Richard Franklin Speck Trial: 1967
Richard Franklin Speck Trial: 1967
Defendant: Richard Franklin Speck
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Gerald Getty, James Gramenos, and Jerome Wexler
Chief Prosecutor: William Martin
Judge: Herbert C. Paschen
Place: Peoria, Illinois
Dates of Trial: February 20-April 15, 1967
Sentence: Death, later commuted to 8 life terms imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: Nothing like the testimony of Corazon Amurao had ever graced an American courtroom. Witnesses to murder are rare enough; witnesses to the kind of wholesale slaughter she described were unheard of. Richard Speck's killing spree sent shockwaves around the world.
At 6:00 a.m. on July 14, 1966, the early morning calm of Jeffrey Manor, a middle-class South Chicago, Illinois, suburb, was shattered by screaming. Neighbors tracked the disturbance to a two-story townhouse occupied by nurses who worked at the nearby community hospital. They found Corazon Amurao, a diminutive Filipino nurse, perched on a second-floor window ledge, in tears and hysterical. "My friends are all dead, all dead," she cried. "I am the only one alive." Investigation of the townhouse confirmed the grim truth. Someone had turned the place into an abattoir. Eight nurses lay dead—stabbed, strangled, and mutilated.
Amurao told detectives of an armed stranger, smelling strongly of alcohol, who had forced his way in the previous night, ostensibly looking for money. Then he began systematically killing everyone present. Only by hiding beneath a bed and remaining silent was she able to avoid the carnage. She described the killer as tall and blond, and having a "Born to raise hell" tattoo on one arm.
Because of the unusual knots used to tie the victims, police theorized that they were looking for someone with nautical connections. This led them to a nearby branch of the seaman's union. Mention of the killer's tattoo produced a name: Richard Speck, a 24-year-old sailor and habitual criminal, with a long record of drug abuse and drunken violence. A photo and description were circulated throughout the Chicago area.
In the early hours of July 17, a man who unsuccessfully attempted suicide was admitted to Cook County Hospital with slashed wrists. When doctors wiped away the blood, they saw the distinctive tattoo and called police.
Because of the intense local media coverage, Richard Speck's chief attorney, Gerald Getty, requested a change of trial venue. When the trial opened in the morning of February 20, 1967, it was in Peoria, Illinois, some 140 miles from Chicago. Getty also won another important victory by having all eight murder charges consolidated into one trial with one verdict and one sentence. Assistant State Attorney William Martin had wanted the cases tried individually. That way, even if Speck was acquitted on one count, there were still seven others to trap him. Despite this setback, Martin remained confident that the state had sufficient evidence for conviction.
For two days he carefully laid the groundwork of his case. His first witnesses, sailors Dante Bargellini and George Mackey, both placed Speck in the vicinity of the nurses' house just before the murder and also confirmed his expressed desire to return to New Orleans. Other witnesses testified to seeing Speck on a day-long drinking binge, brandishing a gun and a knife.
It wasn't until the third day of testimony that Martin produced the prosecution's prime witness: Corazon Amurao. She described being awakened by four knocks at her bedroom door. "I went to the door, … I unlocked it, … then I saw a man … with a gun in his right hand pointed towards me and I noticed that he had marks on his face … and his hair was blond."
The atmosphere was electric as Martin asked, "Now, Miss Amurao, if you see that same man in the courtroom today,… would you please step down and point him out." Amurao didn't hesitate. She crossed to the defense table, raised her hand and pointed directly at Speck. "This is the man."
Next, Amurao told how Speck herded all six girls present in the townhouse into the bedroom, then tore strips off a sheet and tied them up. Later, when three other nurses returned home, they too were made captive. She described Speck's peculiar ambivalence towards his prisoners, smiling a lot, almost friendly. "Don't be afraid," he said while tying one of the girls, "I'm not going to kill you."
Minutes later he began doing just that.
Using a scale model of the townhouse and eight wooden blocks to represent the murder victims, Martin asked Corazon Amurao to describe the events. Richard Speck, she said, went across to Patricia Wilkening, untied her ankles, and led her from the room.
"After Speck had taken Wilkening from the south bedroom, did you hear anything?" asked Martin.
"After about one minute I heard Miss Wilkening say 'Ah.' It was like a sigh."
"Did you hear anything after the noise you just described?"
But after the next two victims were removed from the bedroom, Amurao did hear something: "water running in the bathroom, as if Speck was washing his hands."
The macabre process continued. Speck would enter the bedroom, lead one of the girls away with him, then return several minutes later for his next victim. When the girls tried to hide, Speck found them all—except Corazon Amurao. Eventually, only she and Gloria Davy were left.
Frozen with fear in her hiding place beneath the bed, Amurao could only watch in horror as Speck stripped Gloria Davy and raped her. It later transpired that Davy, the only victim of sexual assault, was very similar to Speck's estranged wife, whom he hated and had threatened on several occasions to kill.
"Was your head down at that time?"
"When did you next look up?"
"About five minutes after the bedsprings stopped. I looked up and saw that Davy and Speck was [sic] not there anymore."
Amurao's account of her five-hour ordeal, made all the more poignant by her faltering English, was devastating. When Public Defender Gerald Getty rose to cross-examine, he faced the toughest task of his career. Not once had he lost a client to the electric chair; no one present in court expected that record to survive.
It had been Getty's contention throughout that Richard Speck was completely innocent, that Corazon Amurao, in her traumatized and hysterical state, had identified the wrong man. But he had to tread carefully. Amurao had obviously impressed the jury and won their sympathy as well, any suggestion of bullying could backfire badly. But no matter how he tried, Getty could not shake the young Filipino nurse. She steadfastly continued to insist that Richard Speck was the killer.
There was plenty of other evidence to support her claim. Two T-shirts found at the crime scene were of the type that Speck was known to wear. And then there were the fingerprints. Three experts testified that prints found in the townhouse matched Speck's, a pronouncement hotly disputed by assistant defense counsel James Gramenos. He avowed that the prints were too smudged for positive identification. The experts disagreed. Gramenos persisted, though he was conspicuously unable to provide his own expert to back up this claim.
But the defense was not finished yet. Murrill and Gerdena Farmer, both workers at Kay's Pilot House, a tavern several blocks away from the townhouse, swore that Speck was in the bar until 12:30 a.m. on the night in question. Prosecutor Martin sought to demonstrate that the couple had made an honest mistake, but he could not budge them.
Richard Speck remained a spectator to all of this, choosing not to testify on his own behalf. Earlier he had told his attorneys that the events of July 13-14, 1966, were a blur of drugs and alcohol; he could remember nothing.
On April 15, 1967, after just 49 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Speck guilty and recommended death. Confirmation came June 6, 1967, when Judge Herbert C. Paschen sentenced Speck to the electric chair. When U.S. Supreme Court rulings in other cases called into question all death sentences recommended by trial juries, Speck's sentence was commuted to eight terms of life imprisonment.
Speck maintained his innocence until 1978 when he was quoted as telling a newspaper, "Yeah, I killed them. I stabbed them and choked them." After spending 24 years in prison, Richard Speck died of a heart attack on December 5, 1991. He was 49 years old.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Altman, Jack and Marvin Ziporyn. Born to Raise Hell. New York; Grove Press, 1967.
Crimes And Punishment. Vol. 13. England: Phoebus, 1974.
Felsher, Howard and Michael Rosen. Justice, U.S.A. New York: Crowell, Collier & Macmillan, 1967.
Wilson, Colin and Donald Seaman. Encyclopedia of Modern Murder. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.