Local Lawyer's Father Had Role In Jack Ruby Trial

By: Matt Howerton Email
By: Matt Howerton Email

WACO (November 21, 2013) On Friday, Americans everywhere will commemorate a day that shocked us 50 years ago and still continues to now. November 22, 1963 is a day many haven’t forgotten, a moment in history where the world stopped to marvel over the assassination of the 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Around 12:30 p.m. that day, Kennedy was shot to death in his uncovered limousine as his motorcade made its way through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. He was 46.

The sole suspect in the shooting, Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, was arrested for the murder of Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit over an hour later.

Days after his arrest, while in the process of being transported from Dallas Police Headquarters to Dallas County Jail, Oswald was shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby on live television.

Waco attorney and former Federal Prosecutor Bill Johnston was only a boy in Dallas at the time, but watched with wide eyes.

“I remember seeing it happen on our black and white television, then running and getting my dad who was in the garage and saying ‘something important has happened,’” Johnston said.

Johnston’s father is Wilson Johnston; he was serving as a prosecutor inside the Dallas County DA’s Office during the time of the assassination.

When JFK was assassinated, Wilson and others inside the Dallas County DA’s Office faced the possibility of trying Oswald for the shooting since assassinating a U.S. President or Vice President hadn’t been declared a federal crime yet. It later would be in 1965.

But that chance faded with Oswald’s death. The focal point for the trial of the decade would now be Jack Ruby.

As a boy, Johnston didn’t realize how much controversy surrounded the Ruby case and the fact his father and the Dallas County DA’s Office were at the center of it.

“My father believed that Ruby thought he was a hero after killing Oswald,” Johnston said.

“But in turn, what he did was rob America of a chance to have a full trial to understand what happened. All the conspiracy theories are alive today because there was no trial.”

Leading up to Ruby’s trial in 1964, Johnston would field unusual calls at his Dallas home.

“I would answer the phone, and in a thick Russian accent, a woman would ask for my father,” Johnston said.

“He would speak with this person for some time, and I would ask ‘who was that?’ He would just say, ‘that was Mrs. Oswald.’ Later, I found out he was talking with Oswald’s wife, Marina, about the Ruby case.”

In March of 1964, Ruby was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Shortly after, he appealed his conviction.

Johnston’s father crafted the prosecution’s response brief to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, fighting to uphold the conviction.

Johnston still has one of the original copies today.

“It’s pretty remarkable, it was rolled off a mimeograph machine which, you won’t find those around just anywhere anymore,” he said.

In October of 1966, Ruby won his appeal and his conviction was overturned. The reason, according to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, was primarily due to the refusal of the trial court to grant the motion for a change of venue, making it impossible for Ruby to obtain a fair trial.

However, Ruby died of cancer in January of 1967, merely a month before his retrial.

Still, conspiracies surrounding Ruby’s motives are still alive.

Johnston tries to ignore them, and sides with the opinions of his father.

“My father’s belief when it came to the assassination of Kennedy and murder of Oswald was simple,” Johnston said.

“He simply said they were stories of men with guns and hatred on their minds. But people just can’t accept that."

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