What happens when Columbo’s cases go to court?


Prosecution montage 1

In response to my “second opinion” review of Dagger of the Mind, one commenter posed the question: “As a former prosecutor, how many of Columbo’s cases would actually hold up in court?”

I asked Columbophile if I could write another post for his blog setting forth my answer. He agreed, so here we are. We decided to use only the episodes he had reviewed thus far, so as not to interfere with future reviews (taking us up to Requiem for a Falling Star).

Because the episode that prompted this question, Dagger of the Mind, is “solved” by Columbo planting false evidence in order to trick his suspects into confessing, I think it’s reasonable to infer that the question quoted above is principally directed to the trickery issue.

Are police permitted to trick suspects into confessing? The answer is yes, as long as the confession remains voluntary and reliable. And that’s certainly true of suspects who are not in police custody and thus, for example, have no right to receive Miranda warnings.

Dagger 1
The all-at-sea confession from Lillian Stanhope would need reaffirming at Scotland Yard

The problem in Dagger of the Mind isn’t the trick, it’s the confession. Lillian Stanhope says: “He was mad. Don’t you see? … He didn’t know what he was doing. … And Sir Roger, that was my fault. … It was an accident.” What is she confessing to – an accident? Furthermore, by law, Lillian’s confession is inadmissible against her husband; and since Nicholas Frame was meanwhile babbling incoherently, we still have no proof against him. Nor proof of the Tanner murder. Hopefully for the sake of the case, when everyone settles down in an interview room at the Yard, the Frame-Stanhopes will be more forthcoming.

In other words, the ever-present Columbo will-it-hold-up-in-court issue is this: What has Columbo actually proven?

Several weeks ago, Columbophile and I had an exchange about this very question regarding The Most Crucial Game. In my view, Columbo disproved Paul Hanlon’s alibi (that Hanlon was in his stadium box at the time of the crime): the clock in his stadium box did not chime during his call to Eric Wagner although it chimed, chimed loudly, and chimed on time, an hour or so after the murder when Columbo first visited Hanlon’s box. But disproving an alibi is not the same as proving guilt. The one does not necessarily follow from the other.

“Columbo’s job is to solve apparently perfect crimes. Sometimes these solutions, legally speaking, are slightly imperfect.”

Here you do have the added fact that Hanlon asserts, reasserts, and re-reasserts his alibi over and over again (including right before we hear the missing chimes). Proving that Hanlon lied to the police repeatedly about a critical issue gives untold additional power to the prosecutor’s other circumstantial evidence against him, and could be decisive here. But in a different case, simply disproving an alibi might not be enough. [Note: To convict Hanlon, the prosecutor will also have to ensure that the jury understands without hesitation that motive is not an element of murder, and thus need not be proven.]

Ransom for a Dead Man is an excellent example of proving far less than we are led to believe. Even assuming that the serial numbers on the $25,000 in cash that Leslie Williams gives her stepdaughter Margaret matches some of the marked $300,000 ransom money, how does this prove that Leslie murdered her husband? All it proves is that she never dropped the ransom money from her plane as she claimed, but kept it for herself.

Ransom interior
Columbo fails to prove that Leslie Williams actually killed her husband Paul

A search warrant for the Williams home undoubtedly will uncover the other $275,000 in marked ransom money. So we will have proof that Lesley used the purported kidnapping of her husband to unlawfully break her stepdaughter’s trust and steal the contents of Margaret’s trust account. But is that enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Leslie killed Paul Williams and arranged a fake kidnapping?

Of course, proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not require a “smoking gun.” Many murders are proved circumstantially. In fact, circumstantial evidence can be more reliable that direct evidence, i.e., eyewitness testimony. Eyewitnesses are often wrong. A piece of circumstantial evidence may not prove a lot in isolation, but it usually is what it claims to be. Most Columbos don’t focus on the totality of the circumstantial evidence; they center on the one “pop” clue (as Peter Falk used to call it) that proves the murder case beyond all doubt. Forcing Leslie to reveal her possession of ransom cash doesn’t actually do that.

“Are police permitted to trick suspects into confessing? The answer is yes, as long as the confession remains voluntary and reliable.”

Some clever prosecutor might argue that, at the very least, it proves that Leslie intentionally dropped an empty satchel. If the kidnapping was real, Leslie must have known that dropping an empty satchel would certainly result in her husband’s death. Thus, she intentionally caused his death by this act alone. But this theory requires proof that Paul Williams was alive at the time of the ransom drop – and he wasn’t.

When confronted with the ransom money, all Leslie says is: “You’re very lucky, Lieutenant. No, congratulations, you’re very smart.” Is that confessing to murder? No. It may be a tacit admission that Columbo’s nailed her doing something wrong, but fraud and theft are crimes, too. It’s not a murder confession.

The episode Columbophile reviewed most recently, Requiem for a Falling Star, has a similar problem. Columbo may have established that Nora Chandler faked Al Cumberland’s drowning – and we can presume that Al’s body will be exhumed from Nora’s back garden – but where’s the proof that Nora murdered Jean Davis? Because “Jean knew” (Nora’s only so-called confession about the Davis murder)?  What does that prove?

Is there even proof that Nora murdered Al Cumberland? Here is Nora’s entire confession about killing Cumberland: “We had a hell of a fight. We argued, fought, and I – I struck him with a bottle. And he – I-I-I panicked. And I buried him out there.” How does a prosecutor disprove self-defense from that? Hopefully, the autopsy results will establish something less equivocal.

Tough cases to crack?

At the end of Etude in Black, Alex Benedict sounds like he’s ready to make a full confession. Let’s hope he does because, to this point, Columbo’s case rests on Janice Benedict remembering the then-insignificant act of Alex not putting a flower on.

Recalling a memorable event is one thing; recalling something insignificant at the time is hardly ever certain. Incidentally, Alex’s whispered “I’m guilty” to his wife is likely barred from evidence under the spousal privilege. I’m amazed that Columbo has no crime scene photos showing Benedict’s flower under Jennifer Welles’ piano before Benedict returns to the crime scene – but no photos are ever mentioned.

Speaking of witnesses, the solution to Lady in Waiting depends entirely upon Peter Hamilton’s recollection of which he heard first: gunshots or the alarm. If Hamilton equivocates on the stand, the case is sunk. Of course, had the alarm sounded first, Hamilton would have heard the shots through the alarm (which he didn’t).  So it isn’t merely a “which came first” question, which should help the prosecutor’s case. But it’s still what we call a “one witness case,” and those are tough.

Dead Weight is far from being an open-and-shut case

Dead Weight is also very much a one-witness case (with corroborating ballistic evidence, as well as corroborating excited utterances made contemporaneously by Helen Stewart to her mother). But if Helen suddenly were to recant out of renewed affection for General Hollister, where’s the proof that Hollister was the shooter? His gun certainly was the murder weapon, but in whose hands?

Prescription: Murder not only depends on Joan Hudson’s continued willingness to cooperate but, because she is an accomplice, the prosecution also needs persuasive evidence to substantiate her credibility. The prosecutor is helped to no small degree by Dr. Flemming’s narcissistic conversations with Columbo where Flemming pontificates “on a theoretical basis” about “this hypothetical murderer.”

Does Flemming really believe that, with this disclaimer, his statements will be kept from the jury, and that the jury will not be permitted to infer guilt to the extent that his “hypothetical,” “theoretical” statements dovetail with other evidence?

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Joan Hudson’s confession alone won’t be enough to convict Dr Flemming in Prescription: Murder

Columbo himself will be the key witness in Suitable for Framing. How will the Lieutenant justify being in Dale Kingston’s home – and sticking his hand in Kingston’s private property? Yes, his gloved hands prove that he did not put his fingerprints on the Degas pastels after the other detectives recovered the paintings from Edna’s linen closet. But what proves that Columbo did not find and touch the Degas paintings before lawyer Frank Simpson demanded the search of Edna’s house?

That will certainly be Dale Kingston’s attorney’s line of defense – and it will all depend on Columbo’s performance under rigorous cross-examination. The significance of those prints (upon which the prosecution’s case hinges) will be a difficult thing for the jury to follow even under the best circumstances. Columbo will have to exclude other possible sources of those prints. Hopefully, his police reports are more detailed than the cryptic scribblings in his notebook. If not, defense counsel will have a field day with Columbo on the stand.

Confessions by conduct

Brimmer: guilty as sin

A few Columbos end in confessions by conduct. That can be very powerful evidence. As a prime example, there’s Brimmer retrieving the contact lens from the trunk of his car – and then trying to throw the contact lens away – in Death Lends a Hand.

But wait a minute. Wasn’t the lens a phony, and didn’t Columbo both break into and tamper with Brimmer’s car in order to plant it? Yes, but Brimmer made an independent decision to search for and dispose of the lens. His independent actions attenuate his conduct from anything Columbo did beforehand.

There’s also Roger Stanford’s dismantling the cigar box in Short Fuse. Assuming that the eyewitnesses can convey the conduct to the jury as potently as it appears to us on the screen, the prosecution will do just fine.

Greenhouse Jungle is a good example of the power of circumstantial evidence.  Three matching bullets – one from the victim’s body, one fired into the victim’s car, and one admittedly fired by Jarvis Goodland – is very strong evidence that all three were fired by the same person, namely Goodland. Fortunately, ballistic markings are fairly indelible, so Columbo’s habit of wrapping critical evidence in an old hanky and stuffing it into a raincoat pocket full of who-knows-what probably won’t affect the prosecution’s case in this instance.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite Columbo: Murder by the Book. The case against Ken Franklin for the murder of James Ferris depends on proving that the murder described in Ferris’ notes (which Franklin admits “is my idea, the only really good one I ever had,” and that “I must’ve told it to Jim over five years ago”) is, as Columbo tells it, “the part you used, practically word for word.”

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Ken’s sort-of confession isn’t damning enough to guarantee time behind bars

We know that’s true because we saw the Ferris murder. But how does a prosecutor prove that the actual murder was committed “practically word for word” as Ferris’ notes described: “A wants to kill B. Drives B to a remote house and has him call his wife in city. Tells her he’s working late at the office. Bang, bang”? What’s the proof that Franklin wanted to kill Ferris? What’s the proof that Franklin drove Ferris to a remote house, or that Ferris called his wife to tell her he was working late at Franklin’s suggestion? To me, that’s the problem with proving Columbo’s theory in court. To prove the theory, you first have to prove that Franklin murdered Ferris. And if you can do that, why bother with the theory?

Columbo’s job is to solve apparently perfect crimes. Sometimes these solutions, legally speaking, are slightly imperfect. What do you expect? That Columbo is going to catch the killer in the act of burying his victim? Oh, that’s right: Elliot Markham in Blueprint for Murder. Yes, Elliot’s a dead duck in court. We can be fairly sure of that.

There you have it. Two pilots and the first dozen Columbo episodes. Many different types of solutions, each with its own challenges, more or less, for the prosecutor. But the jury ultimately will decide. Jurors are people like you. What’s your verdict?

As well as being a long-time Columbo fan, article author Richard Weill is a lawyer, playwright and former prosecutor based in New York.

Read Columbophile’s unscientific second opinion on the fate of the Columbo killers here

Elliot Markham: the only dead cert to be jailed for his crimes in the show’s first 14 outings?
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