March 4, 1964: The First Day of Trial

March 4, 1964: The First Day of Trial

Today is Wednesday, March 4, 1964, Jack Ruby enters a plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, Henry Wade and his team lay out the whereabouts of Jack Ruby on the weekend of the assassination, and an exclusive interview with the man handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald. Day 1 is in the history books. Continue reading for this episode’s script.

Dozens of spectators began drifting into the Dallas county Criminal Courts Building this morning. Most of those gathering in the hallways and on the inside steps of the building said they had hopes of getting into the courtroom to see and hear what many are calling the “Trial of the Century.” Newsmen said today’s crowds were by far the largest since the Ruby affair began on February 17th.

Dressed in a neat blue suit, Jack Ruby rose from his chair to enter his plea to the murder charge against him. Beside him, stood his lawyer Melvin Belli. “Mr. Wade will you arraign the Defendant?” asked Judge Joe Brown. Mr. Wade, folded indictment in hand, walked around from behind the counsel table and took six steps to his left, stopping directly in front of Ruby. Mr. Wade put on his black horn-rimmed glasses and unfolded the indictment. Now facing each other, the defendant and Prosecutor stood less than a yard apart. The District Attorney began to read: In the name and by the authority of the state of Texas, the Grand jurors, good and lawful men of the county of Dallas and the State of Texas, duly elected, tried, impaneled, sworn and charged to inquire of all offenses committed within the body of the said county of Dallas, upon their oaths do present in and to the Criminal District Court Number 3 of Dallas county at the October term AD 1963 of said court that one Jack Rubenstein, alias Jack Ruby…The district attorney looked up: is that your name? The defendant started to say something, when he was interrupted by his attorney: “He answers to the name Jack Ruby.” Mr. Wade continued: on or about the 24th day of November in the year of our lord One thousand nine hundred and sixty three in the county and state aforesaid, did then and there unlawfully , voluntarily and with malice aforethought kill Lee Harvey Oswald by shooting him with a gun contrary to the form of the Statute in such cases made and provided and against the peace and dignity of the state. Signed by the foreman of the grand jury. The district attorney then read his own name as the signer of the indictment, “Henry Wade Criminal District Attorney of Dallas County, Texas.” Ruby bowed slightly at the waist, and in a low voice answered “not guilty”. Belli wanted the record to show that ruby and his lawyers were entering a double barreled plea – “not guilty and not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.”

Through 13 witnesses, District Attorney Henry Wade laid out his case against Jack Ruby, the man accused of murdering alleged presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24th, 1964. 5 newsman, 5 Dallas Police Officers, 2 civilians and the doctor who performed the autopsy on Oswald. Using these witnesses, Wade and his Assistant Bill Alexander outlined Ruby’s whereabouts during the days leading up to and following the assassination of president Kennedy. Dallas Morning News employees Don Campbell, John Newman and Georgia Mayer all testified about their personal interactions with Ruby in the moments leading up to and just after president Kennedy was killed. According to these witnesses, Ruby was the Dallas Morning News offices buying an ad for his nightclub, called The Carousel Club, located on Commerce Street. While the sale of the ad was taking place, the presidential motorcade was winding its way through the streets of Dallas. The prosecution entered into evidence two pictures depicting the view from the newsroom to the depository building, and were it not for some trees obscuring the view, a person standing in the office would have been able to see the assassination scene on Elm Street. Campbell says that Ruby was acting normal, nothing was out of the ordinary. Minutes later, when news of the assassination hit the office, Ruby and other employees surrounded a television and watched the breaking news. Ruby, just like everyone else, was stunned and quite upset. Later that day, at around midnight, KLIF Reporter William Duncan said that he received a call from Ruby, offering him an interview with District Attorney Henry Wade. Ruby made the call from the Dallas Police Headquarters where Oswald was being questioned. A few hours later at around 6 or 7 PM, DPD Officer Rutledge saw Ruby at the homicide division at DPD headquarters offering sandwiches to police officers and newsmen. He was also helping out of town reporters by acting as an interpreter of sorts, identifying for them city officials and policemen.

The day after the president was killed, November 23rd, KRLD Reporter Wes Wise was taking pictures at the School Book Depository, where he saw Ruby. Wise told Ruby about a set of saddles that were made and given to President Kennedy’s children. According to wise, Ruby became emotional, tears welling up in his eyes.  KLIF reporter Duncan also testified that he had another interaction with Ruby – this time at around 1:30 on the 23rd – Ruby brought sandwiches and soft drinks to the station, staying for about half an hour.  Ruby told Duncan that he was caught up in a commotion of newsmen and found himself standing right in front of Oswald. Ruby  seemed please that he was caught up in something important according to Duncan. Later that day at around 4 PM, DPD Traffic Officer Harkness testified that Ruby was  a part of the crowd at headquarters when Oswald was set to be transferred.

Continuing to outline the whereabouts of Ruby, a Western Union worker named Doyle Lane testified about one of the most important and controversial pieces of evidence in the trial – a money order sent by Jack Ruby for 25$ to Karen Lynn Bennett, a dancer at Ruby’s Carousel Club known as “Little Lynn.” An automatic timing device stamped the time of the transaction as 11:17 AM on November 24th. According to testimony, it was 4 minutes later when Ruby killed Oswald in the City Hall basement, Ms. Layne testified that Ruby appeared calm, cool and outwardly collected when he wired the money.

The next witness testified that he sold Jack Ruby the murder weapon, a Colt Cobra with a two-inch barrel, serial number 2744, on January 19, 1960.  The gun was shown to jurors and introduced into evidence as exhibit 6. Ray Brantley, owner of a hardware and sporting goods store at 730 Singleton, was asked by the defense whether he also sold guns to district attorney William Alexander. He did, although he couldn’t recall for jurors how many.

Homicide Detective Jim Leavelle was the State’s star witness for the day. Detective Leavelle  testified that he was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald’s right wrist when he began the walk from Captain Fritz’s office to the elevator that lead to the basement of City Hall, a journey lasting 3 or 4 minutes. When the elevator doors opened at the bottom, he described that the television lights were bright, shining directly into his eyes, and that the area was very crowded. He next notices out of the corner of his eye a man came from the crowd of reporters and photographers right up to him, Oswald, and fellow DPD officer LC Graves. He identified the man as Jack Ruby. He immediately noticed a pistol in Ruby’s right hand, raising it up as if he was preparing to shoot. Leavelle says that he reached out for Ruby’s shoulder as Ruby took two quick steps forward and fired the gun. His prisoner, Lee Harvey Oswald made a noise and said, “oh”, and slumped to the floor. Leavelle was being pulled to the ground by Oswald’s weight when he noticed Ruby’s right hand still contracting as though he was attempting to fire another shot.

I interviewed Det. Leavelle about his experience, and you can hear him describe the walk from the elevator into the garage. [Jim Leavelle recording played]. District Attorney Alexander introduced the historic photograph taken by Dallas Times Herald Photographer Bob Jackson as exhibit 9. The picture shows the actual moment Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Leavelle and another officer carried Oswald back to the jail office, and laid him on the floor and removed the handcuffs. Leavelle saw the gunshot wound on Oswald’s left side just under the short ribs. After he removed the handcuffs, Ruby was brought into the jail office. As Leavelle stood up and was putting his handcuffs in his belt, he ruby say “I hope the sonofabitch dies.” According to Leavelle, all of this happened within a minute of the shooting. He thereafter accompanied Oswald to Parkland Hospital in the ambulance, where Oswald died. A nurse later brought Leavelle the bullet recovered from Oswald, the same bullet introduced to jurors late this afternoon. Dallas County Medical Examiner Dr. Earl Forrest Rose was the last witness of the day, confirming his opinion that Lee Harvey Oswald died as a result of a gunshot wound of the chest.

Throughout the day, Jack Ruby’s Lawyers Melvin Belli and Joe Tonahill used every opportunity on cross examination to urge jurors that Ruby’s actions were not those of a man acting with premeditation and malice aforethought, but that Ruby was in what he says is a “fugue mental blackout” state emanating from psychomotor epilepsy. For example, during cross examination of Det. Jim Leavelle, Belli asked whether the picture taken by newsman Bob Jackson showed that Ruby was pulling the trigger with his middle finger instead of his index finger. Belli also pointed out that even though Ruby had no ill will against Leavelle or any of the police officers, he was still pulling the trigger even when the gun was not pointed at Oswald. In response, Det. Leavelle said, “I’ve examined that picture with a magnifying glass and I just couldn’t actually say” which finger was on the trigger. Belli also asked Leavelle whether the statement by Ruby that he “hoped the sonofabitch dies”  could have made in response to hearing someone in the crowd hearing “Oswald’s been shot!!” – as opposed to Ruby making the statement about something he did. Leavelle conceded that it was possible. The timeline of the money order is an important part of Ruby’s defense. Through their cross examination, Belli and Tonahill pointed out that when Ruby was at Western Union, he was not acting nervous or rushed, and he left his beloved dog Sheba in his car outside the Western Union store.

To Belli and Tonahill, all of this proves that Ruby was not in a normal state of mind; rather Ruby was acting as an automaton in a black out state caused by psychomotor epilepsy. Dallas Morning News’s Georgia Mayer, Ruby had a fixed stare while in the newspaper’s offices upon hearing the news of the assassination. The Defense asked her whether she had ever seen anyone in an epileptic seizure, and whether Ruby appeared to have been in one. The Defense also compared Ruby to a Damon Runyan character – the type of person that is not particularly liked by anyone, but is tolerated and harmless.

The verbal sparring between the lawyers that began at the first bond hearing in December continues during the trial. Belli asked a witness whether some police officers and prosecutors were members of Jack Ruby’s strip club called the Carousel Club. DPD Officer TB Leonard was asked by the Defense about Ruby’s character, describing him as odd and excitable. When the State asked if he was an attention seeker, Defense Attorney Melvin Belli stood and said, “We all want a little attention – even the District Attorney.” The comment drew the ire and objection of the District Attorney Henry Wade, one sustained by Judge Brown. Belli later asked a witness whether he was present when District Attorney Wade said Lee Harvey Oswald is the man “who shot the president, and he’s the man that will have to go to the electric chair?” The objection by the District Attorney to this line of questioning was also sustained.

Day one of the trial of the century has come to an end. Tomorrow, District Attorney Henry Wade and his assistant Bill Alexander are expected to call additional Dallas Police Officers to testify about statements allegedly made by Ruby in the chaotic moments after the killing. —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).

Carl Freund and Hugh Aynesworth, B 1964, “Ruby Shot Then Muttered He Hoped Oswald Died, Detective Tells Court,” Dallas Morning News, 5 Mar. P. 1 (Online NewsBank).

1964, “Attention Turns Briefly to Ruby,” Dallas Morning News, 5 Mar. P. 18 (Online NewsBank)

1964, “Western Union Figures Spur Ruby Trial Debate,” Dallas Morning News, 5 Mar. p. 18 (Online NewsBank).

1964, Ruby Rivals Differ Over Finger Used, Dallas Morning News, 5 Mar. p. 18 (Online NewsBank).

From the Dallas Times Herald on location at the Sixth Floor Museum as donated by Dallas Times Herald Reporter Bob Fenley:

  • Jerry Richmond and Bob Fenley, First Witnesses Call Ruby Volatile as Prosecution Starts Building Case, March 4, 1964.
  • Bob Fenley, Defense Went All Out to Win Prospective Juror’s Sympathy for Ruby, March 4, 1964
  • Jim Lehrer, Twelve Citizens Begin Deciding Ruby’s Future, March 4, 1964
  • Stan Weinberg, Decorum Policy of Judge Wilson, March 4, 1964
  • Texas Supreme Court Again refuses Hearing on TV Witness Status
  • Get Well, Your Honor, March 4, 1964
  • Process of Trial Outlined, March 4, 1964
  • Pale But Relaxed, Ruby Quietly Pleads Not Guilty