J. Albert Johnson, notable Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, passed away July 17 in Delray Beach, Florida. He was 90 years old.
Johnson died from complications after a fall. He was predeceased by the love of his life, Suzanne (Conley) Johnson. He leaves behind four children: Steven Johnson of Dana Point, California; Julie Johnson Hintlian and her husband Ken of Winchester, MA; David Johnson and his fiancée Jackie Cosnahan of Lake Worth, Florida; and Karen Johnson Fitzmaurice of Norwell, MA (his “Kak”). Grandfather to Emily Fitzmaurice, Zachary Johnson, Andrew Fitzmaurice, Clara Johnson, Ashley Bott, and Natalie Johnson. Great-Grandfather to Gavin “The Gav” Crawford. He is also survived by his sister Margot Hughes and her children, Diane Hughes (Nagi) and Thomas Hughes. He also leaves behind many nieces and nephews through his first marriage to Barbara (Flanagan).
Johnson, who went by J. Albert or Al, was born John Albert Johnson on February 22, 1933 in Medford. His father, John, was a salesman for Mercoid Thermostats and his mother, Helen (Devane) Johnson was a homemaker. Growing up in Waltham, he was especially close to his maternal uncle John Devane, who served as the Mayor of Waltham from 1942-1948. He graduated from St. Mary’s High School for Boys in Waltham before receiving his BA from Northeastern University and JD from Boston College School of Law.
Johnson was the lifelong friend and former law partner of F. Lee Bailey, who died in June 2021. Together, the two – who met in childhood – represented a roster of clients whose names or trials took the nation by storm, including: Dr. Sam Shepherd’s case before the Supreme Court, where they successfully argued that Dr. Shephard, who had been convicted of murdering his wife, was denied due process of law because he was forced to go to trial while being subjected to extreme negative pretrial publicity without a sequestered jury (the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and he was granted a new trial, where he was found not guilty); Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to 17 murders that gave him the “Boston Strangler” moniker; publishing heiress and kidnapping victim, Patricia Hearst (her father, Randolph Apperson Hearst, had previously been sued by Johnson on behalf of a small news outlet bought by the Heart Corporation in New York and called Johnson to retain as legal counsel once his daughter had been captured by the FBI); and Army Captain Ernest Medina, who was charged with killings associated with the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.
Prior to his legal career, Johnson was an officer with the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles Police Department (which, along with the Massachusetts State Police, Capitol Police, and Metropolitan District Commission Police, was merged into the State Trooper system in the early 1990s). This role left a mark on Johnson. He never stopped being an investigator at heart, always eager to examine and question what he saw before him – in both his professional and personal life.
Johnson’s independent client roster included several notable cases, including: Pamela Smart’s appellate attorney; Barbara Walker, who tipped off the FBI in 1984 that she thought her husband, John Anthony Walker, Jr., a United States Navy chief warrant officer and communications specialist could be a Soviet spy (Walker pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in 1986); Donald Lennon, who was charged with killing the husband of his lover in the so-called “Acton Jogger” Trial; and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
He spent decades raising his four children in Hingham with his first wife. In the neighborhood, he quickly became a favorite among all the kids in the neighborhood for his many “toys” – which included golf carts with wagons attached (to cart the kids around the neighborhood and in the local parades), ATVs, an RV, and the garage he transformed into a home-movie theatre long before watching a feature film at home became the norm. Thanks to his seemingly endless connections and friendships, the theatre was decked out with top-notch equipment, like the iconic, fold-down seats, and showed some top hits at the time, like The Sound of Music and Jaws. At this time, it was not unheard of for friends, including Bailey, to land a helicopter in Johnson’s backyard to attend one of his elaborately themed parties.
While still residing in Hingham, Johnson took on a case that shook the small town in 1984. Seventeen-year-old Robert (Bobby) Ludwig, Jr. had murdered his father, who owned and operated a small kitchenette in town. Johnson served as Bobby’s defense attorney, and fought to ensure that Bobby, who – along with his young sister – had endured years of physical and verbal abuse at the hands of his father, not be incarcerated for his crimes. The young Ludwig served probation and remained close to Attorney Johnson until he took his own life in 1994.
During the course of his career, Johnson worked on over a thousand cases related to operating under the influence and continued to be a sought-out expert on the issues and controversies surrounding the use of alcohol breath-testing.
Even before recent questions around the efficacy of the Breathalyzer testing, Johnson repeatedly questioned the technology, saying the tests amount to “a false science.” In a 1987 op-ed published in The Boston Globe, Johnson wrote “…although stringent enforcement of our motor vehicle laws is necessary, improper reliance upon an unscientific machine destroys the basic rights to which we are all entitled.” (The Boston Globe, January 7, 1987, Page 15)
Johnson’s legal career continued into his ninth decade. Most recently, he had been serving as Senior Trial Counselor for Ged Lawyers, LLP in Boca Raton, Florida. Often heralded as “a lawyer’s lawyer,” several Massachusetts jurists turned to Johnson when they needed a lawyer, including Roxbury District Court Judge Elwood S. McKenney, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Joseph S. Mitchell, and even his former partner and childhood friend, Bailey.
While always maintaining at least one private law office in Boston throughout his career, Johnson also spent a great deal of time in Florida, practicing law there as well. He also had a home for over three decades on Lake Wequaquet in Centerville, Massachusetts. His neighbors all knew him for his daily tours of the lake on his pontoon boat and his eagerness to welcome new neighbors, as long as they abided by the “No Wake” rules of the lake (which he never hesitated to remind others of).
He always loved having a toy or two around to tinker with – from boats to golf carts to antique cars. He loved going to car and air shows and flying with his son and best friend, David, a pilot and aviation mechanic. Johnson was also a member of the Marine Corp and an active member of the Ancient and Honorables Artillery Company of Massachusetts who always enjoyed participating in the annual June Day celebrations.
Johnson was laid to rest on July 24 in Boca Raton, next to his second wife, Suzanne. There will be a memorial service and celebration of his life on Saturday, August 26 at 10 am at St. Cecilia Parish (18 Belvidere Street, Boston). A reception, hosted by his children, will immediately follow. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to St. Cecilia Parish – CARES Ministry, 18 Belvidere Street, Boston, MA 02115.