John Wayne Gacy Trial: 1980

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John Wayne Gacy Trial: 1980

Defendant: John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
Crimes Charged: Murder, murder during the commission of a felony, aggravated kidnapping, deviate sexual assault, indecent liberties with a minor
Chief Defense Lawyers: Sam Amirante, Robert Morra
Chief Prosecutors: William Kunkle, Robert Egan, Terry Sullivan
Judge: Louis B. Garripo
Place: Cook County, Illinois
Date of Trial: February 6-March 12, 1980
Verdict: Guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: John Wayne Gacy was convicted of more murders than any other serial killer. His case focussed attention on the vexing question of the sanity or mental state of sadistic serial killers.

John Wayne Gacy was arrested on December 22, 1978 in connection with the disappearance of a 15-year old boy, Robert Piest. Gacy was 36 years old, twice divorced, and living in a modest suburban home in Des Plaines, Illinois. He was quite well known in his community, liked by his neighbors, and remembered for his performances in clown costume at children's parties. He was active in local politics and had been recognized for his leadership in the Jaycees. He ran his own successful small construction company, specializing in remodeling. Gacy was quickly linked to the disappearance of Robert Piest because immediately before he was last seen the boy had told his mother that he was going to Gacy's home to talk about a summer job. However, this was not Gacy's first arrest, nor was it the first time that he had been a suspect in the disappearance of young men.

In 1968 Gacy had been convicted of sodomy in Iowa, based on the accusations of two teenage boys. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was released on parole in June 1970 and soon returned to the Chicago area where he had grown up. In February 1971 he was arrested after a teenage boy charged that Gacy had forced him to commit sexual acts, but the charges were dropped after the boy failed to appear in court. In August 1975 and again in December 1976, Chicago police questioned Gacy following the disappearances of two young men. The remains of both of them were among those subsequently discovered under Gacy's home. In December 1977 two young men accused Gacy of kidnapping and rape, but charges were not filed.

Gacy Confesses

Following his arrest Gacy was questioned intensively by police, and on January 3, 1979 he confessed to the killing of Robert Piest and six others. He also gave the police information that led to the eventual recovery of the remains of 33 young men and boys. Four were found in the Des Plaines River near Gacy's home, and the rest were buried in the crawl space under his house and under the floor of the garage. Gacy was indicted by a Cook County grand jury on January 8 and the case was assigned to Judge Louis B. Garripo of the Cook County Circuit Court.

Judge Garripo ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Gacy, and Dr. Robert Reifman subsequently reported that Gacy was mentally fit to stand trial and capable of understanding the charges against him. In October the judge ruled that Cook County would bear the expense of Gacy's defense, and appointed Sam Amirante and Robert Morra as his attorneys.

The trial of John Wayne Gacy began on February 6, 1980 in the Cook County Criminal Court Building in Chicago. The prosecution team was lead by William Kunkle, who was assisted by Robert Egan and Terry Sullivan. Simple first-degree murder was not a capital crime under Illinois law, but multiple murders or murder during the commission of a felony were. Therefore, in order to ensure that Gacy would be eligible for the death penalty if convicted, he was originally charged with the seven murders to which he had confessed in January 1979 and with felonies of aggravated kidnapping, deviate sexual assault, and taking indecent liberties with a minor against his last victim, Robert Piest. It was during the months leading up to the trial that excavation under Gacy's house, and dredging of the river near his home, had lead to the finding of the remains of 26 more bodies, 11 of which were unidentified. These victims were added to the original charge, for a total of 33 counts of murder.

Trial Focuses on Gacy's Sanity

Since by the time the trial began Gacy had given three confessions to the police, and had told them where to find the bodies of his victims, the question of whether he had committed the killings was not an issue in the case. Instead, the arguments and testimony on both sides focussed on the question of Gacy's mental state at the time of the crimes. The prosecution argued that Gacy was an entirely sane and calculating, cold-blooded killer. The defense team tried to convince the jury that Gacy was mentally disturbed, possibly as a result of physical abuse by his father during his childhood, and that he was schizophrenic or suffered from a multiple personality disorder. If the jury could be persuaded that Gacy was mentally disturbed and unable to control his actions, he would be placed in a state mental institution, with the possibility of his being subsequently released if found to be mentally stable.

During 13 days of testimony the prosecution questioned 60 witnesses. They began with the frequently emotional accounts of relatives and friends of some of the victims. Former employees of Gacy testified that they had to frequently rebuff his sexual advances and attempts to persuade them to be handcuffed, on the pretext of demonstrating a conjuring trick, a ploy Gacy had apparently used to disable many of the dead victims. Police officers involved in the investigation and forensic experts testified to the circumstances and condition of the bodies recovered, and to the cause of death. Most of Gacy's victims were strangled after a loop of rope had been placed around their necks and tightened by turning a length of pipe or a wooden stick inserted into the loop, like a tourniquet. The prosecutors also brought psychologists as expert witnesses who testified that Gacy was sane at the time of the killings.

The prosecution rested its case on February 20, and the defense began the following day. The first witness was Jeff Rignall, a surviving victim of Gacy's attack. It had been expected that Rignall would testify as a prosecution witness, but for tactical reasons the prosecutors chose to rely on their cross-examination. The defense attorneys hoped that Rignall's description of his experiences would help to convince the jurors that Gacy was insane and not in control of his actions at the time that he attacked his victims. Rignall described having been picked up by Gacy in the latter's car and then rendered unconscious with chloroform. When he came to he was repeatedly raped and sadistically tortured over a period of several hours before being dumped, unconscious, in a Chicago park. Jeff Rignall had been so traumatized by his experience that he became hysterical on the witness stand, began to vomit, and eventually had to be removed from the courtroom. The defense also called Gacy's mother and sister, who described the verbal abuse and beatings he received from his father and his witnessing of the physical abuse of his mother by her husband. Among the 22 witnesses appearing for the defense were six psychologists who testified, as medical experts, that they found Gacy to be mentally impaired by conditions bordering on schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. They further testified that he was consequently unable to understand the nature of his acts, and therefore, should be held to have been insane when he committed the murders.

During the later days of the trial Gacy appeared to become increasingly detached from the proceedings, and told the judge on several occasions that he did not understand what was happening. However, on March 7 Judge Garripo ruled that Gacy was still fit to stand trial. The defense then completed its case the following day and closing arguments were heard on March 11. The prosecution reviewed in gruesome detail each of the murders with which Gacy was charged, emphasizing that they were all carefully planned and deliberately carried out. The defense again attempted to convince the jury that a finding of insanity was appropriate. They even suggested that if he was not found insane, a unique opportunity might be missed for studying the mind of the serial killer, from which lessons might be learned which could help prevent the repetition of such crimes.

The case went to the jury of seven men and five women on March 12. They deliberated for less than two hours before returning a verdict of guilty. The following day the same jury was asked to consider the sentence, and after deliberating for two and a quarter hours they sentenced John Wayne Gacy to death. Gacy was sent to the Menard Correctional Center where he remained for the next 14 years.

During the long years of the appeals process Gacy was interviewed by several writers, journalists, and others. The reports from those meetings indicate that he consistently contradicted himself. At times he would adamantly insist on his innocence and argue that he had been framed. At other times he would admit guilt for one murder but deny his responsibility for others. Sometimes he would focus on elaborate, supposedly legal arguments as to why his trial had been fundamentally flawed. On other occasions he seemed to be entirely aware of having carried out all the killings over a seven-year period. No consensus appears to have emerged on the question of whether he actually suffered from a mental disorder, or whether his contradictory claims were part of an elaborate and calculated effort to convince others that he did.

After all his appeals failed, John Wayne Gacy was executed by lethal injection on May 19, 1994. In a final statement he proclaimed his innocence.

David I. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cahill, Tim. Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Moss, Jason. The Last Victim: a True-Life Journey into the Mind of the Serial Killer. New York: Warner Books, 1999.

Sullivan, Terry. Killer Clown. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1983.