him? Also he argued that there were a lot of people who wanted to see Lee Harvey Oswald, not just Ruby. Then prosecutor Watts brought up the point that whatever you think of Oswald, if you think he killed Kennedy or not, he deserved his day in court. He is and was innocent until proven guilty. And Jack Ruby ripped that right away from Oswald by preventing a trial. Let’s go back inside the courtroom.

Okay now we are going to get a show. Joe Tonahill from Jasper, Texas is about to argue for the defense. If anyone has been entertaining throughout this trial – including being fined by Judge Brown for breaking a pencil that then struck Brown’s bench – it has been Tonahill. Here he is…

[Joe Tonahill as read by Dallas Attorney Toby Shook]

Here outside the courtroom now as Judge Joe Brown has allowed for a short recess and it looks like Joe Tonahill is going to speak to one of the journalists following his remarks to the jury. It looks like he’s going up to WFAA newsman Bob Walker. Let’s listen in on their conversation.

[Audio of Bob Walker interview with Joe Tonahill]

That was Joe Tonahill talking to Channel 8’s Bob Walker. Let’s go back into the courtroom and Eric Bushman.

We expect a total of three more speakers, and Tonahill’s partner. The lead defense attorney from California will be up after we hear again from the prosecution. Here’s prosecutor Jim Bowie making his way to the jury box.

[Prosecutor Jim Bowie as read by Fox 4 News Anchor Steve Eager]

Outside the courtroom again where night has fallen but crowds remain. Just a few days ago we had that jail break right outside which added some more drama to an already infamous acre of land. While Joe Tonahill argued Jack Ruby was a sick man grieving over the loss of the President of the United States, Bowie just countered that it was a simple opportunity to kill. Ruby making his way into the basement right before the opportunity to make it into the history books. Now the final two speakers as this March 13th makes its way into March 14th. Eric, are we ready?

Yes we are. The two leads are about to present their final summation. The two men who led their respective teams. First, lead defense attorney Melvin Belli… a noted attorney known for shooting a cannon off the roof of his office to signal victory in his personal injury cases among other things. Graduated from the University of California at Berkley with a law degree from Boalt Hall School of Law. Here he is now…

[Melvin Belli as read by a Dallas Journalist who wishes to remain anonymous]

The final summation from the defense of Jack Ruby is complete. Their arguments are done for this trial. Now because the State has the burden of proof, just like they started arguments, they will finish arguments. It is late. It is well past Midnight on March 14th. The jury charges that began early in the day of March 13th seem like a lifetime ago. Let’s go back inside the courtroom for the final act.

An already exhausted Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade – who has been a native of the District Attorney’s office for over 15 years with a past life with the FBI – must give the performance of his life so far. Here he is for what we expect to be the final remarks to the jury before deliberations…

[Former Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade as read by Current Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot]

And with that the jurors will elect a foreman and retire for a few hours’ sleep. They’ve decided they will start deliberating in the morning… even though it is already well into the morning. The lawyers, the public and of course the defendant, Jack Ruby, do not know how long they will take to reach a verdict. The only question the lawyers can ask is, “Did I say the right thing and was I convincing.”

Reporters try to get a quick comment from District Attorney Henry Wade. He wouldn’t speak but he did admit something no lawyer ever admits while waiting for a verdict. He said he wasn’t satisfied with his final argument. He was exhausted. So, now a few hours sleep until the verdict watch continues. —End of Episode–

The transcript of the trial on the merits of the Jack Ruby trial is publicly available online from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Texas Digital Archive in the Court of Criminal Appeals Centralized Court Case Files Collection (each volume corresponds to 1 day of testimony).