Herbert Johnston was part of a group of strong arm robbers who were active in the Hill District in the World War I era.
Charles Pace, a 31-year old recent migrant from Georgia, was a victim of one of those robberies on the night of July 2, 1918, during which he was beaten. Pace died three days later. His death certificate indicates his broken jaw resulted in shock and heart failure.
After the robbery, Johnston and an accomplice assaulted a police officer on Grant St. The accomplice, William Montgomery, was arrested and imprisoned for that assault.
Johnston fled to Cleveland, where he married, before returning to Pittsburgh. He was arrested on February 21, 1919, more than seven months later, as part of a group of men who had committed another similar robbery. Johnston is said to have confessed to police at arrest and to have implicated others.
At trial, Johnston said his confession was coerced. He was convicted of first-degree murder on December 5, 1919, which attached a mandatory death sentence.
Prior to the formal imposition of that sentence, Johnston’s counsel filed the typical and rarely granted request for a new trial.
That request was granted on March 20, 1920, due to evidence that Pace’s death may have been the result of other causes. In addition to the heart issues identified in his autopsy, he is said to have suffered from Bright’s disease (kidney disease).
At retrial on March 22, Johnston pleaded guilty. Partly in consideration of the testimony Johnston had provided against Montgomery, Johnston was sentenced to serve 4-6 years in Western Penitentiary. Montgomery was acquitted at trial.