On May 19, 1994, American serial killer John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994) was executed by lethal injection at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill, after being convicted of multiple murder charges. It is believed by some people that there were more victims of Gacy that have never been identified. The truth went to the grave with Gacy but what is on the record are the thirty-three homicides attributed to Gacy during his reign of terror. His attorney, Sam Amirante, had just started his own private defense practice when Gacy sought him out for legal representation. Amirante could not have known that his first client would catapult him into the public spotlight in ways none one could have imagined. This is the story of how it happened and how Amirante’s life changed while he defended one of America’s deadliest serial killers.
I previously reviewed the book by former prosecutor Terry Sullivan titled Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders that focused on the efforts by law enforcement and the district attorney to build a case against Gacy. It is an interesting look into how the murder investigation developed and the impact it had on police and the people of Illinois. Amirante’s book is equally as effective but views the case from the other side. Essentially, how do you defend a monster who has just told you about murders that he has committed? After getting himself drunk, Gacy arrived at Amirante’s office for a pre-arranged visit and confessed to his lawyers that he had committed multiple murders, leaving Amirante and his partner speechless. It soon becomes clear that insanity is the only defense. But how do you defend a man who does not think there is anything mentally wrong with himself? There was no “blueprint” in dealing with a client like John Wayne Gacy and Amirante had been given an impossible task. But to his credit, he mounted a defense in the face of enormous evidence that proved Gacy’s guilt, in particular the human remains found in the crawl space underneath his house. Readers may wonder how Amirante was able to do his job knowing that thirty-three men lost their lives at the hands of Gacy. The answer is quite simple and Amirante delivers the explanation showing his belief in the legal system he swore an oath to uphold:
“It’s much easier to hate the bad guy than it is to support the hard reality that if we are to continue to enjoy our freedoms, if our Constitution is to survive, it has to be supported in all circumstances, even when to do so seems hard.”
Whether he believed Gacy would be found innocent by reason of insanity is not entirely clear. In fact, Amirante explains on multiple occasions throughout the book how the evidence helped seal Gacy’s fate. And in a twist of fate, it was a small photo receipt belonging to Nissan Pharmacy Kim Byers was found in Gacy’s house that unraveled the murder mysteries. And though the receipt belonged to someone who was still alive, it established that Robert Jerome Piest (1963-1978) had been in Gacy’s house. The fallout from that discovery eventually led to Gacy’s arrest and showed America the dark side of human nature. According to people who knew him, Gacy was well-liked, successful and viewed as a family-oriented person. Neighbors could not believe that the man they said hello to, had been murdering young men and burying them underneath his home and dumping other remains in nearby rivers. But the evidence did not lie and with Gacy’s statements, jurors found it fairly easy to convict him. But to his credit, Amirante was a shrewd lawyer and wins small victories through the trial. Law students and those interested in legal practice will appreciate his explanations of the criminal defense system and the strategies used to save Gacy’s life, if possible.
Amirante does not attempt to exonerate Gacy for his behavior. But he did believe that Gacy suffered from some level issue of mental disability. But his client’s ability to compartmentalize various aspects of his life made defending John Wayne Gacy an insurmountable task. And even when he was convicted of the murders, Gacy was mentally somewhere else. A sentence of capital punishment was handed out, but Gacy appeared to be indifferent to his own fate. As Amirante explains:
“Only one person in the room was dry-eyed, only one. John Wayne Gacy stood at the defense table, bewildered and lost.”
There are mysteries of Gacy’s life that are lost to history. He is no longer here to explain his past actions in further detail. That may be a good thing as his past deeds are some of the most macabre in American history. Despite his atrocious crimes, he was entitled to due process, a component guaranteed under the laws of this nation. Amirante knew his client was a monster, but he had a job to do as a defense lawyer. And in this book, he does it admirably, even at great personal sacrifice. His family went through quite an ordeal as detailed in the book and it should not be overlooked by readers, how difficult it must have been for him to defend his client. To Amirante’s disappointment, Gacy was convicted by a jury of his peers, and I believe rightfully so. Serial killers will always be with us but that should never deter us from understanding how they are created in the hopes that future killers can be prevented. John Wayne Gacy will remain a case study in homicidal rage and a killer that continues to haunt America. We may not like the legal system at times and might prefer the court of public opinion, but if we believe in the constitution, then even the worst of us are innocent until proven guilty. This book is a prime example of an attorney who deeply believes in the American legal system and performed a task that many would have avoided. Good read.
“There are two reasons that will cause good men to abandon their long-standing, dearly held morals, values, and principles and revert to more primitive, barbaric practices to resolve conflict. That is when their hearts are filled with anger or when their hearts are filled with fear.”
ASIN : B005HJ9MOE