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Monday, July 19, 2010

Dad and the Cop Killer

Perry Johnson, though only fifteen, had a lengthy record of thefts and burglaries, and had been through the prison system a number of times when on the evening of March 25, 1972, he broke into Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High School in Dallas, Texas, to raid the candy machine. This triggered a silent alarm and a young patrolman named Allen Camp responded quickly, coming upon Johnson almost immediately. Seeing how young the boy was, Officer Camp holstered his gun, and when the youngster fled, gave chase. Unfortunately the high school hall was wet from a recent janitorial scrubbing, and Camp slipped, fell, hit his head and was briefly knocked out. Johnson promptly returned, unholstered Camp’s .357 magnum revolver, and shot him in the chest as he lay on the floor, just coming to. Camp’s heart exploded, spreading blood everywhere in massive amounts. Johnson himself was soaked with it. Allen Camp, 21, had been on the force exactly one year and ten days.

On the witness stand at Johnson’s own trial later that year he testified that this killing was his “first big offense.”

In the Texas juvenile criminal world (both inside and outside of prison) word had gotten around that if you were under seventeen you could get away with murder. Johnson was apparently testing that theory, and the Dallas District Attorney, Henry Wade, had had enough. Perry Johnson was tried as an adult, with the prosecution asking for life imprisonment (parole being possible after twenty years). This caused a stir in the local community—putting a 15 year-old away for at least twenty years?

Robert Whaley had only been at the Dallas District Attorney’s Office a little under two years at this point (he’d graduated from law school in 1970—see “Bob Whaley, Boy Lawyer” March 28, 2010). Nonetheless, his talents in the courtroom led to his being one of the two prosecutors on this case. When the trial began, there was no question of the defendant’s guilt, so the arguments were all about what punishment would fit the crime. Defense counsel pushed hard on the fact of the defendant’s youth, and, while conceding that his client needed help, urged the jury (six men, six women) to sentence the boy to no more than five to ten years.


When Dad did his part of the summation to the jury much of what he said was reported verbatim in the press. “Killers come in all sizes, shapes, and sexes. Guns kill people in the hands of women and young people just as well as in the hands of anyone else.” Turning to the defendant, Dad told the jury, “Look at him! He smokes like an adult, he drinks like an adult, and he committed a crime like an adult. And he’s dangerous!” At this point Johnson snarled at Dad, who promptly used that. “Look, he even snarls like a cornered animal! Only a child? How about this child?” Dad pulled the blood-soaked policeman’s blouse from the evidence bag and held it up for the jury to see. “Officer Camp was only 21—here’s what’s left of that child!”

At this point Officer Camp’s widow ran from the courtroom, sobbing. It was a horrible moment, but Dad let it hang in the air for some time before he concluded by softly telling the jury, “If Perry Johnson kills another person in Dallas County let it be the doing of someone other than this jury.”

My mother, sister, and her husband all attended the trial, and when the jury retired Dad suggested they should go have lunch. Everyone in the building (spectators, the press, the court personnel) were startled on learning that the jury was returning immediately, and Dad’s luncheon party had to be stopped at the courthouse door and hurried back inside. If a jury comes back early, that’s almost always bad for the prosecution, so it was with great unease Dad took his seat in the courtroom. But in just 25 minutes the jury had found Johnson guilty of murder with malice, and then sentenced him to life imprisonment.

One odd thing happened thereafter. Every year at Christmas time, Perry Johnson sent my father a card. He told Dad that putting him in prison was the right thing to do, not only for Johnson himself, who couldn’t function on the outside, but because, in his words, “it saved others from more harm.” The cards continued until Dad died in 1980.


Related Posts:
“My Competitive Parents,” January 20, 2010
"Goodbye to St. Paddy's Day," March 2, 2010
“Bob Whaley, Boy Lawyer,” March 28, 2010
"My Mother's Sense of Humor," April 4, 2010
“The Sayings of Robert Whaley,” May 13, 2010
“Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule,” June 26, 2010
“Bob and Kink Get Married,” June 2, 2010
“No Pennies In My Pocket,” July 30, 2010
“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk,” August 20, 2010
“The Death of Robert Whaley,” September 7, 2010
"My Missing Grandmother," December 26, 2010
"Bob Whaley Trapped in Panama," January 21, 2011
"The Death of My Mother," March 31, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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