Imagine you are a lawyer, fresh out of the Public Defender’s office and just starting out in private practice. Your first client will be one you will probably never forget, sort of like a first kiss or similar milestone. Now imagine that your very first client happens to be a fellow named John Wayne Gacy. As incredible as it sounds, this was the situation young Sam L. Amirante found himself in back in 1978. His new book, John Wayne Gacy: Defending A Monster has just been published, and it is a riveting account of what it was like to defend one of the most notorious serial killers in history.
On December 14, 1978, John Gacy called Amirante to ask his for his help in figuring out why the Des Plaines, IL police were watching him. The two were casual acquaintances, as Gacy was a low-level functionary for the local Democratic party, and Amirante had briefly met him once or twice at various functions. That phone call would prove to be the beginning of an unbelievable two-year roller-coaster ride for Sam, as he became the chief counsel in what (at the time) was referred to as “the trial of the century.”
In all, Gacy confessed to having murdered 33 people – most of them younger men. One of his favorite targets were male prostitutes, usually guys who had little or no contact with their families, and very few friends. A great deal of the murders went unreported, as the men’s disappearances often went unnoticed. The spree may have gone on indefinitely, had Gacy not become careless. His final victim, 15-year-old Rob Piest was working at a local pharmacy that Gacy was bidding a construction job on. In casual conversation, Gacy found out that Rob was saving up to buy a Jeep, but it was taking a long time because he was not earning much at the store. Like a hawk, Gacy swooped down on the teenager with an offer of a construction job, which would pay considerably more than what he was currently earning.
After his shift was over, Rob rode over to Gacy’s house to discuss the offer, and was never heard from again. The difference between Piest and most of Gacy’s previous victims was that Rob did not remotely fit the profile of a lost boy. He had a family that immediately knew something was wrong. There was nothing in Rob Piest’s background to suggest he had run away or anything. His family life was stable; there had been no fights with his girlfriend, or anyone else for that matter. There were no troubles at school either. His family and the police very quickly realized that something had happened to him. They also knew that the last person he was with was John Wayne Gacy.
As the case slowly unfolds around Amirante, things just keep getting stranger and stranger. While the police are gathering evidence to indict Gacy, they quite naturally want to keep an eye on him so that he does not disappear. So they put him under watch 24 hours a day. But Gacy had an enormously engaging personality, and was able to befriend practically anyone. He had even had his picture taken with First Lady Roslynn Carter. So even though the police were investigating him for murder, they were friendly with him. In fact, they would often go out for dinner and drinks with him!
Then one day Gacy came into Amirante’s office high as a kite on a variety of substances and spilled his guts. He confessed to all of the murders, and to where the bodies were buried – which was under his house. A few (including Piest) had been dumped in the river, but there were 28 skeletons to be extracted from beneath the Gacy home.
Sam Amirante (who is now Judge Amirante) takes us through all of the bizarre actions of his certifiably insane client, as well as the various twists and turns of the six-week trial. After confessing to his attorney, Gacy did so to the police as well – so there was never any question as to his guilt. The only defense possible was that of temporary insanity. But as we all know, that did not quite work out for Gacy. He spent 14 years on death row while the appeals process was exhausted, and was finally given a lethal injection on May 10, 1994.
I have read a few books about serial killers in the past, out of curiosity – but never anything quite like this. Hearing the defense attorney’s side of things is a fascinating experience. One is able to see first-hand just how difficult the situation is. As Amirante notes throughout the text, he has an almost religious belief in our system of law, which is why he defended Gacy in the first place. His comments about people who said that Gacy did not deserve a trial, and should just be lynched hit home especially. As he notes, these are often citizens who consider themselves the most patriotic souls in America. Yet when it comes to the Constitution, and the fact that we are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, these people are the first to rush to judgment.
The horrific actions of John Wayne Gacy destroyed hundreds of lives, but Defending A Monster is anything but sensationalistic. The book reveals something I had never even considered before. And that is just how difficult it must be to believe in the rule of law so deeply as to defend the type of animal that John Gacy was. I am pretty sure I could not do it, but thank heaven for people like Sam Amirante who will. It is clearly a thankless job, which is born out by the numerous threats he and his family received.
John Wayne Gacy: Defending A Monster provides a very different perspective than that of the usual true crime books. As such, it is recommended.