One of the hottest – and most regular – debates had by Columbo fans on social media channels is what precisely would happen when the Lieutenant’s cases get to the courtroom.
It’d be nice to think that 100% of the villains (especially the odious types like Barry Mayfield, Milo Janus and Paul Gerard) will pay for their crimes with a lengthy stretch behind bars. The reality, however, might be quite different. While we viewers can bask in Columbo’s reflected glory, safe in the knowledge that he has outfoxed smug murderer after smug murderer on a mental plane, a judge and jury might be an awful lot harder to convince.
Luckily (as we all know) the fate of the Columbo villains once they pass beyond the Lieutenant’s jurisdiction isn’t the point of the show. Us knowing he’s beaten them is usually enough. Yet the debate surrounding their ultimate fates at the hands of the law remains a juicy one, awash with speculation and hunches, but little genuine knowledge of the law.
Just as luckily, the Columbo community has an expert in its midst in the shape of former prosecutor (and occasional blog contributor) Rich Weill. Here, he applies his expertise on legal proceedings to give something approaching a definitive verdict on what the series villains could expect when their cases go to trial. It’s certain to be of interest to staunch fans, so read on with confidence…
IT’S BEEN more than five years since we last asked: What happens when Columbo’s cases go to court? That 2017 examination only looked at Prescription: Murder through Requiem for a Falling Star. What about the rest of the classic era — A Stitch in Crime through The Conspirators? What interesting legal issues do these 31 episodes raise?
Thirty-one episodes is a lot of ground to cover. So, first off, I’m going to skip Troubled Waters and A Matter of Honor. Assuming the
boat ship The Sea Palace is as British as its crew, neither case would be adjudicated under American law. Then, if we group the remaining episodes in categories and focus primarily on the most interesting legal cases, maybe we can pull this off. Let’s take a look…
Go directly to jail
WHICH CASES will be the easiest to prosecute? It may surprise many of you that No. 1 on my list is A Case of Immunity. Wait a minute! Didn’t Columbo coerce Hassan Salah into confessing, by arranging with the King to hold the prospect of “Suarian justice” over Salah’s head if he didn’t? Won’t Salah’s lawyers be able to exclude his confession as involuntary? Not if Salah won’t let them try. Suari has every right to try a Suarian diplomat in Suari under Suarian law for murdering another Suarian national on Suarian soil (what the Suarian consulate property is by law). Salah’s only means to avoid this grisly alternative is to waive all objections to the prosecution’s murder indictment, plead guilty as charged, accept his sentence, and head directly to a California prison cell. And that’s what Salah will do. Case closed.
Ruth Lytton (Old Fashioned Murder) will likely plead guilty, too, although her lawyer will try to convince her that she is making a hasty decision. And who knows how protective Ruth will feel toward niece Janie when the moment of truth arrives? She did try to frame Janie for murder after all.
I don’t see Col. Lyle Rumford (By Dawn’s Early Light) putting up much of a fight either. He freely admitted his guilt (“Don’t you expect me to be contrite, Lieutenant. It had to be done, and I’d do it again tomorrow.”). [Law Lesson No. 1: Before anyone raises Miranda objections, here or anywhere else, please keep in mind that Miranda warnings are only required before custodial interrogation. Unless a suspect is in custody and responding to police questioning, Miranda is not implicated.] Rumford will probably take his case to trial, but only so he can use a public courtroom as a platform to preach in favor of national military preparedness. Once convicted, however, a 24/7 suicide watch is advised.
Prosecutors similarly will have no problem convicting Nelson Hayward (Candidate for Crime). Hayward convicted himself. He can’t deflect responsibility, or try to use Columbo as a fall guy. Columbo’s conduct here was unimpeachable. What right did he have to enter the room with the bullet hole? He was a member of Hayward’s security detail with legal access to the entire hotel suite. Politicians never go down quietly, but Nelson Hayward is sure to go down.
So will Stefan Mueller a/k/a The Great Santini (Now You See Him). The proof is strong that Jesse Jerome had just typed a letter about Mueller (it was the last thing typed on his typewriter before Sgt. Wilson’s typing exercise), and that this letter must relate to why Jerome was murdered (or the typed letter wouldn’t have disappeared from Jerome’s office). Mueller’s proven ability to pick the pick-proof lock on Jerome’s door further implicates him, and his skill as an illusionist ironically impeaches any alibi he might offer. Of course, we can’t forget he also admitted, in front of numerous witnesses, thinking he’d “performed the perfect murder.” Bye, bye, Herr Mueller.
What about Adrian Carsini (Any Old Port in a Storm) and Tommy Brown (Swan Song), both of whom told Columbo they would confess? Did they follow through? Tommy, certainly. He was caught red-handed. Carsini might have had second thoughts, but if so, Columbo need only have told Karen Fielding that Adrian preferred prison to her and Carsini’s alibi would blow sky high.
And speaking of “sky high,” one fully deflated murderer whom I wouldn’t count on to accept his punishment quietly is Oliver Brandt (The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case). Regardless of how we left him, he still thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. Look for him to fire his attorney, insist on representing himself, and go down in flames when Columbo testifies that only a supreme genius could have arranged the murder of Bertie Hastings — whereupon Oliver will nod and say, “Thank you,” audibly before the jury.
In the end, Columbo’s “honest mistake” with Brandt’s umbrella won’t matter much; prosecutors will argue that Columbo prevented any taint by telling Brandt that “we’re not allowed to get evidence that way” and Brandt, knowing this, still incriminated himself. Brandt will be clueless how to respond.
At the other extreme…
…WHICH CASES face the prospect of an early dismissal? When prosecutors start to examine the proof against Emmett Clayton (The Most Dangerous Match), Viveca Scott (Lovely But Lethal), and Swanny Swanson (The Last Salute to the Commodore), they’re bound to be underwhelmed. Columbo is sure to hear, first: “Lieutenant, I get that Clayton wouldn’t know if the trash compactor turned off. But what evidence even puts him in the vicinity of the trash compactor? Besides, Dudek died of a medical mix-up in a hospital. What’s your proof against Clayton on that? That he has a good memory!?”
Next: “Where’s the microscope slide with the out-of-state poison ivy on it? You didn’t collect any of the broken glass? So how do you know what was on the glass, or if it even was a slide from the microscope?” And finally: “You’ve got to be kidding, Lieutenant. ‘T’isn’t’? You expect me to base a murder case on ‘T’isn’t’? T’won’t.”
There are also guaranteed to be some lively behind-the-scenes conversations about what to do with Ned Diamond (Forgotten Lady). We don’t know what evidence, if any, proves Diamond was elsewhere between 11pm and 1am on the night Henry Willis died. (We know he wasn’t one of Johnny Carson’s guests that night.) Assuming the alibi evidence is equivocal, Ned did confess to murdering Henry. That’s direct evidence of guilt. Prosecutors need no additional proof that Diamond committed the murder. [Law Lesson No. 2: The confession corroboration rule only requires independent evidence that the crime occurred, not that the confessor committed it.] Once Grace dies, Ned will surely recant his confession, but it’s still there. Columbo may have to threaten to testify for the defense to get prosecutors to drop the case. It won’t be pleasant for anyone, but Ned will be free in time to serve as one of Grace’s pallbearers.
The death of Karl Donner (A Deadly State of Mind) presents a tortuous dilemma (as the following tortuous paragraph bears out). Legally, it should have resulted in no criminal charges against anyone. Donner was viciously assaulting his wife Nadia. Mark Collier had the legal right to intervene to stop the assault. [Law Lesson No. 3: “Self-defense” includes defense of another person.] Collier couldn’t use excessive force against Donner, but one blow with the non-business end of a fireplace poker, on someone powerful enough to take on two people at once, is not excessive. Furthermore, Collier had a corroborating witness to the circumstances under which Donner died: Nadia Donner. But then Collier murdered his corroborating witness and tarnished the credibility he once had to explain Donner’s death.
Nonetheless, he only deserves to go to prison for killing Nadia Donner, not for his justified single blow to stop Karl. Is it a just result that, because he escaped punishment for murdering Nadia, he should be imprisoned for a lawful act of self-defense against Karl? That could happen. A jury is guaranteed to hate Mark Collier were he to testify about how he defended Nadia. They may discredit what we know to be true. Then again, the prosecution may not have sufficient evidence to necessitate his testimony. A lighter flint and Collier’s apparent knowledge that the passer-by was blind? Does that even put Collier in the room when Donner was struck? Does that establish that it was Mark who struck Karl? It’s too bad Columbo wasn’t able to prove that Collier sent Nadia over the balcony rail. That’s the case we’d rather see prosecuted.
Columbo in the crosshairs
In which cases is Columbo’s conduct likely to affect the result adversely, or at least become the principal focus of attention? Mind Over Mayhem, where Columbo knowingly arrested an innocent Neil Cahill to pressure father Marshall to confess? As those who follow my blog comments know, this is my ethical low point for Columbo during the whole of the classic era. But here is Law Lesson No. 4: To challenge an illegal arrest, you have to be the one arrested. Marshall Cahill has no standing to argue that Neil’s rights were violated. Sorry, Marshall.
On the other hand, there’s Double Exposure. Did Columbo have the right to enter Bart Kepple’s office twice without a warrant — once, to take photos to use as subliminal cuts and, second, to witness Kepple produce the all-important caliber converter? It’s an office, not a home, but commercial premises also are protected from warrantless intrusions. Columbo and his photographer waited covertly until Kepple left the building, and flashed a badge to a security guard to gain entry. Even Columbo’s photographer recognized the problem. (“Wait a minute. Flashing a badge to get past a guard is one thing, but this is searching without a warrant.” “I’m not searching, I’m looking.”) No, Lieutenant, “looking” is searching unless you are looking at something in plain view from a vantage point you have a right to occupy.
There’s no indication either man had the right to cross Kepple’s office threshold. Waiting in the dark for Kepple to drive away is most telling on this point. Moreover, in order to find the caliber converter Columbo also had to exercise possession over, and tamper with, Kepple’s property — his film. What right had he to do this as well? I’m afraid the Kepple defense team is going to have quite a time at our dear Lieutenant’s expense.
In several other cases, the defense team is likely to make Columbo’s conduct a centerpiece, but more out of desperation than anything else. Paul Galesko (Negative Reaction) will blame Columbo for his identification of the camera used in Frances’ murder. If Columbo hadn’t reversed the enlargement, destroyed the original, etc., etc. You get the idea. But so what? Galesko made an independent decision to grab a specific camera from a police evidence shelf. No one invited or permitted him to touch police evidence. He did it on his own. Don’t blame Columbo.
Mark Halperin (A Friend in Deed) will undoubtedly unload both barrels at Columbo — not because Columbo did anything wrong, but because Halperin has no other options. He will claim that Columbo, not he, collected Janice Caldwell’s jewels, planted them under Columbo’s mattress, and then tampered with a police file to lure Halperin into searching the apartment. If, as Columbo predicted, Hugh Caldwell does “fill in some missing pieces” once he “understands the situation,” Halperin will blame Columbo for Caldwell’s evidence, too.
He’ll use his remaining friends in the LAPD to gather every police file containing examples of Columbo straying outside the lines: using fake evidence, staging phony scenes, and the like. “Isn’t it true, Lieutenant, that even as a guest of Scotland Yard in London, you planted a pearl bead in an umbrella to entrap a feeble-minded suspect?” It could be quite a show. Columbo had better be at the top of his game that day (and hopefully was able to entrust Lieutenant Duffy with his suspicions and intentions so that Duffy can now back up Columbo’s account). Make no mistake, folks, the unfortunate truth is that the law frequently can become a blood sport.
Tough, but winnable
The prosecutors assigned to the Milo Janus case (An Exercise in Fatality) will definitely have questions for Columbo, like: “How many pairs of Stafford’s tied shoes did you examine? One? Only one!? What does that show? How can one pair prove that Stafford consistently tied his shoes the same way?” After some hemming and hawing, Columbo will remember the long list of other circumstantial evidence against Janus. That’s not likely to please the prosecution team; smoking-gun cases are easier to prosecute than those requiring jurors to piece lots of smaller bits together. But it’s still a winnable case.
How about the People v. Barry Mayfield (A Stitch in Crime) — not just for attempting to murder Dr. Heideman but for murdering nurse Sharon Martin and Harry Alexander, too? Personally, I think prosecutors will have a decent shot if, and only if, they’re allowed to try the three sets of charges at one time. They should be permitted to do this. Charges that factually overlap (that is, where proof of one crime also is evidence of another crime) usually can be joined together.
Here you’d start by proving that Mayfield used dissolving suture to turn Dr. Heideman’s heart valve into a ticking time bomb. When he later removed this suture, he tried to hide it, but Columbo found it anyway. Was this an unintentional surgical error? No. Even Mayfield admitted, “A surgeon wouldn’t make a mistake like that. Dissolving suture is an entirely different color.” The removed suture may still bear the phony color used to disguise it.
Then you tie this evidence in with nurse Martin’s behavior after Heideman’s first operation: according to both a hospital cleaning woman and a medical supply company receptionist, Martin was very upset immediately afterwards; that very night, she tried to contact the chemist at the company that supplied the suture. Only one thing explains this: Martin clearly suspected that Mayfield did exactly what we know he did: use dissolving suture to repair Heideman’s heart valve. But she’s murdered before she can meet the chemist the following morning. Only one person had a motive to stop that meeting.
Add to this the planted morphine vials wiped clean of fingerprints. Neither Martin nor roommate Marcia Dalton would have any reason to wipe down those vials before hiding them in their apartment. And then there’s Marcia’s account of how Mayfield extracted the name Harry Alexander from her — together with the proof that Alexander died from the same fingerprint-free drug vial via an injection in the wrong arm. Considered together, all these pieces of evidence paint a broad and reasonably clear picture: Mayfield was trying to kill Heideman; when Martin suspected this, Mayfield killed her and planted drugs and injected Alexander to implicate someone else in the Martin murder. Would it be reasonable for a jury to doubt that so many contemporaneous, interconnected facts are related? I don’t think so. Let’s see Mayfield laugh his way out of this one.
The other side of the joinder coin is the case against the Paris brothers (Double Shock). When two defendants act in concert, one of whom admits Columbo is right (“It’s all right, Mrs. Peck. What’s done is done. What’s obvious is obvious. I’m just sorry that you had to be here.”) while the other doesn’t (“Shut up!”), it’s very difficult to try the two defendants together. Because — Law Lesson No. 5 — Norman’s admissions aren’t admissible against Dexter. If used against Dexter, they’re inadmissible hearsay.
If prosecutors want to keep Norman’s ratification of Columbo’s theory in the case, they’ll have to try Dexter separately. This opens up the possibility that Dexter, knowing what Norman has said, will put all the blame on Norman; if the crime did require two people, as Columbo maintains, then Norman must have had help from one of his gambling buddies. I don’t think this will work in light of the telephone trail of brotherly collusion, but it’s a complication.
Columbo’s case against Nelson Brenner (Identity Crisis) discounted the significant probability that U.S. intelligence agencies had advance information about China’s Olympics withdrawal. The oversight may have led to a hasty conclusion. But never mind, Brenner rendered that possibility academic with his non-custodial admission: “I was going to [put Henderson’s coat back on], but apart from muggers on the beach, Mr. Columbo, they also have loving couples. And I was interrupted at the scene of the crime.” Not very intelligent for an intelligence agent.
As for Abigail Mitchell (Try and Catch Me), Columbo is quite right about the admissibility and power of “deathbed testimony,” also known as a dying declaration: Edmund Galvin’s “I was murdered by Abigail Mitchell.” The prosecution’s challenge in the Mitchell case will be to keep any testimony about Phyllis Galvin’s death from the jury. Edmund’s murder was meticulously planned. Mitchell not only staged an elaborate ruse to lure Edmund into her safe, but also arranged to reacquire the rights to her mega-hit play “Murder of the Year” in the process.
This was not a rash crime that might be mitigated on grounds of emotional distress. Abigail’s feelings for her niece and suspicions about Edmund are thus irrelevant to her culpability for Edmund’s murder. Any evidence along these lines would be a naked plea for sympathy, which is not the jury’s province. That’s solely a sentencing consideration after conviction. But many courts are reluctant to limit what a defendant may say in her own defense, so excluding it will be an uphill, but valid, fight.
You had to be there
There will always be criminal cases that become courthouse legends because of their inherent weirdness. I suspect that one such case might involve Ward Fowler (Fade in to Murder). I could very well envision Fowler’s defense attempting to place the blame for Clare Daley’s murder on Fowler’s alternate personality, Lieutenant Lucerne. Indeed, Columbo’s name might even appear on the defense’s witness list, purportedly to testify that he observed Fowler periodically morph in and out of Lucerne’s personality. But it’s doubtful that any such testimony would be received, because the law doesn’t recognize multiple personalities — dissociative identity disorder — as a legal defense to a crime, even where the disorder is medically established.
Simply put, a person with multiple personalities is responsible for every crime any of those personalities commits. If Personality X commits a vicious murder, you can’t let harmless Personality Y walk free without also freeing dangerous Personality X. They’re both housed in the same body. But nice try, Ward. As he’d acknowledge: “Damn! I had to forget something. That’s always how the third act ends…”
That about does it
That covers 23 of the remaining 29 classic-era cases. I haven’t said anything about Publish or Perish, Playback, Murder Under Glass, Make Me a Perfect Murder, How to Dial a Murder, or The Conspirators. To be honest, I couldn’t think of anything especially interesting or informative about them from a legal perspective. Not every Columbo promises to provide good courtroom fodder. (I recall one blog comment suggesting that Columbo “tampered with evidence” in How to Dial a Murder by having Laurel and Hardy retrained. Hardly. In fact, Columbo interceded to prevent this “evidence” from being destroyed. Retraining killer dogs is no more tampering with evidence than unloading a murder weapon.)
Will Riley Greenleaf, Harold Van Wick, Paul Gerard, Kay Freestone, Eric Mason, and Joe Devlin be convicted? Gerard, Mason, and Devlin, definitely. Van Wick and Freestone, probably. Greenleaf? Can anyone summarize the proof of murder against Riley in a few short sentences. I can’t.
In another few years, maybe we’ll take a legal look at the 1989-2003 Columbos. But for now, we’re adjourned.
Rich Weill is a New York-based lawyer/playwright/author/former prosecutor. His books We Open in Oxnard Saturday Afternoon (about his critically acclaimed stage thriller Framed) and Last Train to Gidleigh (a WWII mystery set in London) are widely available. He also has written several articles for this blog, which you can access here.
Wasn’t that marvellous? My thanks to Rich for once again applying his expertise to a hot Columbo topic and helping we average viewers enhance our appreciation of the greatest detective series of them all. Remember, if you missed the first part of Rich’s legal analysis of Columbo’s cases (from back in 2017) you can catch it here.
Until next we reconvene, take care of yourselves and each other…