Interview with Anti-Death Penalty Activist Richard D. Kimble, MD
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Today Become Who You Are is interviewing Dr. Richard Kimble. Dr. Kimble is famous as an anti-death penalty activist. His passionate opposition to capital punishment came as a result of his own experience of having been wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife in 1961 and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Dr. Kimble was spared by a train wreck that freed him en route to death row and was exonerated in 1967 after four years as a fugitive. But what has happened in his life in the 50 years since then? Dr. Kimble speaks to us at his home in Stafford, Indiana.
BWYA: Dr. Kimble, thank you for talking to us today. RK: You’re quite welcome.
BWYA: I understand that congratulations are in order for your 90th birthday. RK: Yes. I never thought I would make it this far.
BWYA: If it’s not too painful, I’d like for you to recount the events in the 1960s that made you famous. RK: Or infamous, at least for a time.
BWYA: Your ordeal began in 1961 with the murder of your wife, Helen. RK: Actually, my “ordeal” as you call it, began about a year earlier. Helen’s pregnancy had come to term and it became obvious that she was going to need a C-section. When the procedure was performed it was found that the baby had died. When the surgeon tried to deliver the baby, he found it necessary to perform an emergency hysterectomy.
BWYA: But she recovered her health. RK: Yes, physically. But she had terrible post-partum depression and suffered from enormous grief. I still very much wanted children, so I suggested adoption. The mere mention of the subject made Helen agitated. She thought that adopting a baby would be living a lie because the child would not be hers. She could not accept anything that seemed like a substitute for what she had lost. She took to drinking. I foolishly pressed the issue.
BWYA: Children meant a lot to you. Before you retired, you were a pediatrician, yes? RK: That’s right. I have always loved kids and I thought children would make our marriage better. Unfortunately, perhaps in my own grief, I developed tunnel vision on the subject. We argued. A lot. She would become intoxicated to the point of falling down. A couple of times she bruised her face. The neighbors saw the bruises and heard the arguments and this laid the groundwork for the theory that I had been beating her.
BWYA: But you never did become violent with her, is that correct? RK: Only one time. On the night she died she was drinking again and I grabbed a glass out of her hand. Needless to say, this led to a very tense moment. I was angry and walked out of the house. That was the last time I saw her alive.
BWYA: And what happened after you walked out? RK: I drove out to the river to cool off. It was dark when I drove back. About a block from home I almost hit a man running from the direction of our house. He had one arm and the face of an animal. He was caught in the headlights for a few seconds, and then he ran away.
BWYA: I know this is painful, but what did you find at home? RK: The front door was open and Helen was lying on the floor with the back of her skull cracked open. There was a lamp on the floor next to her that had obviously been used to beat her over the head. I tried to resuscitate her and after being unable to, I called the police.
BWYA: How did the police respond? RK: I think they believed me at first. They wanted to believe me. I was an upstanding member of the community, a children’s doctor. In those naïve times it was hard to believe that such a person would savagely kill his wife.
BWYA: And that’s when you met Lieutenant Philip Gerard? RK: Yes. Strangely, we had never met before. Stafford was just large enough that you didn’t know everybody. And I had little occasion to rub shoulders with the police.
BWYA: What did Gerard do? RK: He and his men took statements and then he started looking for the one-armed man.
BWYA: But he didn’t find the one-armed man. RK: Oh, no, he found over 80 one-armed men, but they all had alibis or were missing the wrong arm or something else that ruled them out as suspects. He was quite thorough. After ten days they arrested me.
BWYA: And charged you with murder. Why not manslaughter? That would have been more in line with killing someone in anger, and it wouldn’t have carried the death penalty. RK: The prosecutor was out for blood. Remember this was just a few years after the similar Sam Sheppard murder case in neighboring Ohio. His wife was beaten to death and he saw a “bushy-haired” man running from the scene of the crime. He was found guilty. Many people were outraged that he had gotten off too lightly by being sentenced to life in prison instead of death, so the state of Indiana took it out on me. The prosecution sold the jury this crazy theory that I had intended to kill Helen and make it look like a burglary.
BWYA: But what would have been the motive? After all, if you wanted to trade her in for a woman who could have children, you could have just divorced her. RK: Well, getting a divorce in those days was not so easy, and according to the prosecutor’s theory I didn’t want to look like a heel for running out on my bereaved wife. Besides, Helen’s family had money, which I supposedly wanted to get my hands on. All that plus the bruises and the arguments was just enough to secure a conviction. The judge was up for reelection and didn’t want to appear soft on a wife-killer, so he sentenced me to death.
BWYA: But you appealed. RK: Yes, I sat in prison through 18 months of appeals. The problem was that it had all been done legally. That’s one of the problems with the death penalty. Even when the system goes the way it’s supposed to, it can still kill an innocent man. Eventually, I ran out of appeals and was being transferred to a prison that had the electric chair when the train derailed.
BWYA: That’s something I was wondering about. Why were you being transported on a train handcuffed to a cop, instead of being transported on a secure Department of Corrections bus? RK: That was luck. The bus had broken down. Gerard didn’t want to wait for it t be repaired, so he transported me himself.
BWYA: A detective lieutenant doing a prisoner transfer? Isn’t that a rather lowly task for him? RK: Yes, this was an early sign of his neurosis about me. Gerard believed in the sanctity of the law with all his heart. For him our legal system was as just and impersonal as a monument. Yet he always harbored a little doubt about me. So he overcompensated by obsessing about me. He wanted to get me into the electric chair himself so he could relieve the tension.
BWYA: And then the train derailed. RK: Yes, that was luck, too. I found myself lying on the ground with a handcuff on my wrist and no Gerard.
BWYA: But that seems impossible. Gerard’s hand would have come off before the handcuffs would have broken open. RK: Yes, that’s a mystery. Maybe Gerard didn’t snap the handcuffs securely on his own wrist. Maybe, and here I am speculating, he actually unlocked himself from me in a half-conscious state because he felt I was innocent. At any rate, I was freed from him and I began to run.
BWYA: How did you survive? RK: At first I stole things: a file for the handcuffs, clothes, food, hair dye. I stole rides on freights trains and trucks. When I got far enough away I changed my appearance and began taking odd jobs. I still stole things occasionally. I felt bad about it, but I was desperate, and I never took anything from someone who appeared to be poor. Maybe that’s a rationalization for being a thief, but I wasn’t going to freeze to death because my morals kept me from taking a jacket. After I was exonerated and built my practice back up to the point where I could afford to, I tried to track down everybody I had stolen from and repay them. Most of them refused to take my money.
BWYA: You’ve mentioned luck a few times. Have your experiences made you believe in the operation of fate? RK: Not in the operation of some sort of divine plan, but in some kind of ironic chance. Why did Helen and I have an argument that particular night she was murdered? If we hadn’t, we would have gone out to dinner and not been there when the one-armed man broke in. Why did the transport bus break down? Why did the handcuff come off of Gerard’s wrist?
BWYA: It must have almost seemed like predestination. Like you were being sent on a journey of suffering. RK: Let’s not get religious about this. I don’t think there’s any purpose in suffering. That’s why I became a doctor: to alleviate needless suffering. My suffering was not part of any divine plan.
BWYA: You saw a lot of America in your years on the run. RK: I saw a great deal of America in those years, some of it was not very pretty.
BWYA: Why did you stay in the U.S.? Why didn’t you take work on a freighter and go to Brazil, where you could make a new life where they couldn’t extradite you? RK: Because I didn’t want a new life. I wanted to be Richard Kimble again, be with my family, work in my profession. For that I needed to find the one-armed man. I wasn’t sure what to do with him when I found him. I wasn’t even sure he had murdered Helen, but I knew he was the key.
BWYA: It was a miracle you weren’t captured in all that those years. Fate again? RK: It wasn’t fate. It was that Wanted poster. The pictures didn’t look anything like me. [Laughs a little.] It was the hair. Prematurely gray and that awful brush-cut – a little dye and a more natural style and I looked like a new man. That poster probably saved my life. And by the way, I was captured several times. But events always conspired in my favor. Perhaps you’re right about fate. But no, usually I was freed because of the kindness of strangers. That’s not fate, that’s free will. People aren’t naturally good – I came to know that in my travels. They have to choose to be good. Fortunately for me and for the world, most do make that choice.
BWYA: All the while you were being chased by Lt. Gerard. RK: Yes, Gerard was obsessed with my capture. He traveled from place to place trying to run me down. He even spent his own money to do so when the police department wanted him to give up and leave the matter to the feds, who were normally in charge of tracking down interstate fugitives.
BWYA: Do you have any idea about the source of his obsession? RK: I think so. I got to know Gerard pretty well over the years. He regarded society as being based on the absolutism of the law. He did not see himself as personally responsible for bringing me to my death. Others found me guilty. Others sentenced me to die. His job was to execute the law, that is, to help execute me. What drove him crazy was the uncertainty. He knew at some level that there was a very large reasonable doubt in my case. He couldn’t admit that doubt, because to do so would be to admit the law was imperfect. Eventually, he tried to achieve a psychological compromise between my proven guilt and seeming innocence. According to his fantasy, I in my lonely desperation had come to believe my own story and had latched on to some random one-armed drifter to support my delusion. He thought I believed myself to be innocent. Of course, this was all some kind of projection on his part. In reality, it was he who believed I was innocent.
BWYA: So his anxiety fueled his relentlessness toward you. RK: Yes, but at the same time – and here’s the really fascinating thing – he never stopped looking for the one-armed man. He would have said that it was his job to keep looking but really it was his doubt that drove him. He had nightmares that after I was executed, he would find him. He was running as much as I was.
BWYA: Eventually, after four years on the run, you were exonerated. RK: That was due to Gerard. He got a lead on the one-armed man, whose real name we never did learn, but who we called Fred Johnson. He followed up on that lead trying to lay a trap for me, but when he came face-to-face with Johnson, he saw the truth. It’s lucky for him that he didn’t have a stroke. I heard later that he almost strangled Johnson.
BWYA: And you fell into the trap. RK: Well, I had no choice. I didn’t want to keep running just for the sake of running. I wanted to catch up with Johnson and try to get my life back. As things developed, somebody bailed Johnson out and Gerard caught me.
BWYA: And he took you back to Indiana. Without cuffs this time. RK: Yes, I had no motive to run. It looked as if the person who bailed Johnson out was from my hometown. It looked like Johnson was heading that way. Going there was maybe going to get me answers. Gerard promised to keep my arrest out of the papers in exchange for my waiving extradition and I gave him my word I wouldn’t try to escape.
BWYA: Even though you might be speeding to your own death. RK: I had no more reason to run. I had no life left. I was about to give up anyway.
BWYA: But you eventually found your answers. RK: Yes, what we found out was that a friend of mine – a so-called friend – was in the house the night Helen was killed and watched while Johnson murdered her.
BWYA: Why would he just stand by? RK: He was scared. He ran away, afraid for his reputation. He didn’t think the police would blame me. By the time I was charged he felt it was too late to come forward.
BWYA: But in the end he did testify on your behalf. RK: Yes he did, and he had made a very credible witness because he was ruining his own life by speaking up. And so I was exonerated.
BWYA: But the one-armed man was never charged. RK: No, Gerard shot and killed him when he was about to shoot me. What an irony: While taking me to my execution, Gerard saved my life.
BWYA: That was fifty years ago. By most people’s lights, that should have been the end of your story. You were a free man. You and Gerard were reconciled, at least to the extent that was possible, and you walked off into the sunset with your soon-to-be new wife. You should have disappeared back into small-town obscurity. RK: God knows I tried. My picture had been on the front pages of too many newspapers. I just wanted a normal life.
BWYA: And for a while you had one – before you became famous again. RK: Not exactly a normal life, no. I had terrible problems after my exoneration. I had post-traumatic stress disorder and I had been concussed several times and I had been shot a few times in the leg. I was in the approximate condition of a soldier returning from battle. I had nightmares for years, and I abused alcohol. The worst of it was the guilt. If Helen and I had not argued, if I had not walked out on her, she would not have been killed. I had real trouble forgiving myself for that. Fortunately, my second wife, Jean, was very supportive, and my practice provided scaffolding on which to build again.
BWYA: You had some trouble reestablishing your practice, though. RK: Yes, the “friend” who testified on my behalf died a couple of months later of an aggressive cancer. Some of the neighbors began to whisper that he had testified in order to save me because he had nothing to lose in helping his friend. This was ridiculous. He did not know he was going to die when he testified, but he did know he would be branded a coward for not having come forward at the time of the murder. But because of the whispers, many people wouldn’t bring their boys and girls to see me; they still thought I had killed Helen.
BWYA: Ironically, it was Gerard who saved your career. RK: Yes. His son developed juvenile diabetes, and he brought him to me for treatment. Always brought him himself, didn’t let his mother bring him. He got the other officers to bring their kids to me too, and soon the tide of public opinion turned and I had my practice back.
BWYA: So you had your profession back. A new wife. Your PTSD was manageable. But no children. RK: No. I didn’t think I could be a good father until I had straightened myself out. And I was 40 when I was exonerated. A little old to be starting a family. I didn’t know I was going to live into my 90s. [laughs] Jean wanted kids, but she understood. Eventually, she became a nurse at my practice and we had kids vicariously through my patients.
BWYA: But you did have children of your own eventually. RK: Yes. After the end of the Vietnam War, there were, as you may remember, a lot of refugees from the communists. Boat People, they were called. A number were orphaned children. Jean and I adopted one. And then another. Until we eventually had four. They had been through something a little like what I had been through, losing loved ones to violence and having to run away, so we had a bond. Three of them grew up to be physicians and the fourth is an activist on behalf of refugee children.
BWYA: So you did get your normal life after all. But you didn’t stay obscure. RK: No. The death penalty had been struck down for a few years because the Supreme Court found that it had been unfairly applied. Big surprise. But it was reinstated in 1976, and I became increasingly concerned about innocent men being put to death.
BWYA: You didn’t oppose capital punishment on moral grounds though. RK: No. I thought and still think that depraved murderers ought, in a state of perfect knowledge, to be executed. I didn’t lose any sleep when Ted Bundy died. But justice miscarries so often in the U.S. that I believe that the only way to keep form killing innocent men is to not kill anybody. And that would include Ted Bundy. The slope is just too damn slippery, the temptation too strong. About 150 convicted murderers have been exonerated since capital punishment was reinstated. God knows how many others who were executed might have been exonerated.
BWYA: So in the late 70s you became an activist. RK: Yes, I was a kind of poster child against the death penalty. It was easy for many people to ignore poor black men or "trashy" white men being put to death. But here I was, white, educated, a doctor. If I could be wrongly sentenced to die, no one was safe. I started appearing on platforms and participating in panel discussions. I became well known again and appeared on many news programs. It was ironic because I really had sought obscurity.
BWYA: Surprisingly, you were joined by an old acquaintance. RK: Yes, Philip Gerard joined me on more than a few stages. He became an expert on how bringing the death penalty into a case actually makes it less likely that the accused will get a fair trial, not more, as you would expect.
BWYA: Did you become friends? RK: No, that was not possible, given all we had been through. But we did achieve a degree of cordiality. I had saved his life once and he had saved mine in effect twice, so we couldn’t hate each other. He was an interesting man and had done a lot of introspection about our relationship. I think it changed him and he became more nuanced about his principles. Once we were on a panel discussion and a fanatical woman in the audience asked him “Don’t you think it’s enough that murderers get years of appeals?” And Gerard replied, “I thought that once, but experience” – here he looked at me – “has caused me to change my mind.”
BWYA: Did you see him much after that? RK: Only one time. He asked for me on his deathbed. I was hesitant, but I could not refuse. He took my hand and said, “For a long time, I thought I was going to watch you die. I’m glad it’s the other way around.”
BWYA: It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that American lives don’t have third acts, but yours has had a third, with your children, and a fourth, with your activism. Are you happy with how it all turned out? RK: Yes, but I still have nightmares occasionally.
BWYA: Do you think your experience as a fugitive has in some way made you a better person? RK: I’d like to think I was a good person before, but I could be insensitive and selfish, as I was when I pressured Helen to adopt, and I was a bit too concerned with superficial things such as golf. A lot of the impurities, if you want to call them that, were burned out of me by my time as a fugitive. I saw many bad people and many good ones along the way. That filled me with a sense of wonder, I supposed you’d call it. I learned a lot about empathy and finding quick connection with people, which has helped me as a physician and an activist. And with my activism, I found a calling beyond my profession, so I suppose all in all I am a better person. But I still refuse to call it fate. In the end I’m just a small-town pediatrician who got unlucky and then got lucky again.
If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life