This website uses cookies

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience. By using our website, you agree to our Privacy Policy

Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

From the archive: 3 April 1964

From the archive: 3 April 1964


In 1964, SJ reported on the trial of Jack Ruby and considered the UK and US traditions of counsel


So the trial of Jack Ruby in Dallas is over at last and now, if the possibilities of appeal provided by American criminal practice are fully exploited, the real fight for his life will begin. There would be nothing very extraordinary if he were kept waiting in the death cell for two years or more while the lawyers carried his case from appeal court to appeal court. Chessman's agony of hope, deferred and eventually defeated, was protracted far longer. There is in a way something splendid in the solicitude which refuses to send even a condemned man to his death until every possible reason for a reprieve, no matter how technical, has been reviewed again and again, yet it is a merciless sort of mercy which allows a desperate man thus to clutch at straw after straw. It is a killing by inches, death by a thousand cuts, a prolonged agony, and, by seeming to turn the judicial process into a game of chess, ultimately undermines its very authority. The English way, with all its faults, has evolved a method of tying up the issues in a criminal case into a neat parcel which can be carried with a minimum of delay before the competent authorities, so that finality does not recede into an indeterminate future, and a self-doubting anxiety does not reduce justice to a state of suspended animation.


To the English one of the most extraordinary things about the Ruby trail was the relationship of counsel to his client and to the court. This is because our whole basic concept is different. Counsel in England is not conceived of as asserting his own personal convictions. The formalities of costume and conduct depersonalize him as far as possible. In wig and gown all counsel are reduced to an essential equality, almost an anonymity, before the court, submitting, not asserting. Their duty to their client dovetails with their duty to the court. We can all recall aberrations and departures from that exacting standard, but it remains the norm. In America, however, the lawyer is, as the saying is, personally "involved." He is not only counsel but propagandist too, and Melvin Belli of San Francisco, Ruby's counsel at the trial, is a typical, if somewhat larger than life, representative of that school of trial lawyers. Hardly was he retained for the defence before he was appealing to public opinion for his client on T.V. and in the newspapers. "Ruby," he told the nation, "is an intense, tragic, emotional man. Talking to him the hair rose on the hackles of my neck. I felt horror, revulsion, sadness. I saw myself and millions of fellow Americans."


Mr. Belli's whole approach to practice is spectacular. The tall doorway of his San Francisco office is flanked by rococo pillars with Corinthian capitals and two great antique lamps on wrought-iron brackets. The entrance is through black and gold wrought-iron gates. The rococo theme is reflected in the interior decoration. He has other offices in Tokio and Rome and he has published twenty-nine books, including "Belli Looks at Law and Life in Russia." A mane of white hair, a black fur-collared overcoat, Savile Row suits, high-heeled cowboy boots, crimson luggage, a pink velvet carpet-bag briefcase, all build up the compelling "image" of "The King of Torts" who has won his clients awards as high as $675,000 in personal injury cases and for whom verdicts of $100,000 are almost a commonplace... His courtroom properties regularly include blackboards for demonstrations, grisly skeletons for anatomical illustrations, vast photographic blow-ups. In murder trials his virtuosity has repeatedly secured the acquittal of his clients. No wonder Ruby's conviction stung him into an outburst which was remarkable even in the Dallas court, not notable for rigid formality. Amid the tumult in the courtroom after the verdict he shouted, "I hope they are proud of this jury that has been rammed down our throats. This is the most shocking thing I have seen in my lifetime. Do you believe this is part of the United States? We have seen a little bit of Russia here." At an impromptu Press conference in the courthouse he said: "This is a kangaroo court, a railroad court and everybody knows it… We are back a thousand years. The jury have made this a city of shame for evermore." Now his client has withdrawn his authority and the president of the American Bar Association has strongly criticised Belli for his outburst in court. He has declared his intention of resigning from the Bar Association, declaring: "They have attacked and hounded me most unjustly. The justiceability of their actions is horrendous." One can see why his vocabulary usually impresses the juries. SJ