Justice for Johnson
by Ralph E. Shaffer
Ralph E. Shaffer
"JUSTICE FOR JOHNSON;" EXONERATE THE ONE-ARMED MAN!
It's not often society gets a chance to right a terrible wrong, admitting
that a man long deemed a scoundrel really was a saint or exposing a pillar of
the community for the demon he truly was. But if an injustice can be erased,
even years later, those who have it within their power to make amends for a
frightful mistake have an obligation to do so.
If DNA samples eliminate Dr. Sam Sheppard as the source of bloodstains
found near his murdered wife in 1954, local and state authorities in Ohio ought
to be the first to concede that an innocent man was wrongfully convicted.
Likewise, it's time for QM Productions and ABC to atone for the gross injustice
heaped upon Fred Johnson.
Johnson was the one-armed man who for 35 years has borne the guilt for the
brutal murder of Helen Kimble, wife of a Stafford, Indiana pediatrician in "The
Fugitive," television's remarkable chase drama of the mid 1960s that was
inspired by the Sheppard case. During the program's initial run on ABC, for
years on local re-runs and soon on home video, viewers have accepted without
question the myth that Dr. Richard Kimble was falsely convicted and sentenced
to death for her murder.
A few disbelievers think otherwise. Johnson, not Kimble, was the
"innocent victim of blind justice." Taking a cue from recent developments in
the Sheppard case, civil libertarians are forming "Justice for Johnson" clubs.
The one-armed man awaits exoneration.
Much of the responsibility for Johnson's plight lies with ABC, the then-
faltering third network whose ratings were skewed upward as millions of viewers
tuned in each week to watch Kimble change his identity and toil at many jobs in
a frustrating attempt to find Johnson and prove his own innocence. From the
program's debut in Sept., 1963, until the final episode in Aug., 1967, ABC
stayed afloat largely on the strength of David Janssen's sympathetic portrayal
of Kimble to a naive, liberal America demanding justice for an innocent man.
Catering to an audience that identified with Kimble as the victim of
misconstrued circumstantial evidence, ABC was reluctant to reveal the truth. To
have done so would have betrayed the trust that viewers placed in the network
and the program. All over America dials would have switched to other channels.
Even if ABC management had ever considered a truthful finale that admitted
Kimble's guilt, as the series neared its end such an admission became
unthinkable. To protect their reputations, ABC and QM Productions concocted a
bogus confession, allegedly made by Johnson shortly before he died violently at
the hands of the real culprits without a chance to tell what actually happened.
Granted, Fred Johnson was not the kind of guy you'd like to have living
next door. He spent time in prison, had a violent temper and rarely had a
friendly word for anyone. But his greatest liability was the public's inherent
prejudice, even in the liberal 'sixties, against a slovenly, ugly, disabled
man. Why, you could tell from his unkempt appearance and scowling face that he
was guilty. Had Johnson been picked up by the police at the time of the murder
Kimble would have had no trouble convincing a jury of his own innocence and
But Johnson, burglarizing the Kimble home as the doctor killed his wife,
fled when he and Kimble saw each other. Although Kimble had found the perfect
patsy, Johnson's escape was so successful that the police believed Kimble had
fabricated the whole story. His conviction was routine.
Freed by a train wreck on his way to the death house, Kimble spent four
years in a frustrating effort to track down the one-armed man. Along the way
he enlisted the help of good Samaritans, men and women alike who were taken in
by his winning smile and honest appearance. They willingly forged Johnson's
name to confessions, tortured him to coerce an admission of guilt, and
committed other illegal acts to force the one-armed man to confess.
Though Kimble appeared to be perfectly normal - an appearance that tended
to endear the affable doctor to those he encountered, especially women, and to
convince viewers of his innocence - he was mentally ill. Long before 1967 he
came to believe in his own fantasy that Johnson had murdered Mrs. Kimble. A
facial tic and an inexplicable limp, both of which were psychosomatic and
became more pronounced as the series progressed, were danger signals that
incompetent psychiatrists and doctors failed to spot.
Even police lieutenant Philip Gerard, whose own bungling had made possible
Kimble's escape and who became obsessed with Kimble's capture during those four
years, was part of the conspiracy against Johnson. Trapped in an unhappy
marriage and having nearly bankrupted the Stafford city treasury in his
relentless, Hugoesque pursuit of Kimble across America, Gerard could not permit
the capture of the one-armed man. A new trial would reveal his blatantly
excessive travel expenses. To prevent that, he shot an unsuspecting Johnson in
cold blood and corroborated Kimble's lie that Johnson confessed on the Stafford
watertower moments before he died.
Now, thirty years after Johnson's death, we have a chance to atone for all
the shame and disgrace we heaped upon that hapless one-armed man. Republic
Pictures must add a corrected final episode to their soon-to-be-released home
video. Even a low-life, such as Fred Johnson, who spent four years on the run
only to die amid the applause of the largest audience that had viewed a
television drama to that time, is entitled to a formal apology. From the grave
Johnson can at last raise one arm in triumphant vindication.
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(Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus in history at California State
Polytechnic University, Pomona.)
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