Obituary: John A. Conte / Prominent Beaver County lawyer consulted on Jack Ruby’s defense

Sept. 19, 1927 - May 25, 2014


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John Conte, a lawyer who once served as a consultant for the defense of Jack Ruby and won several record malpractice awards in Beaver County, diedSunday.

He was 86 and lived in Conway, where his family had settled after emigrating from Italy when he was 7.

Mr. Conte practiced law in Conway for nearly five decades and made a name for himself early.

It was his handling of a local murder case that landed him on the Jack Ruby defense team.

In 1963, he represented Walter Hlista Jr., who was accused of killing his father, Walter Hlista Sr., the police chief in Harmony.

Hlista confessed to shooting his father five times after being ordered to turn off the TV and go to bed.

In a novel defense for the time, he pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, saying he snapped after enduring years of abuse.

Mr. Conte argued that the beatings and mistreatment had so altered Walter Jr.’s mind that he could not form the intent to kill.

“It would be a barbarous thing to inflict punishment on someone who did not intend to do evil,” Mr. Conte told the jury.

After a sensational trial, the jury acquitted Walter Jr., who 20 years later killed himself and his 2-year-old daughter in the state of Indiana.

Two months after the acquittal, John F. Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, after which Jack Ruby shot Oswald.

Mr. Conte’s work on the Hlista case generated considerable publicity around the country and attracted the attention of Melvin Belli, who represented Ruby.

Belli flew Mr. Conte and his partner, Paul Courtney, to Dallas, where they consulted for several weeks about defense strategies.

News accounts of the time mention Mr. Conte but not his specific role, although his former law partners and his daughter said Belli rejected his suggestion to use a similar defense as the one he had used in the Hlista case.

The idea was that Ruby wasn’t in his right mind when he killed Oswald because he was overcome with grief for JFK, like almost everyone else in America.

“Dad told him to use the temporary insanity defense, and he didn’t do that,” said Mr. Conte’s daughter, Alane Scheider of Conway. “He later called my dad up and told him he should have done that.”

Ruby was convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed and won a new trial but died before it happened.

Back home, Mr. Conte’s career progressed. He handled criminal cases early on, served as an assistant district attorney and a special condemnation prosecutor for PennDOT in the 1960s and ’70s and later specialized in medical malpractice and personal injury.

One 1980s malpractice case he handled with partner Scott Melton resulted in the largest verdict in Beaver County — more than $2 million — up to that time, a record that lasted 19 years, according to his former law partners.

A $900,000 award he and Mr. Melton won in a 1980s defamation case against the owners of the New Castle News was one of the largest paid defamation verdicts in the country.

Mr. Conte’s partners said he had the common touch necessary to connect with juries.

“He really knew how to pitch a case in a way that people related themselves to our clients,” said one, Dan D’Antonio.

Mr. Conte was born in Italy in 1927 and came to America with his mother, Rosina, and brother, Anthony, in the 1930s. His father, Giuseppe, was already here and working on the railroad at Conway Yard.

Mr. Conte spoke no English but learned quickly. He graduated from Freedom High School and served in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II aboard a rescue tug in the Pacific. Anthony, who later became an anesthesiologist, served in the Army.

When Mr. Conte came home, he attended Geneva College, finishing at the top of his class, and earned his law degree from Boston College in 1952.

He was admitted to practice law in 1953, initially working out of a storefront office in the Northern Lights Shopping Center. He continued taking cases until 2000, when he suffered a stroke.

He and his wife, Joan, married in 1959 and raised six children in Conway. She still lives there, as do three of the children: Cheryl, Joe and Alane. Another, Cynthia, lives in nearby Baden, and John lives in Sewickley. A fourth daughter, Maureen, lives in Boston.

A Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. today at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Conway.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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