Chesco's Johnston brothers denied new murder trial

Posted: April 14, 2011

In an area renowned for a world-famous garden and its pastoral tranquillity, their shocking, murderous crime spree was evocative of the violent legends of Prohibition-era Chicago and the Wild West.

The notorious Johnston brothers - the convicted impresarios of a reign of terror in southern Chester County in the 1970s that involved at least six murders - have lost their latest bid for a new trial.

David and Norman Johnston, convicted of four counts of murder in 1980, had argued that information in a book published in 2009 by journalist Bruce E. Mowday contained "new exculpatory evidence."

In rejecting the appeal last week, Common Pleas Court Judge Andrew Riley in essence said he failed to see it, adding that the material in question was available at trial. The Johnstons have filed more than a dozen appeals.

Ironically, Mowday's book, Jailing the Johnston Gang, extols the zeal and virtues of the investigators. Mowday, who had covered the trial for the West Chester Daily Local News, said Wednesday that the appeal "surprised" him.

Chester County Chief Deputy District Attorney Nicholas Casenta said the appeal lacked merit. "I don't think there was anything new."

In the 1970s, David, Norman, and Bruce Johnston Sr. ran a multimillion-dollar burglary ring, whose booty included tractors and other farm equipment.

Three young gang members suspected of talking to authorities were murdered, along with Bruce Johnston Jr.'s 15-year-old girlfriend, Robin Miller. Johnston Jr., then 19, was a target, but he managed to survive eight gunshot wounds. Police said the younger Johnston had decided to inform because his father had raped his girlfriend.

Another gang member, Ancell E. Hamm, was convicted of killing two police officers in Kennett Square.

"It is reminiscent of the wild, wild West," said William Lamb, the former district attorney who prosecuted the Johnstons and Hamm. "They had no morals, no scruples. They are a ruthless group of people."

Their exploits became the basis of a 1986 movie, At Close Range, starring Christopher Walken and Sean Penn. The script was so fictionalized, however, that law enforcement officials refused to have anything to do with it, according to Mowday's book.

Bruce Johnston Sr., 63, died of natural causes at Graterford Prison in August 2002.

In 1999, Norman Johnston escaped from a prison in central Pennsylvania for 18 days. He was caught after a couple spotted him in their yard in the southeastern Chester County town of Pennsbury.

Casenta said the changes in that part of the county, where so much farm equipment had been available to steal, probably shocked the escapee. "What was a wooded area was now developed," he said. "He didn't know how to pump gas."

Norman and David remain in separate state prisons serving life sentences.

In the appeal, which they filed themselves, among other arguments the Johnstons held that another man had admitted to a fellow prisoner that he had killed Robin Miller.

But in throwing out the appeal, Riley said that "this is not new information" and was known at trial.

Lamb said the Johnstons have filed "14 or 15" appeals, and Casenta said he expected them to try again.

Elizabeth Kelly and Brenda L. Jones, the court-assigned attorneys for the Johnstons, said Wednesday they had withdrawn from the case.

Kelly said she saw "no merit" in the arguments, adding, "Whether or not they appealed would be up to them."


Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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