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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Salah, A Case of Immunity
There are bigger issues at stake than the mere rule of law here, and Salah’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, Salah’s knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and power plays will make him a desirable tool to bolster US intelligence forces. Consequently, Salah 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
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!