Justice for Johnson

by Ralph E. Shaffer

                                                               Ralph E. Shaffer
    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 

Johnson's guilt.

    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.    

                                     - - -

    (Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus in history at California State 

Polytechnic University, Pomona.)

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