Tom Johnson didn’t need to advertise.
One of the most tenured lawyers practicing in the Indiana County courts, Johnson’s track record was enough.
Regarded as one of the most passionate defenders of the accused — an intellectual, but a gentleman — word of attorney Johnson’s recent death saddened the local legal community.
TV commercials and roadside billboards couldn’t have gained him the clients that word of mouth did.
“He got Tom Johnson,” was the sign over the years that a defendant was serious about standing his ground.
“Not one in a thousand attorneys had what Tom Johnson had,” said Indiana attorney David Serene.
Different lawyers had different descriptions for it, but they all talked about the same thing: that intangible quality that didn’t come with a law school diploma (his, from Ohio Northern) or a nice uptown office a short walk from the courthouse. A charisma, a personality, a flair.
“One of the best lawyers I have ever known,” Serene said, also calling him a wonderful friend and colleague. “Tom had an amazing ability to frame an issue and … he had that theatrical skill in the courtroom, to hold a jury spellbound.”
Johnson drew himself to his full 6-foot frame to address a jury.
“My learned colleague,” he began, referring to the prosecutor across the table in a late 1980s murder case. Johnson recited the facts of the case. His client had killed his mother-in-law. But fact by fact, Johnson then proposed that each disproved the state’s contention of first-degree murder but demonstrated diminished capacity — what he proposed was his client’s inability to reason and incognizance of his actions.
The panel found for the prosecution. Johnson didn’t bat 1.000 in the courtroom, but no attorney does. Not even district attorneys, who generally earn more favorable rulings in criminal cases. But their average dipped when paired against Johnson.
“He was a different breed,” said former District Attorney Patrick Dougherty. As prosecutor, Dougherty matched wits against Johnson in front of judges and juries over the years.
“He was the ultimate advocate for his client,” said Robert Bell, a district attorney for 12 years, who had his share of courtroom duels with Johnson.
“He would fight for every inch he could get and was not afraid to go to trial. I believe he truly liked what he was doing, and he had the gift of being able to stand up and convince a jury that his case was in the right. And he was a gentleman to deal with.
So mesmerizing was Johnson when he sold his case, he nearly had his opponents buying.
As opponents in a personal injury case, Serene said, he waited while Johnson delivered “a masterful closing argument. And I thought, I would really be enjoying this if it weren’t me that was getting pummeled!”
More often, Serene said, he and Johnson worked together outside the court, sometimes convening and sharing cases, brainstorming on strategies that each other would take before the court.
Johnson for many years was a fixture on the staff of the public defender’s office. In 2007 he was tabbed as the defense advocate for the Indiana County Drug Treatment Court program, where he was known for balancing the good of the defendant with the spirit of the law, according to Dougherty.
“He genuinely showed empathy and care for people who were battling addiction,” Dougherty said. “But he also was the first one to take a firm stance. When someone screwed up, he advocated for the penalty. But his service to that program is immeasurable.
“Tom deserved gratitude for the time he put in, because that is a hard program.”
Consensus among Indiana County Bar Association members was not only Johnson’s courtroom presence but the respect he earned from each.
“He was very much a gentleman attorney of the old school. Processional courtesies and customs were important to him,” Serene said.
“He was the consummate gentleman,” Dougherty said. “It’s one thing to zealously advocate for your client; you can do that and be difficult, but Tom was not like that. He advocated for his client but he did so in a way that you never had ill will toward him.”
Younger attorneys learned from Johnson’s example, even by studying notes from files after following his cases in the public defender’s office, said Christopher Welch, now a magisterial judge of the Clymer District Court.
“He was known for his kindness and respect. We were colleagues and he sometimes appeared in my court,” Welch said.
Johnson earned his reputation quickly after establishing his law office in Indiana in 1976 in partnership with former District Attorney Thomas Malcolm.
Serene recalled Johnson’s penchant for taking on the highest profile cases, “and he got very good results. You surely had to be impressed with what he was able to do.”
“He was unforgettable,” Serene said. “This is the end of an era. We will miss him very much.”