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Getting away with murder: 10 Columbo killers who’ll never do jail time

No jail time

It’s comforting to think that low-life Columbo killers got their just desserts and languished in jail for a sizeable proportion of the rest of their days after being outsmarted by the wily Lieutenant.

After all, who wants to think that the cases we’ve come to treasure wouldn’t actually lead to a conviction? Not I. And I know that’s not the point of the show. But that hasn’t prevented inquisitive viewers in their millions over the decades musing on whether Columbo’s stunning deductive powers and effortless manoeuvering of his suspects would really have resulted in them being sent off to the slammer.

Sometimes there may be insufficient evidence to present in court. On other occasions a jury may side with a charismatic murderer and let them off with a slap on the wrist. A reasonable proportion of cases, one suspects, would never even make it to trial.

Luckily this ain’t Law & Order, so our viewing pleasure is never diminished by legal quibbles and technicalities. We can simply revel in the mental dexterity of the good Lieutenant. But with that all in mind, here I consider 10 high-profile examples of Columbo killers who would absolutely, positively not be going to jail – even though they’re guilty as sin. Is this justice? I’ll leave it up to you to decide…

Paul Hanlon, The Most Crucial Game

Columbo Most Crucial Game

No alarms for Paul Hanlon: he’ll never even face a day in court

There’s not a Ding-a-Ling ice cream cone’s chance in Hell that Hanlon will be convicted of the killing of Eric Wagner, for a cavalcade of reasons – most damningly the fact that Columbo has virtually nothing to hold against him at the conclusion of the episode.

Ask yourself: what has Columbo actually proved by the end of his showdown with Hanlon? KNACK ALL! There are no witnesses (except a small girl who saw an off-piste ice cream van – pfffft). He has found no weapon. He has established no motive. The missing clock chimes in the phone recording offer only possible opportunity. And there’s simply no way a raging bull like Hanlon is going to break down and confess – it’s just not in his nature.

So while his reaction in the VIP box suggests defeat, once Hanlon has time to regroup at police HQ this case will be over before it ever gets near a court of law.

Ken Franklin, Murder by the Book

Murder Book 1

Safe to assume that Ken’s confession to Columbo won’t be repeated in front of a jury

If you think Columbo had effectively cornered Ken at the conclusion of Murder by the Book you’ve got another thing coming. I’d go as far as to say there’s zero percent chance that the silver-tongued Mr Franklin will be spending time behind bars.

Yes, he essentially confessed to the clever killing of Jim Ferris, but only to Columbo’s ears. When backed up by his lawyer, and realising how much booze and how many women he has to lose, you can forget about a confession. Even if it did reach court (which seems doubtful) a charmer like Ken will sweet talk a jury as easily as talking his way into a bad-hat-wearing journalist’s bed upon his subsequent release…

Viveca Scott, Lovely but Lethal

Lethal 2

Whiter than white? Hardly, but double killer Viveca Scott will go free

Although she gets all hot under the collar (and vengeful) towards the Lieutenant when he nabs her at the conclusion of Lovely but Lethal, one must suspect that Viveca will live to fight another day, and that her Beauty Mark empire isn’t ready to fold quite yet.

Columbo’s case against Viveca centres on her suffering from the same poison ivy rash that the Lieutenant has after both contracted it from the smashed microscope slide at victim Karl Lessing’s home. It’s moderately damning, but Viveca need only claim that the rash was passed to her after shaking Columbo’s hand at their first meeting. Even though that’s a lie (they didn’t shake hands), it ought to do enough to plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of the jury.

Given that Columbo is a scruffy little fella, it’s possible Viveca’s legal team could convince jurors that the detective’s hand hygiene skillz aren’t up to scratch, so on the balance of probability no jury should convict. Viveca will walk – her fashion-turbaned head held high. Whether she’ll ever catch up with David Lang again remains to be seen.

Alex Benedict, Etude in Black

Etude 1

Carnation, schmarnation – The Maestro won’t be jailed on trivia like this!

A clue that’s a little too contrived for its own good, Columbo’s use of televised evidence of a disappearing / reappearing carnation to ensnare his man doesn’t hold up well under cross-examination.

Benedict wasn’t sporting a carnation during the televised concert. Yet he was caught on film with one in his lapel after leaving victim Jennifer Welles’ house later – the same one Columbo witnessed him apply after lifting it from the floor. But SO WHAT? There are a million ways a carnation could get into a musician’s house, and Benedict could just say he assumed the one at Welles HQ was his, because he always wears one at concerts.

Even Janice Benedict’s testimony that she didn’t apply the carnation to her husband herself (as he claims) is pretty feeble and could easily enough be talked around in a court room – especially as Columbo proves precious little else, despite Benedict driving to the murder scene in a conspicuous car and jogging to the car in a conspicuous outfit, in broad daylight. If you ask me, the Maestro will walk free, albeit with his professional and personal life in tatters.

Grace Wheeler and Ned Diamond, Forgotten Lady

Forgotten 1

The fate of Grace and Ned positively tears out the heart strings

Naturally, dear Grace will face no murder charge due to Columbo’s moral convictions and decision to let her off the hook due to her rapidly failing mental faculties. Grace will sadly pass away, in a world of her own, a few weeks down the track. Her death will exonerate the dutiful Ned Diamond, who confessed to save her, but Wheeler’s loss will leave him a broken man. All in all, it’s the saddest of conclusions to any Columbo case. <insert sad face emoji here>

Nelson Brenner, Identity Crisis

Columbo Identity Crisis

Look guys, a man with this much style simply will not go to prison!

Given the complexities of the case and the involvement of the CIA, figuring out what to do with double agent Nelson Brenner (AKA Steinmetz) is far from cut and dried. Yes, he may be guilty as can be but the criminal mastermind is likely to be more valuable to US security as a free man working with them, rather than a drain on the taxpayer rotting behind bars.

There’ll be no court case here. Instead a relocation, new identity and new responsibilities await the cunning Mr Brenner. The big question is: can a leopard change its spots, or will he be up  to his duplicitous tricks again weeks later? I rather suspect the latter…

Jarvis Goodland, The Greenhouse Jungle

Greenhouse Jungle Jarvis Goodland and Tony

Jarvis was freed, but his toupee was sent down for a 20 stretch

If Jarvis ever gets to court, his testimony will be well worth seeing as it’s likely to be utterly scathing of the prosecution team, the police investigation and his imbecile nephew Tony. Yes, the King of Columbo put-downs will be in his element as he bellows his way through cross-examinations, and his haughty demeanour might well influence the jury to see things his way.

All will hinge on how Jarvis handles the ‘bullet-in-the-soil-matching-the-murder-weapon-bullet’ conundrum. Luckily, he need only play the ‘Tony is an idiot’ trump card to get off the hook.

Jarvis has already told police that he loaned a gun to Tony a year before, and is subsequently cleared when said gun (actually a different gun stolen from Tony’s house) ‘shows up’ and is run through ballistics. The fact that the gun Jarvis plants in Tony’s wife Kathy’s shoe collection is later found to be the same one that was used by Jarvis to shoot at an intruder in his greenhouse a year earlier is neither here nor there. He could simply claim Tony returned the wrong gun to him and no one could prove otherwise – especially when there’s so much evidence to back up his claim that Tony is an absolute buffoon.

Swanny Swanson, Last Salute to the Commodore

Columbo Last Salute Fred Draper

Is Columbo’s method of catching Swanny going to hold up in court? TISN’T!

Come now, are you telling me that any jury  in the land would convict a man who has allegedly proven his guilt by saying ‘Tisn’t’ when a ticking watch is held to his ear? Don’t make me laugh! Attempting to close out the case in such a nonsensical fashion is actually more likely to see Columbo bust back down to Sergeant than see Swanny face justice, leaving the annoying berk (Swanny) free to irritate the yachting set of LA for the rest of his days.

Hassan Sallah, A Case of Immunity

Immunity1

An even more shadowy future lies in wait for the scheming Hassan Sallah

There are bigger issues at stake than the mere rule of law here, and Sallah’s swift acceptance of American justice over the presumably tyrannical Suarian equivalent may be the smartest move he ever made.

Signed confession of murder notwithstanding, Sallah’s knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and power plays will make him a desirable tool to bolster US intelligence forces. Consequently, Sallah will move into a dark, shadowy life as a Government operative – a task he’ll thrive at. And being a gentleman at heart, he won’t even think about committing revenge against one Lieutenant Columbo. Or will he…?

Abigail Mitchell, Try & Catch Me

Abigail Mitchell

Come on Lieutenant, just give her a kiss and a cuddle and let her off the hook…

Grace Wheeler aside, old Abi is the Columbo killer most viewers wish would get away with it, but the ever professional Lieutenant won’t allow sentimentality to get in the way of seeing the law upheld.

However, rather than wile away her remaining years in a minimum security installation, Abigail dodged justice when her ancient dicky ticker gave in on the eve of the court case in a development that stunned the nation. Sorry to break it to you this way, folks… On the plus side, she’s finally reunited with ‘her Phyllis’.

“Grace Wheeler aside, old Abi is the Columbo killer most viewers wish would get away with it.”

Is there anyone else you think is certain to go free in the court of law? Or do you disagree with any of the examples given here? Fire a comment below to join the debate! And sincere thanks, as always, for reading. You (yes, you!) are marvellous!


SeeHim6

Rumours that Santini promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground have yet to be confirmed

116 thoughts on “Getting away with murder: 10 Columbo killers who’ll never do jail time

  1. My favorites are etude in black, any old Port, and prescription murder! Love them all but those are my favorites!

    • Your list omits one name most worthy of all: Col. Rumford, guilty as sin but no shame for his crime done at a time when the same motive was high-priority national agenda. Beside that, there is very little hard-core evidence to prove guilt by legal standards. A good defense lawyer could explain away the confession he made to Columbo near the end as mere show of cooperation to avoid humiliation before raw cadets. Or, a demonstration of high regard for law and order. Especially in view of why he called the cadets to one place was to face his own sanctioning for their major rule violation.

  2. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Case of Immunity | The Columbophile

  3. I would say Emmett Clayton if he can keep himself together. He is admittedly unstable. In this case there is simply no proof that there even was a murder. The whole bit about a deaf man not hearing the machine shut off is pointless as it would have shut off if no one was there. Dudek was an old and sick man with severe diabetes and a heart condition. Suffering a dizzy spell and falling into the disposal would not be unlikely. And in the hospital, even if his condition was initially stable, a sudden heart attack couldn’t have been that unexpected. So no murder, beside which the motive and proof are also tenuous. If Clayton doesn’t fall apart on the witness stand, he walks. But I doubt any district attorney would ever bring the case.
    Luis Montoya will walk for the same reason–no proof of a murder, but you haven’t reviewed that episode yet.
    Vivica goes to the pen because her late mole kept an incriminating diary for future blackmail purposes and the police find it.

  4. Loved the post, as usual.

    Donald Pleasance’s character in “Any Old Port in a Storm” admitted his guilt privately to Columbo, but was there good objective evidence that would have kept him behind bars? How would the prosecution prove the wines had been overheated, and even if it could what does that really establish? Not to mention how endearing Adrian Carsini is, how unlikeable his brother was, and how much American juries love a distinguished English accent. That would leave Mr. Carsini free but for his secretarial problems.

    • For me, that episode falls apart 2 ways. 1. There is no way in hell that a body that has been bound and dead for days would look like a body that had been in the sea. The ligature marks on the wrists, ankles, and neck would be obvious.
      2.If the wine vault really had gotten that hot (which seems impossible but let’s just assume it does) the corpse would have been nearly exploded with gas and leaking body fluids. All Columbo would have to do would be to see the large, corpse-shaped stain on the floor, even if none of the odor remained.

  5. Ken Franklin might have gotten away with one killing, but not two.

    Paul Hanlon, like Jarvis Goodland or Milo Janus is the kind of arrogant, greedy character that any jury would hate.

    Nelson Brenner died of a “sudden illness” or “committed suicide”, just before trial was set to begin.

    • I don’t think anyone was even trying to pin the second killing on Ken (inept local police, outside Columbo’s jurisdiction etc), so this double killer will be a FREE MAN living off his fat cat royalties for years, and probably moving on to host a TV chat show or some such…

    • I think the phone records would place Jim Ferris at Ken Franklin’s cabin outside San Diego. Franklin even advises Ferris to dial directly, which would prove that Ferris was shot in San Diego, in Franklin’s cabin, since Ferris’ wife heard the shot. I don’t know how good phone records were in 1971, but I’d bet they kept a log of out of town calls at least.

      The irony is that Franklin could have gotten away with it if he had only told Miss La Sanka that the mob had indeed killed Ferris right in front of him (in his own cabin, no less!) to both eliminate Ferris and to intimidate Franklin into silence. Suddenly all the pieces would have fit: why Ferris was spotted in Franklin’s car but he said nothing to La Sanka at the time, why Ferris was killed, why his body was dumped on Franklin’s lawn and so on.

      If nothing else, Miss La Sanka is quite gullible, and surely she would buy a more exotic explanation from someone for whom she holds a crush.

  6. The most flimsy was Last Salute To The Commodore, the evidence was that the killer said “tisn’t” when told it was the commodores watch. Quite a ridiculous episode. When able give the Columbo Podcast a try their podcast on that episode is a hoot.

  7. It quote often occurred to me watching Columbo that most of the time there is very little evidence that would stand up in court. Fascinating readings other people’s opinions on the same.
    Thanks for this site. Great reading

  8. Maybe after a few months columbophile could do the reversal of this, 10 killers who would DEFINITLEY DO jail time as they were caught with overwhelmingly strong evidence. The 3 standout killers for me would be Leon lemmar in death hits the jackpot , the chimps fingerprint evidence places him at his nephew Freddie’s apartment , how would he even begin to explain that to a jury, plus the clear and obvious motive he had.
    Tommy Browne (swansong) being caught trying to get rid of the parachute red handed only a few hours after fling off to Bakersfield , hell have a lot of explaining to do .
    third place I have to give it to Paul Galesko in (negative reaction) Columbo had 3 sergeants witness him grab the camera off the shelf plus with the sworn statement from the driving instructor proving Deshler couldn’t have done it , Paul will surely do bird . and of course commissioner Halpern( a friend in deed ) im sure columbophile could come up with a few more .

    • The one thing about Paul Galesko is that I would think he could techno-babble his way out of his incriminating selection of the correct camera. That is, being a professional photographer, he could say that he recognizes the aspect ratio, the exposure, the film grain, etc, and simply believed that the camera he selected was the most likely to have been the one used to photograph his wife.

      That wouldn’t have cleared him of other clues: the missing mess from the ransom note, the powder burns on his pants etc., but in terms of selecting the camera I think there is room for reasonable doubt.

      By the way, what was his motive? All I could gather was that Frances was a serious bitch, but there was no indication that Galesko would be poverty-stricken if he got divorced. Unless there is a scene I missed, I guess he just REALLY hated that woman.

  9. Great list as always. My thoughts about Abigail Mitchell are that she would have walked as well, but that she would have been charged with a lesser violation. It’s possible they would have copped a plea to manslaughter and required some kind of suspended sentence or probation, but that considering her age, she wouldn’t have been forced to jail.

    • A prosecutor might offer Mitchell a lesser manslaughter plea (knowing that, if her case went to trial, it would be as much about Edmund Galvin as the defendant) — but only if conditioned on her receiving a meaningful prison sentence. Yes, she’s an old woman (Ruth Gordon was 81 when the episode first aired). But she committed a carefully planned, premeditated murder designed to cause death in a slow, gruesome manner. She wasn’t too old to commit such a torturous crime; she isn’t too old to be punished for it. Her victim certainly wanted her caught and punished, using virtually his last breath to guarantee this.

  10. the same could be said for the bye – bye as Oliver Brandt could simply say he was in a state of madness and as there was no one else in the room columbos word could be given as hearsay , except for the soot on the umbrella thers no real evidence

    • Difference is with Brandt that he didn’t mind being caught. After killing his only friend he realised how empty his life was – even his wife doesn’t understand him on any level. He’ll submit to justice as readily as Carsini. Not so Mr Benedict.

      • Thank you , the bye – bye is one of my favourite episodes , Mr Brandt was fed up with his brainbox friends which we are lead to believe had developed over time, he referred to them as eccentric bores, but his wife Vivian was gorgeous , he says alas I shall not be needing you anymore, he will spend the rest of his days away from her playing crosswords and board games in his cell .

  11. That was a scintillating and insightful read. And great comments. Your Jarvis Goodland rampaging through the courtroom, martini in hand, had me laughing out loud.

    Hanlon was too slick to get caught. He probably had Miss Rogoszy set up to frame ol’ Wiretapping Walter Cunnell for the murder. Dobbs has the tapes!

    LeoSmart’s got a nice summation against Alex. I think another point is, the Lieutenant saw that flower before Benedict even picked it up. It was there when he first looked the place over. So when this yahoo shows up and starts removing evidence from the crime scene, that’s an obvious red flag for a cop. And then he lied about having “just dropped it”. Right after Columbo was telling Exposition Guy, “there has to be a man involved.” Then Benedict leaves, and Columbo’s just got that look– “That’s the SOB that did it.” (It’s usually not that obvious a moment.)

    • Certainly, he did lie about the carnation, but it could easily be explained as an innocent mistake. Man takes off coat and it could conceivably knock the flower off his lapel, which he ASSUMED was his. Obviously he was wrong, it wasn’t his (he could argue) and the video tape of the concert actually proves that. He either didn’t wear one for the concert, or the one he had could have dropped out anywhere – not necessarily at the scene of the murder. Maybe trumpeter Paul also wore carnations, so it could have been his? Maybe half the orchestra wore them? Too hard to pin it on ol’ Alex, despite what we, the viewer, know to be true.

  12. If the defense has one simple explanation neutralizing simultaneously all of the essential, incriminatory prongs of a prosecutor’s case, that may work. But a long list of unrelated explanations generally won’t. The principle of “Occam’s Razor” applies to juries, too: that the simplest answer is usually the correct one. If reasonable doubt requires that jurors swallow multiple excuses, it’s less likely there will be reasonable doubt.

    In addition, when weighing the effectiveness of any of these explanations, please ask yourself: is this something a lawyer can argue based on the evidence already presented, or is this something a defense witness will have to give new testimony about? If it’s the latter, then you must also keep in mind that this witness will be cross-examined, and his/her story (which we know isn’t true) may evaporate. Prosecutors (as I said below) are pros. Worse still, a discredited defense witness automatically adds perceived strength to the prosecution’s case.

  13. I just re-watched “Etude in Black”, and I must say I totally disagree with your conclusion. It is not just “carnation, shmarmation.” Columbo witnessed him picking it up under the piano in the victim’s house. And that is not just some carnation. It is precisely the only type and color of carnation that his wife grows in her garden, and which she admitted giving him before the concert. Yet he does not have it during the concert, he finds exactly the same type under the victim’s piano, and he just happens to put it on, thinking it just fell off him? That is DAMNING circumstantial evidence! Then add a car fixing that has nothing to fix, and a miraculous extra mileage to a car that was supposed to be sitting broken in a garage, and which is precisely the 9 miles that it takes to drive to the Wells house! Adding those 2 damning pieces of evidence, together with Paul’s testimony about an affair with an important guy that started 3 months ago and had to be kept secret, AND the confession of the murderer, and you think he’d get off free? There are a number of quite weak “proofs” in the Columbo series, but this is definitely not one of them. Add to that a murderer whose despicable nature goes up against an honest lovable detective. Oh, and his record of dalliances and his own wife’s admission that he was sleeping around would only make him even more lovable to the jury. He might have gotten the gas chamber if it wasn’t liberal California!

    • Re carnations, yes, his wife grows them for him and says they’re smaller than the type commonly found in florists, but that doesn’t mean thousands of other LA gardeners don’t also grow them, so plenty of wriggle room there.

      Re. car mileage, Benedict laughs that off when it’s mentioned as he doubtless would in court. If the garage staff only vaguely state they don’t remember it travelling 9 extra miles, that’s not hard evidence. As for Maestro leaving in a car for fixing that didn’t need fixing, the sense I get is that he often leaves it in for tuning, and that the staff there understand what he’s talking about when he says it’s not running as he’d like it (e.g. the mechanic deciphers Benedict’s orchestral ramblings about the car having a ‘rattle in the brass section’ as it not idling correctly, ergo he must have made several others similar grumbles in the past). It’s also unlikely that the garage owners would admit a lapse of security allowed an expensive client car to be taken from their premises after it was allegedly locked securely away at night for fear of reputational damage.

      Paul’s testimony proves nothing. Audrey previously identified him as a caller to the house and he admitted he was there on the night of Jennifer’s death, so in all likelihood would be used as a viable foil by Benedict’s prosecution team to point suspicion away from their man.

      Re his confessions. He whispers in his wife’s ear, but no one else heard. He could deny it in court and just say he was telling her he wasn’t guilty and that he loved her. His words to Columbo were pretty much only for his ears, too, and could again be spun wickedly by his defence team. There is certainly circumstantial evidence against him, but I don’t think there’s enough hard evidence to convict.

      • Re Carnations: Oh come on. Precisely one such carnation just happened to be lying under the victim’s piano, just when he happened to lose his, and he assumed it was his and picked it up? Any objective juror would laugh at that.

        Re Car Mileage: Any good prosecutor would have a field day with your defense. “Does a mechanic have to drive a car nine miles in order to figure out what’s wrong with it? And why would the mechanic not remember that? I ask you jurors, which story do you believe? That the accused drove back and forth from the murder site, compiling precisely the mileage it takes to and from that sight, or that a drive-around which not a single car mechanic can remember, just happened to be equivalent to nine miles on the button?”

        Re Confessions: He confessed outright to Columbo, calling him a genius and asking him how soon he figured out that he was the murderer! How can he get out of that? And how would he explain his submissive attitude before all those in attendance? Wouldn’t an innocent man be screaming that something crazy happened here, because he was nowhere near that murder scene before the concert?

        Add all that up, plus all the other circumstantial stuff, and this is a slam dunk to me. Come on, admit it boss. You were pretty accurate on the others, but not on this one. The maestro is a goner!

        • Oh, and BTW, how fitting that Commodore should have such a joke of a proof. I cannot figure out how any Columbo fan can pick any other episode as the worst of the early seasons. It is so much worse than even the 2nd worst. Horrible acting, No murder plot, no murder detection, dreary scenery. How in the world did that ever happen – and with the great McGoohan as director to boot? They must have all been as stone cold drunk as Dianne Baker!

          • 🙂 🙂 Such a funny summation of Commodore. “It is so much worse than even the 2nd worst.” 😀 I agree. This episode is really, really bad. Very boring.

            • There is no doubt that Commodore is the worst Columbo EVER (and that includes some very ropey ones in the 1990’s). Really appalling acting and incredibly annoying sidekick.

              The problem with any great series is that when ratings start to decline, the tendency is to try and be trendy, introduce new young sidekicks, and so on – with the inevitable result of rapid and embarrassing decline in quality. That is where independent productions – like French series Spiral – have an advantage, in that they don’t have to worry about ratings as they can sell their high quality output around the world in advance.

              • Far be it from me to defend “Commodore,” which I had long considered to be the weakest Columbo episode. That said, I had not yet seen “Murder in Malibu” when I was denigrating “Commodore.” Perhaps it’s akin to delineating merit between feces and vomit, but “Malibu” now resides at the very bottom for me of all 68 episodes.

                • me also I hate murder in Malibu its worse than undercover and murder with too many notes which are dross and no time to die

                • I stated clearly that I was referring to the early series. There were a couple of “meh” episodes in it, but nothing even close to Commodore. I am not one of those who says the later episodes had no good ones. There were even a number that were truly fascinating. But there were also quite a few utterly ludicrous ones, so it is less interesting to me to pick the worst. “Murder in Malibu” is truly dreadful indeed, but “No Time to Die,” “Murder, A Self Portrait,” “Columbo Cries Wolf,” and even the very first one, the infantile “Guillotine” episode, can give it a run for the money.

            • In an interview with Link, I recall his saying that Falk (and perhaps one or two others) became the executive producers (they funded the show and therefore came to “own” it) in order to protect the show. He used the word “protect”. Thank heavens they did that.

              Maybe they did that after having to endure Commodore themselves! (That’s guesswork though…but I wouldn’t be surprised.)

        • You make strong arguments, but if I was on the jury Benedict would be a FREE MAN!

          Re carnations – he walks off with the carnation evidence, so it can never be traced back to the batch his wife grows for a positive ID. And I stand by comments that he could just say he assumed it was his, but he must have lost his usual one elsewhere, so that’s not nearly damning enough evidence.

          Re car mileage – the prosecution team would doubtless argue that their client would have to have been AN IDIOT to steal his own car and drive it the exact to-and-fro distance to the scene of the crime IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. Were there any witnesses to the very recognisable car in the vicinity? None reported (or mentioned in the episode at least), so there’s plenty of room for doubt there for jurors.

          Re confession – you and I know he was admitting guilt, but he could explain his comments away by saying he felt humiliated by being publicly accused and that he meant “You knew right from the start, didn’t you… THAT YOU WERE GOING TO TRY TO PIN IT ON ME, YOU SWINE!” A good lawyer will make a convincing case for him, and with the great and the good of orchestral society lining up to sing his praises in the witness box, he’ll romp to freedom!

          Do I win now?

          • Sorry, boss, I have great respect (and gratitude) for the wonderful site and all the pleasure you provide. But unless you manage to secure an OJ Simpson type of jury, he is going down.

            Re Carnations: This is not just any flower. The probability that someone unrelated would drop a single flower that is precisely the same color and type as the one the killer’s wife grows and that he was wearing that same day and then mysteriously lost – is about one in a million, not even close to a “reasonable” doubt.

            Re car mileage: It is very reasonable for a killer to think that his plan is foolproof, and that no one would even think to check a car that was locked away in a garage, let alone to check its odometer to boot. After all, it is not every day that your investigator is, in the words of the killer himself, “a genius.” You are creating typical defense noise, but noise that does nothing to undermine the logically convincing proof Columbo came up with.

            Re confession: Why in the world would any objective juror disregard a public confession in front of 30 witnesses? All the more so, when the accused is a highly disliked maestro, whose workers cannot stand his arrogance and domineering, and whose wife might even join the prosecution list of witnesses to prove what a conniving creep and traitor he is, while the detective is probably the most beloved and revered guy on the LAPD! Even when top lawyers get obvious murderers off, it needs the OJ Simpson ingredients of a beloved hero whom jurors cannot accept as a cold-blooded murderer, police detectives whom there is reason to be suspicious of (a racist Mark Fuhrman who obviously messes up evidence), and a ready-to-go conspiracy theory (white cops framing an African American hero). None of these ingredients existed here. He is lucky if he avoids the death penalty!

              • LOL. But just so you should know, I am not a stubborn guy. I love debates. In my first college English course, after reading a few of my compositions, my prof suggested that I become an op-ed writer, because I am very persuasive in arguing my case. I will state my viewpoint clearly, and try to convince others. But provide solid counterarguments based on fact or logic, or evidence that defeats my theory, and I will readily acknowledge that you are right and accept your view instead. In any case, it was fun hashing it out with you. Keep ’em coming.

                • Oh, and just to prove my point, I twice commented on your love of “Suitable for Framing,” wondering how you could possibly rank it so high. Yet I recently decided to re-watch it, and although it was probably the 6th or 7th time I’ve seen it over the years, I watched it with an open mind and really came around to your view. I still would not rate it anywhere near my favorite of all time, but I could now consider it for my top-10 list, whereas I had previously ranked it as no more than a run-of-the-mill or average Columbo. So don’t give up on me so fast.

        • Also, the suicide note was determined to not have come from Well’s typewriter. It had to have been planted. Assuming a search warrant is executed, they would have found it was Benedict’s typewriter that had written the note.
          Benedict’s mother in law made her cautious (to be polite) opinion of him quite well known, and given that Janice was already sick of her husband’s deception, it doesn’t seem unlikely that they would both deliver damning testimony.

      • Im split down the middle on this , you must also remember that he acknowledged columbo saying , goodbye genius you knew all a long , and also dont forget there was an officer in the room who would have heard Alex whispering in Janice ear and make a statement , plus Janice would testify against him for cheating on her and as for the extra 9 miles Alex drove there would be Tyre marks or treads or gravel on the cars tyre,s or some sort of incriminating evidence ( i dont know were modern forensics used in 1973 California ) but yes there is definately a chance alex would get off which for me slightly damns etude in black.

  14. Good post. I’d like to see a different ending to Try And Catch Me, if Abigail Mitchell dies in the end, she doesn’t really get off. At the end of the show she did hand Columbo the “deathbed confession” slip of paper, which she could have kept and without it her case may collapse.

    Is it possible that some of the cases may get acquitted due to Columbo himself? For instance, Columbo sticks his cigars in Abigail’s decorative pot; in Ashes to Ashes he shows up at Verity Chandler’s home with his dog who traipses through the ransacked living room; in It’s All In The Game he’s in the fridge looking for something to eat; and in Double Shock he’s using a face towel in the bathroom where the victim died.

    Defense lawyers (as seen on TV) like to assert “contaminated scene by the police”. There are other scenes I’m not recalling at the moment, and probably Columbo does those things after forensics have done their sweep of the place, in which case his actions won’t harm the case after all.

    • Contamination works for the defense when the evidence is microscopic blood or fibers. Not when it is a piece of metal in a cremated urn that ends up in the wrong body. Columbo rarely hangs the murderer on CSI-type evidence, which is why his sloppy police work is not nearly the problem it would be otherwise.

  15. And don’t forget the shoelace thing in “Exercise in Fatality” – can’t see that holding up in court !
    Not to worry, this is probably my favourite classic Columbo episode and the SEC would doubtless have stripped Milo of his ill-gotten riches . Franchising was the hot new business trend in the early seventies, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the story was based in fact.
    As was often the case in the early episodes, there is some astounding support acting.

  16. You forgot the epilogue to Identity Crisis: As newly freed Nelson Brenner returns to his apartment, he is overcome by a strange gas. Several hours later he awakens and finds that he’s been transported to some bizarre Village…..

  17. I don’t feel any sympathy for “Abby”. She thought he killed her niece, but didnt know for sure. The most sympathetic character in my opinion, is the episode, ” Sex And The Married Detective “. I felt bad for Lindsey Crouse’s character. Not only did he cheat on her with her whore of a secretary, but they both mocked her while in bed. Love all the shows though. He was great in films as well….

    • I don’t feel for Abigail either , she didn’t know for sure Edmund killed her niece , and yes Dr Albany should be shown compassion but there is a contrast in the 2 episodes.
      Try and catch me is my favourite in no 1 spot and sex and the married detective is about 40th , but please bear in mind try and catch me is 1977 and sex and the married detective was from the new run but there were many worse , such as no time to die, undercover , murder in Malibu, strange bedfellows and murder a self portrait etc. .

  18. Well if we’re being serious the correct answer is “all of them”.

    But a couple of episodes stand out for Columbo really proving nothing at all. “Forgotten Lady”, sure, Janet Leigh doesn’t remember the crime anymore, but all Columbo does is prove that ten minutes of her time went unaccounted for. She could have said she was pooping or she fell asleep on the couch.

    The other one that was *really* weak was “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case”. All Columbo does in that one is get the villain, whose name I forget, to explicate how the murder could have been done. At no point does Columbo place the killer in the attic where Boss Hogg from “Dukes of Hazzard” was killed.

    My march through the DVD box set has just gotten into the ABC revival and “Murder, Smoke and Shadows” is a pretty weak gotcha as well. All Columbo does there is prove that Fisher Stevens was obstructing the investigation.

    • The bye bye – sky high IQ murder is one of the best episodes of all , Colombo doesn’t have to place Oliver Brandt at the murder scene as he has been playing mind games and recreates the scene hypothetically implying that Oliver was the murderer by at this point he has turned into a trembling wreck and hands columbo the final clue by placing the marker pen on top of the record player being knocked off by the arm , thus falling on to the dictionary at exactly the right second , who has remained calm and controlled ,Oliver retreats like melted butter and confesses and furthermore compliments Colombo . everything about the ending is great the background music the thunder and lightning ,there are also many other funny and top scenes ? moments , yes it does have its flaws also but this is columbophiles favourite and my 3rd favourite .
      its much better than forgotten lady .

      • All true, yes, but still, Columbo never places Oliver in that room.

        “Forgotten Lady” is one of the best Columbo episodes ever, Janet Leigh hits it right out of the park, but Columbo’s gotcha makes no sense.

  19. Could columbophile clear up this for me , in episodes death lends a hand and a deadly state of mind they went pre-mediated and they would be tried on manslaughter charges.
    Are they not included here for that reason or is it that they would still do a hefty jail sentence . if you take a murder like Leon lemma in death hits the jackpot he would almost certainly do life for murdering Freddie in the planed way that he did ( by the way DHTJ ) is one of my favourite’s .

  20. “Identity Crisis” – This case would never even go to trial, but Nelson wouldn’t be freed either. Agent X-9, “the Head Man”, would sanction a hit on him, ordering it to be made to look like an accident.

  21. Ken Franklin, Murder by The Book was a superb episode, but the ending missed the mark, there was no actual evidence and he foolishly (kinda confessed) to the crime. No way any of that would have held up in court.

    • I disagree with you and Columbophile on this. Yes, there are Columbos where the killer gives in way too quickly. But not this one. I think he’d likely win a conviction here. The fact that his partner wrote precisely the script for a false alibi to make them believe he was already dead at the office has got to be quite convincing for a jury. Especially if a good prosecutor is allowed to hint to the jury that he is getting away scot free for the second murder. He also had the inscription which contradicted his total denial that he knew LeSanka, the same champagne cork, his reading the mail after finding the body, and his withdrawing $15,000 and redepositing it on the same day as LeSanka’s murder? Moreover, his inability to write any mysteries and thus his desire to kill his partner and get the insurance money was a powerful motive. And most importantly, when reading from the book script at the end, Columbo says, “Need I read any further?”, which indicates that there were more facts that fit the murder scheme in it, and Franklin knew there was plenty other stuff there that he did not want Columbo to read, and that is why he gave up so quickly. No, I think this is one case that Columbo almost wins in a slam dunk.

  22. I would add sniveling Roger Stanford of “Short Fuse”. Though his behavior in the tram is certainly bizarre and suspicious I don’t think it is proof of murder.

    • Some of those are utterly ridiculous. How does the evil surgeon get off when he is caught with the dissolving suture in his pocket, which could presumably be shown to have just been removed from his patient? Likewise, how is Bremmer free if he is caught hiding a contact lens in his hand that he just searched through a trunk to remove? Columbophile’s arguments for his choices are far more convincing, though I might quibble with one or two.

      • I presume Mr. Sikes’ reasons for concluding “insufficient evidence” against Barry Mayfield relates to the evidence against Mayfield for the murders he committed (Sharon Martin, Harry Alexander), not the evidence of what he did to Dr. Heideman (who, after all, survived).

        • What I dont get is Publish or Perish. Of itself the evidence against Greenleaf is insufficient but his veiled threat to the victim at the start isnt a great look. Once the court finds out the link with Eddie he’s a goner.

  23. I find that what columbo does is not prove the murderer actually did the murder but only disprove their alibi. Just because he proves Hanlon was not in his office at the time of the phone call doesn’t mean Hanlon committed the crime. Columbo didn’t prove they were at the scene of the crime.

  24. Ransom for a Dead Man – No way a slick lawyer like her would be going to jail on the word of her borderline psychotic step daughter and the flimsy evidence of her allegedly giving the girl the marked ransom money. All she has to do is say 1- The girl’s father went to visit her at school and came back all upset. 2- The stepdaughter’s behavior was erratic and increasingly violent. Cite episode at cemetery. Probably other instances viewed at school – check in records for disciplinary issues. 3- Say that both parents agreed that they should bring her back from school and cut off her money until she agreed to seek psychiatric help. 4- Cite episode with gun/blanks. Point out that, unless it happened off camera, she had not been told the father had been shot from an upward angle. So how did she know unless she did it? 5- She tried to slap Columbo – on the street. There had to be a witness. Enjoyable episode, but lawyer lady is totally getting off and daughter is going to a psychiatric hospital.

    • It would not be on Margaret’s word, it would be on the fact Leslie Williams was in possession of the ransom money. It would be very difficult for a defense attorney to explain that.

  25. Viveca is going to prison, even with a sub-par prosecutor on the case. She didn’t get that dermatitis from Columbo; doesn’t work that way. And yes, humans are so sensitive to urushiol (active poison of the plant) that it only takes a molecular trace of it (two micrograms or less than one millionth of an ounce) on the skin to initiate an allergic reaction. Even the amount on a pinhead is sufficient to cause rashes in 500 sensitive people. After the forensics boys give that carpet a more thorough going over for bits of glass, and some other experts look at Viveca’s handwriting samples to match the notes written with the makeup pencil. Also, pre-trial, it stands to reason that many more curious facts will be gleaned from her weird assistant’s personal effects (and maybe a better toxicology analysis).

  26. Ashes to Ashes? Poppycock. Just because they found the titanium item in one urn doesn’t mean the ashes were not placed in the wrong urn as there could have been a mix up. How does it prove murder? Patrick McGoohan could hardly be convicted without solid evidence?

  27. The list is convincing if you don’t account for two things. First, it is very rare that the accused actually get on the witness stand and testify so any ability they may have to sweet talk or otherwise convince a jury does not come in to play. Second, and I’ve mentioned this before, when Columbo makes the arrest that marks the beginning of the investigation, not the end. He doesn’t need evidence that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect is guilty when he arrests them or even to get an indictment, that’s for the trial. By the time trial rolls around, it’s a safe bet that much more investigating will have been done by the DA’s office and police, witnesses would be deposed, and all kinds of documents would have been obtained via a subpoena which would establish motives.

    In many cases, what Columbo does establish is that suspect was at the scene of the crime, often when it happened, and the suspect has no alibi. That’s hard for a lawyer to work around, especially when a strong motive is established.

    I don’t think the DA would actually seek murder convictions against all of the suspects. Viveca Scott for instance would be convicted of manslaughter for the death of Carl Lessing. There would never be enough to link her the killing of Shirley.

    There is just one more thing, in the case of Jarvis Goodland, the money he obtained via the murder would be found in short order. There’s no way a lawyer could explain that.

    • You make great points Mark, which leads me to wonder what Columbo is like during testimony. In many of his cases the only way to make the charge stick is for him to report on them during trial. To be able to handle the mental frogmarch by an accomplished attorney would take Columbo at his best.

  28. This is awesome! I appreciate that you recognize that we love it despite knowing it won’t all hold up in court. That’s the beauty of the show, that it’s more of an intellectual game than a police procedural. The satisfaction is in the killer knowing Columbo has won.

    I especially like your “Identity Crisis” selection. Brenner can freely enjoy the game with Columbo as a man who’s spent his life extricating himself from tough spots. He can enjoy the battle with full confidence he will negotiate his way out of it.

  29. I love this post. My husband and I talk about this all the time. Another one that would absolutely go free is Milo Janus. Columbo gets him by saying Stafford could not have dressed himself because of the way his shoes are tied assuming Stafford is right handed but we know Stafford is NOT right handed because we see him holding the pencil in his left hand which would make his sneakers correct if a left hander tied them. I’m sure Janus’s lawyers will very quickly find out that little tid bit since that is the whole case.
    Another post I would love to read are the murderers that would most definitely be sent to jail like Mr. Markum in blueprint for murder. Columbo catches him red handed with the body in his trunk! No gettin’ outta that one.

      • They didn’t. Stafford’s work shoes were found in his locker tied. Photos were taken at the scene. The laces were tied *right* handed.

          • That’s the whole point. Columbo was saying that the shoes were tied by someone else because if Stafford tied it himself, it would look like columbos shoes but that’s based on Stafford being right handed. Stafford was left handed and we know that because we see him holding the pencil with his left hand. A lefty tying their shoes would come out backwards debunking columbos theory. Janus could prove he was left handed easily I’m sure which would then show Stafford did tie his own shoes.

  30. Terrific read thank you. I agree with all of these. In particular I’ve always thought there was negligible chance of Benedict, Hanlon and Swanson going down. I always hoped Kay Freestone would be acquitted too. As she says, she’ll fight on and maybe she’ll win.

    • I always had sympathy for Kay as well; but like so many Columbo killers, she does that ONE thing that makes me not want to jump on her side whole-hog. For me, it’s that she tries to implicate Jonathan in some way by making sure he’s there when the fatal shot is fired. As it was, the fact he was on the phone gives him his alibi.

      Having said that, I’m STILL mostly on her side because of the scummy people she’s surrounded by, from her lover (who has a Saturday fling with her before disposing of her Sunday) to Mr. Flannigan (who lectures about appropriate behavior while on the way to a party) to Mark’s secretary, who let’s Mr. Flannigan know that Kay is wanting to move into Mark’s office.

      • Good point about Kay’s plan tentatively trapping Jonathan as necessary, or possible. I never saw it, and it totally fits in with her character.

  31. Hmmm… I’m at a loss as to how the CIA would intervene in a state criminal case…how could they wield influence over DAs? And if they tried to tamper with the case or state authorities they’d be guilty of obstruction, and at a time when they were already in steaming hot water for lawbreaking (providing delicious plot points for this episode). Haha I love it when the writers build plots around the headlines of the day.

    Cool post!

    • That said, Brenner’s not going to jail on the miserably scanty evidence: he wasn’t in his office when he claimed to have been, so what? How are confessions weighed when the killers make them, though? I don’t understand that very well, but it would be lovely if confessions were enough to convict each time Columbo’s case is otherwise headed for a bust.

  32. Case Of Immunity: We are not sure of Suarian connections to the west, no way he walks. Remember this was 1973 and there were oil issues.

    Identity Crisis: Geronimo was the only one who had “more than rumors” of him being a double agent, and his implied threat of having more than so yes, he gets relocated or the case gets buried. Columbo wouldn’t be stupid enough to go to bat against the CIA.

    Etude in Black – This theory doesn’t hold water. Why would he pick it up and put it on if it wasn’t his? Plus he says “I dropped my flower” when Columbo asked him :find something?”

    The Most Crucial Game – Except Columbo heard the chimes of the clock during the initial interview. and the phone bugs log times out when the call was made.

    _____________________________________

    Forgotten Lady shouldn’t be on here. They both reached an unspoken agreement that the announcement would come after Grace passed, so of course he would not get convicted.
    Grace is the only one to get away with the crime in the entire series.

    • Re Etude, he recognised that it was his, but in court he could say he assumed it was, but given that he wasn’t wearing it during the concert he must have been wrong. That ought to contribute to reasonable doubt.

      King of Suaria says he’s happy to let US justice system deal with Hassan Sallah so I’m sure they could find more useful employ for him than jail bird, oil crisis or no.

      Yeah, Columbo heard chimes in VIP box but it’s far too weak a case overall to hope to convict. Hanlon’s a free man!

  33. While an emotional twin confession is quite damning, I’ve always thought the conclusion of “Dagger of the Mind” contained not only the weakest “gotcha” of any episode but also the flimsiest case against the perpetrators. Contrived but not earned.

  34. To be sure, there are serious proof issues in many of Columbo’s cases (as I’ve written about here previously). But please don’t either overestimate how juries are likely to respond to the typically arrogant, scheming, slick Columbo villain; or underestimate how juries are sure to warm to humble, self-effacing Columbo. If the prosecutor can just present enough evidence to force Paul Hanlon, Ken Franklin, or Jarvis Goodland to testify in their own defense — these guys are toast. The jury not only will hate them, but also see through them. Remember that a 12-person jury must reach a unanimous verdict to convict or acquit, which means our villain must bamboozle all 12 to go scot-free. And the prosecutor (who is a courtroom pro, taking on a courtroom amateur) will have ample ammunition to establish during cross-examination that each isn’t to be trusted. Furthermore, if the case comes down to a credibility battle between any of these folks and Columbo, Columbo will win hands down. Jurors will love him; he’s one of them — unlike some Beverly Hills defendant. [N.B. I wouldn’t call any of the villains listed here a true celebrity. Juries do tend to give celebrities a break. But I don’t see that exception applying to any of these cases.]

    So while there may be substantial legal hurdles to overcome, don’t count on any Columbo villain charming his way to an acquittal, or succeeding in painting Columbo as an unreliable witness.

    • It takes 12 jurors to find the defendant Not Guilty, but it also takes 12 to convict. Some of these perps might go free after several hung juries convince the prosecutors that they will never get a conviction.

      Nor do I think that it would be necessary for some of these killers to take the stand. All they need is an engaging lawyer to effectively present an alternative theory of the case. (No lawyer would ever let Jarvis Goodland take the stand. In fact, just his demeanor at the defense table might cause a jury to convict him of criminal smugness.)

      In Etude in Black, I don’t think the prosecution could even get an indictment. ‘Phile has done a good job of disposing of the carnation kerfuffle, but what of the other evidence?

      Columbo says it must be murder because Jennifer would never kill her beloved cockatoo? C’mon! How many times in “real life” do we read of a depressed parent, child or spouse killing beloved members of his/her family before committing suicide? It happens somewhere every year. Couldn’t happen to a bird?

      And why would Jennifer kill herself on the brink of her greatest fame and success? A crisis of confidence. She finds herself suddenly panicked that she cannot play or even remember critical parts of the piece…sort of like an actor “going up on his lines”. She cannot stand the thought of the attendant humiliation.

      The extra miles on the car are troublesome, but Columbo has no evidence that Benedict himself had retaken possession of the vehicle at the time of Jennifer’s death…only that it was possible for him to have done so. Anyone else could have entered the garage in the same manner and taken that rad car for a joy ride.

      Remember, the burden in criminal cases is always on the prosecution.

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