Was Lee Harvey Oswald's killer part of a conspiracy?
Copyright © 2000, 2003 by David Reitzes
Many take it for granted that if there was an assassination conspiracy, Jack Ruby must have been involved. In fact, many people believe there was a conspiracy precisely because of Ruby's murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, which had the effect -- intentional or not -- of silencing the accused assassin.
But whether there was a conspiracy or not, there is no reason to assume that Ruby must have been involved. In fact, logic tells us that no conspiracy could profit by silencing Oswald in a public fashion: What's the point of eliminating one suspect while simultaneously handing the police another? Also, were it Oswald's intention to "talk," he'd already had nearly 48 hours in which to do so. Every minute he waited only diminished the chance that others involved could be apprehended. By that time, any conspirators would have to assume he'd already spilled his guts.
Another factor to be considered is whether Ruby was the type of person to be entrusted with any responsibility, when a single word from him could have resulted in the arrest of others involved. Dallas reporter Tony Zoppi knew Ruby well and says one "would have to be crazy" to entrust Ruby with anything important, that he "couldn't keep a secret for five minutes. . . . Jack was one of the most talkative guys you would ever meet. He'd be the worst fellow in the world to be part of a conspiracy, because he just plain talked too much."(1) "Jack Ruby would be the last one that I could ever trust to do anything," says Ruby's rabbi, Hillel Silverman.(2)
According to stripper Janet "Jada" Conforto, Ruby was "totally unpredictable. . . . Completely emotional. One minute he is nice, and the next minute he goes berserk. . . . I don't think he is sane."(3) American Guild of Variety Artists official Johnnie Hayden called Ruby a "kook" because of his unpredictable and erratic outbursts.(4) Edward Pullman, whose wife worked for Ruby, called him "insane. He was a psycho. . . . He was not right."(5) William Serur knew Ruby for over ten years and said, "In the last few years I thought he might have been suffering from some form of . . . mental disturbance, by the way he acted."(6)
Rabbi Silverman says, "He was a very volatile, a very emotional, unbalanced person. He thought he was doing the right thing [when he shot Oswald]. He loved Kennedy."(7) "I hope I killed the son of a bitch," Ruby said immediately afterwards to the Dallas police who arrested him. "It will save you guys a lot of trouble."(8) He told Assistant DA Bill Alexander, "Well, you guys couldn't do it. Someone had to do it. That son of a bitch killed my President."(9)
"Jack actually thought he might come out of this as a hero of sorts," says Alexander. "He thought he had erased any stigma the city had by knocking off Oswald."(10) Attorney Jim Martin spoke to Ruby soon after his arrest and says, "He never expected to spend a night in jail."(11)
In fact, when the crowd outside Dallas Police Department headquarters heard that Oswald had been shot, they burst into applause.(12)
In the 36 years since the nightclub owner emerged from the shadows to gun down Oswald, Ruby's life has become one of the most intensely scrutinized biographies in American history; yet not a shred of evidence has ever surfaced to link him to an assassination conspiracy. Is it really possible that Ruby covered his tracks so thoroughly?
The only thing people can do to indicate a role for Ruby in a conspiracy is to take Ruby's own words out of context, something countless researchers have been all too willing to do. Oliver Stone's JFK depicts Ruby before the Warren Commission, begging to be taken back to Washington so that he can give "further testimony," presumably of a conspiratorial nature.
But Stone omits what is arguably the most lucid, significant remark of Ruby's testimony, when he told Chief Justice Earl Warren, Gerald Ford and others, "I am as innocent regarding any conspiracy as any of you gentlemen in the room . . ."(13) Ruby was actually begging the commission to take him back to Washington so that he could take a polygraph examination and prove that he was telling the truth when he denied any role in a conspiracy.
Mr. RUBY. Without a lie detector test on my testimony, my verbal statements to you, how do you know if I am telling the truth? . . . I would like to be able to get a lie detector test or truth serum of what motivated me to do what I did at that particular time . . .(14)
It was precisely this concern that was voiced when Ruby asked:
Mr. RUBY. Is there any way to get me to Washington?
Chief Justice WARREN. I beg your pardon?
Mr. RUBY. Is there any way of you getting me to Washington?
Chief Justice WARREN. I don't know of any. I will be glad to talk to your counsel about what the situation is, Mr. Ruby, when we get an opportunity to talk.
Mr. RUBY. . . . I would like to request that I go to Washington and take all the tests that I have to take. It is very important. . . . Because I have been over this for the longest time to get the lie detector test.(15)
Ruby made a number of statements that are all too easily taken out of context. For example:
Mr. RUBY. Gentlemen, my life is in danger here. . . . I may not live tomorrow to give any further testimony. The reason why I add this to this, since you assure me that I have been speaking sense by then, I might be speaking sense by following what I have said, and the only thing I want to get out to the public, and I can't say it here, is with authenticity, with sincerity of the truth of everything and why my act was committed, but it can't be said here.
It can be said, it's got to be said amongst people of the highest authority that would give me the benefit of doubt. And following that, immediately give me the lie detector test after I do make the statement.(16)
It is not any alleged conspirators that threaten Ruby, however. Rather, he fears that if he is believed to be part of an assassination conspiracy, someone might do to him -- and members of his family -- precisely what he had done to Oswald:
Mr. RUBY. [S]ome persons are accusing me falsely of being part of the plot . . . a plot to silence Oswald. . . . [T]he people that have the power here . . . already have me as the accused assassin of our beloved President.(17) I tell you, gentlemen, my whole family is in jeopardy . . . as to their lives. . . . Naturally, I am a foregone conclusion. My sisters Eva, Eileen, and Mary, I lost my sisters. My brothers Sam, Earl, Hyman, and myself naturally -- my in-laws, Harold Kaminsky, Marge Ruby, the wife of Earl, and Phyllis, the wife of Sam Ruby, they are in jeopardy of loss of their lives . . . just because they are blood related to myself . . . Consequently, right at this moment I am being victimized [falsely portrayed] as a part of a plot in the world's worst tragedy and crime at this moment. . . . At this moment, Lee Harvey Oswald isn't [seen as being] guilty of committing the crime of assassinating President Kennedy. Jack Ruby is. How can I fight that, Chief Justice Warren?(18)
Ruby was also very specific about precisely who was most actively pushing the theory of his involvement in a conspiracy:
[T]here is a certain organization in this area that has been indoctrinated that I am the one that was in the plot to assassinate our President. . . . The John Birch Society.(19)
Ruby was correct; the John Birch Society was indeed spreading propaganda implicating Ruby as part of a Jewish conspiracy. In fact, Ruby correctly named resigned US Army Major General Edwin Walker as one of the society's leaders in Dallas,(20) and it is quite telling that when Walker appeared before the Warren Commission, he insisted upon referring to Ruby by his birth name, Rubenstein.(21)
If certain people have the means and want to gain something by propagandizing something to their own use, they will make ways to present certain things that I do look guilty."(22) . . . If you don't take me back to Washington tonight to give me a chance to prove to the President that I am not guilty, then you will see the most tragic thing that will ever happen. And . . . I won't be around to be able to prove my innocence or guilt.(23). . . I am used as a scapegoat, and there is no greater weapon that you can use to create some falsehood about some of the Jewish faith, especially at the terrible heinous crime such as the killing of President Kennedy. . . . Now maybe something can be saved. It may not be too late, whatever happens, if our President, Lyndon Johnson, knew the truth from me. But if I am eliminated, there won't be any way of knowing. Right now, when I leave your presence now, I am the only one that can bring out the truth to our President, who believes in righteousness and justice. But he has been told, I am certain, that I was part of a plot to assassinate the President. . . .(24)
Ruby's attorney Joe Tonahill asked, "Who do you think is going to eliminate you, Jack?" Ruby replied, in another statement that has been quoted out of context by even reputable journalists such as Seth Kantor, "I have been used for a purpose [for propaganda by anti-Semitic organizations like the Birch Society], and there will be a certain tragic occurrence happening if you don't take my testimony and somehow vindicate me so my people don't suffer because of what I have done. . . . You have lost me though. You have lost me, Chief Justice Warren. . . . I won't be around for you to come and question me again. . . . All I want is a lie detector test, and you refuse to give it to me."(25)
For those more intent upon pinning the blame on Ruby than discerning the true nature of the facts, the only thing left to do is insist he was lying. One assassination researcher has even made repeated claims that the polygraph test Ruby eventually took indicated that Ruby was, in fact, lying. This researcher has claimed that "a panel of 9 polygraph experts determined that there were blatant signs of deception during Ruby's polygraph test, when he was asked about knowing Oswald and about involvement with Oswald in the assassination."(26)
This researcher asserts this in spite of the fact that the panel in question, that of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, actually concluded: "It is emphasized by the panel, however, that no opinion could be rendered on the validity of this examination or the reliability of the results for the numerous reasons discussed in this report."(27)
Click here to read the House committee's full report on Ruby's polygraph examination.
What about the question of motive? Did Ruby really shoot Oswald because he wanted to spare Mrs. Kennedy the ordeal of Oswald's trial? Or did he have a more obvious motive? "Everybody has fantasies about wanting to be a hero," says James R. Leavelle, the homicide detective in the white hat who was handcuffed to Oswald when Ruby emerged from the shadows. "Ruby told me an interesting thing when I was a patrolman," Leavelle recalls, "which didn't make any sense to me at the time, but it did after [Ruby shot Oswald]. He told me, 'I'd like to see two police officers sometime in a death struggle about to lose their lives, and I could jump in there and save them and be a hero.'"(28)
Leavelle accompanied Ruby when he was transferred from the city jail. He says, "When I transferred him, I told him when we were going down on the elevator, 'Jack, in all the years I've known you, you've never done anything to hurt a police officer, but you didn't do us any favors this time.'" Ruby replied, "Well, all I wanted to do was be a hero, and it looks like I just fouled things up." ("Except he used another word for it," notes Leavelle.)(29)
Sgt. Gerald Hill had known Ruby for over a decade at the time of the assassination. Hill says, "I think his calculating mind was going all the time on the assumption that 'I'll shoot Oswald. Public sentiment will get me off, and then I'll make a million bucks because everybody'll come to see the man that killed the man that killed the President!'"(30)
Police Captain W. R. Westbrook had also known Ruby for years. Westbrook says, "Ruby probably thought he was going to be a hero, maybe like John Wilkes Booth."(31)
Captain L. D. Montgomery, who also knew Ruby, concurs: "I think that he thought that if he killed the man that killed the President, then it would make him a hero and possibly some money."(32)
How long is the statute of limitations on suspicion? When does the research community admit that it has no evidence against Jack Ruby, and direct its efforts in more productive directions? Through "certain falsehoods that have been said about me," Ruby once lamented, "I am as good as guilty as the accused assassin of President Kennedy." He asked, "How can you remedy that, Mr. Warren? Do any of you men have any ways of remedying that?"(33)
Four decades on, no answer is in sight.
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Ruby's complete, unedited Warren Commission testimony
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1. Gerald Posner, Case Closed (New York: Random House, 1993), pp. 361, 399, citing his interview with Tony Zoppi of November 19, 1992.
2. Posner, 399. Rabbi Silverman was one of Ruby's closest confidantes following his arrest, first meeting with him on November 25, then roughly once or twice a week thereafter until Silverman moved to Los Angeles in July 1964. Silverman happened also to be friendly with Warren Commission junior counsel David W. Belin; the two had met during the summer of 1963, during a study mission to Israel. On one of Belin's first trips to Dallas on behalf of the commission, he asked Silverman his opinion as to whether Ruby was a part of a conspiracy. "Jack Ruby is absolutely innocent of any conspiracy," Silverman unhesitatingly replied. (David W. Belin, Final Disclosure [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988], pp. 35-37.)
3. El Paso Herald Post, January 1, 1964; Posner, p. 359.
4. Warren Commission Exhibit No. 1449; Posner, p. 359.
5. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. XV, p. 228; Posner, p. 359.
6. Warren Commission Exhibit No. 2411; Posner, p. 359.
7. Posner, p. 399.
8. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, 245; XIII, p. 308; Posner, p. 398.
9. Posner, p. 399, citing his personal interview with Bill Alexander, March 12, 1992.
11. Posner, p. 399.
12. Posner, p. 399 fn.
13. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 204. For more on this issue, see author Jean Davison's evaluation of the treatment Ruby's testimony undergoes in Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment.
14. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 181.
15. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 190.
16. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 194.
17. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 209.
18. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 197.
19. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 198.
20. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 197.
21. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. XI, pp. 421, 423.
22. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 209.
23. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 210.
24. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 211.
25. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 211.
26. Robert Harris has posted an article on this subject, which argues that the HSCA panel concluded that Ruby lied when he answered "no," to the question, "Did you assist Oswald in the assassination?" The panel noted "a constant suppression of breathing and a rise in blood pressure at the time of this crucial relevant question. From this test, it appeared to the panel that Ruby was possibly lying when answering 'no' to the question."
There are at least a half dozen problems with Harris' conclusion. First, the HSCA panel noted no such reaction when Ruby answered "no" to the previous question, "Did you know Oswald before November 22, 1963?" A literal interpretation of these two questions would be that Ruby did not know Oswald, but was somehow involved in the assassination. This is possible, of course, but another equally valid interpretation would be that mention of the assassination upset Ruby for some other reason. It seems not inconceivable that this could be the case.
Second, Ruby's reaction to the question Harris cites is comparable to the reaction the HSCA panel observed when he answered "no" to the questions, "Are you now a member of the Communist Party?" and "Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" In fact, this latter question "also evoked by far the most dramatic breathing reaction" of the entire examination. Therefore, by Harris's reasoning, Jack Ruby was a Communist.
Third, the panel noted that prior to Ruby being asked if he assisted Oswald in the assassination, the so-called neutral control question asked him by his examiner was anything but a "neutral" question: "Have you ever been arrested?" The panel noted twice in its report that they "believed this to be an extremely poor control question."
Fourth, the panel noted numerous procedural errors in the administration of Ruby's polygraph examination, any one of which they noted could have invalidated any conclusions drawn from it.
Fifth, the HSCA panel's specific conclusion regarding the question about Ruby's assisting Oswald in the assassination was that "it appeared to the panel that Ruby was possibly lying." This is followed by the statement, "It is emphasized by the panel, however, that no opinion could be rendered on the validity of this examination or the reliability of the results for the numerous reasons discussed in this report."
Sixth, polygraphs are a notoriously unreliable indication of dishonesty in the first place, and most courts will not accept polygraph examinations into evidence for precisely that reason. The following is a selection of online articles that might be of interest regarding this topic:
Skeptic's Dictionary: Polygraph: The "Lie Detector" Machine
Polygraph Test Considered Invalid by Two Groups of Scientists
U.S. v. Scheffer
Lies, damned lies and polygraphs
Deception by Police
American Psychological Association: Psychologists Surveyed on Lie Detectors Say Most Are Not Valid, Not Scientifically Sound, and Can Be Easily Deceived"
Pinocchio Science: The Truth About the Polygraph
ACLU Briefing Paper: Lie Detector Testing
Polygraphs -- Danger to Innocent People?
The Poor Man's Polygraph
Jan. 21, 1998, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. vs. Gilliard on admissibility of polygraph to support claim of innocence
Committee on Judiciary, February 10, 1999, Arizona House of Representatives
Does the CIA stereotype Jews as security risks?
Lykken, David Thoreson, A Tremor in the Blood : Uses and Abuses of the Lie Detector (Plenum Press, 1998).
27. House Select Committee on Assassinations, Hearings Vol. VIII, p. 219.
28. Larry A. Sneed, No More Silence (Dallas: Three Forks Press, 1998), p. 402.
29. Larry A. Sneed, No More Silence (Dallas: Three Forks Press, 1998), p. 402.
30. Larry A. Sneed, No More Silence (Dallas: Three Forks Press, 1998), p. 301.
31. Larry A. Sneed, No More Silence (Dallas: Three Forks Press, 1998), p. 323.
32. Larry A. Sneed, No More Silence (Dallas: Three Forks Press, 1998), p. 422.
33. Warren Commission Hearings Vol. V, p. 211.