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The Amateur Hit Man’

In response to:

The Amateur Hit Man from the May 11, 1995 issue

To the Editor:

In Norman Mailer’s fascinating exploration of Jack Ruby’s Mob connections [NYR, May 11], he speculates on explanations for what he considers the largest stumbling block to the Ruby-as-hit-man scenario: the fact that Ruby was conducting a Western Union transaction just minutes before he shot Lee Harvey Oswald. As a former federal prosecutor and later defense attorney, I have no trouble with the concept that Ruby may have taken a personal detour en route to his murderous assignment. Nor should anyone experienced with the often fractured logic and manners of criminals be surprised at their inefficiency.

I recall one complex heroin conspiracy trial in which I represented an individual whose role had been to provide counter-surveillance services for the main heroin dealers. The government had, however, identified him early on in the scheme, and federal agents tracked his movements to a local pizzeria where he was hanging out with his girlfriend during part of the time in which the heroin changed hands. I was able to persuade the jury that the timing of this pizza excursion was convincing exculpatory evidence. But it was apparent to everyone but the jury that he had merely been goofing off during part of the crime.

Crimes are not always committed logically, methodically, or intelligently. Every prosecutor has a store of anecdotes such as the bank robber who wrote the hold-up note on the back of a utility bill, and defense attorneys often argue that the sheer stupidity of their clients’ actions showed their innocence. No one has suggested that Jack Ruby was a “professional” hit man, and his frolic to run an errand minutes before he shot Oswald suggests, to my mind, only that he was as sophisticated as the next criminal.

J. Herbie DiFonzo
Chicago-Kent College of Law
Illinois Institute of Technology
Chicago, Illinois

Norman Mailer replies:

Nothing is more true of the events of November 22-24, 1963, than that they are epistemologically dysfunctional. How does one begin to know that what one knows about this case is knowable? So Mr. DiFonzo’s most interesting letter can certainly lay claim to its own purchase on reality, if, indeed, Jack Ruby knew that Oswald was still in the City Jail and had not been moved at 10:00 AM to the Dallas County Jail. Whereas I am proceeding on the assumption, testified to by Ruby’s roommate, George Senator, that Ruby thought Oswald had already been moved by 10:00 AM. So he only returned to the City Jail after 11:00 AM for tangential reasons, for auld lang syne, for the opportunity to brood over his failure to shoot Oswald. My basis for this is Case Closed, but then I am the first to say that Posner’s book is only intermittently reliable. So, let DiFonzo’s hypothesis stand against mine. I would add: Even if Ruby knew that Oswald was still at the City Jail at 11:00 AM, he might have tarried at Western Union in the hope that he would not encounter his target. My basic point is that Ruby was not only an amateur hit man but was scared stiff of the task before him.

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