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J. Tonahill, 88; Lawyer Helped Represent Jack Ruby

November 09, 2001|From Times Wire Services

Joe Tonahill, the colorful defense attorney who helped represent Lee Harvey Oswald killer Jack Ruby in Dallas, has died. He was 88.

Tonahill, who defended Ruby along with San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, argued that their client shot the man suspected of killing President John F. Kennedy while in epileptic shock triggered by flashbulbs going off around Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters.

A large man given to emotional outbursts at the trial, Tonahill was fined $25 during the court case for hurling a pencil to the floor. He paid with a $100 bill.

But he won a new trial for Ruby when an appeals court ruled that the gunman should not have been tried in Dallas because of the charged atmosphere left by Kennedy's assassination.

The case became moot when Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, died of cancer and a blood clot in his lungs Jan. 3, 1967.

Born in Hughes Springs, Texas, Tonahill earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas and his graduate degree at George Washington University.

He served with the Navy in the Pacific during World War II.

After his discharge, Tonahill set up a private practice in Jasper and later Beaumont, both in Texas.

Years after the Ruby trial, the attorney was asked if it was the biggest case he was ever involved in.

He replied without hesitation: "It was the biggest anyone was ever involved in."

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