At approximately 4:40am on November 8, 1961, hours after Joseph Barr secured re-election as Pittsburgh’s mayor, Allen Johnson and Howard (Bubba) Washington got in a fight at the S&S Club in the Hill District. The police were called to the scene and Johnson was transported to the hospital for stitches to close a wound to his face.
Later that morning, Johnson phoned Lou’s Ringside Bar on Center Avenue to say he was coming “to get” Washington, who worked there. Johnson then went to a pawn shop, bought a rifle and bullets, went to the bar, and shot Washington at close range.
When police reported to the scene, Johnson turned himself in and confessed, saying “I shot him. I hope I killed him.”
Johnson, a 40-year old World War II combat veteran who had just been released from the Allegheny County Workhouse, had previously worked at the Ringside Bar. After losing his job, he was replaced by Washington.
Proceedings against Johnson moved quickly. After a short trial, during which Johnson’s defense countered his own confession and witness testimony arguing that Washington provoked the shooting, he was convicted of first-degree murder on February 7, 1962. The jury recommended a death sentence, which was formally imposed on August 11, 1962.
On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the arguments that Johnson acted under the influence of drugs that had been administered when he was at the hospital or that he was intoxicated (Commonwealth v. Johnson, 410 Pa. 605, 1963).
However, the court also endorsed the District Attorney’s view, expressed at the time of Johnson’s conviction, that the case would be appropriate for the Board of Pardon’s consideration.
Facing an active execution warrant, Johnson’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Scranton on July 16, 1963. Inadequate defense counsel at trial was cited as the reason for the commutation; his trial counsel had rejected an offer of a second-degree murder conviction in return for a guilty plea.
Though his multiple clemency requests were denied, Allen Johnson was paroled on November 9, 1976. He died in Pittsburgh on September 3, 1984.