Before Casey Anthony or O.J. Simpson, there was a “trial of the century” which was arguably more grotesque than the other two combined, especially when considering the body count. In 1980, Chicago-suburb native John Wayne Gacy was found guilty of murdering 33 teenage boys and young men, with 27 of the bodies excavated from a crawl space under his own home, after a police officer detected the scent of rotting flesh.
As publicly despised as Gacy was, he had the right to a lawyer and the man to defend him was Sam Amirante — a lawyer who took on Gacy as his first client in a private practice after working in the district attorney’s office for several years. After more than 30 years, now-Judge Amirante is breaking his silence about the infamous case, co-writing the book “John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster” with Danny Broderick.
“I wanted to set the record straight,” Amirante says of the book, in which he explains the insanity defense he used for Mr. Gacy. “I am going to … answer the question that I have been asked for 30 years: How can I represent a guy like that, why would you do it? There is kind of like a 400-page answer to that question.”
Amirante explains that it was his duty to uphold Gacy’s constitutional right to a fair trial and notes how quickly the public seems to forget this law when an alleged criminal’s charges are particularly gruesome.
In the book, Amirante and Broderick take pains to demystify the man who has been known as the “Clown Killer” since, prior to the revelations of his violent behavior, was known to dress as a clown and visit sick children in the hospital. He was also considered something of a local civic leader. Amirante and Broderick paint a much more nuanced picture of a deeply conflicted man.
“That’s the thing about Gacy,” Broderick explains. “If you met him he
wouldn’t strike you. Like [Charles] Manson is scary to be around. He emanates evil and scary and craziness, and Gacy wasn’t like that. Gacy was more of a pudgy, uncoordinated, sort of not-scary guy.”
Regrets? I’ve had a few
“One of the problems Gacy had was he couldn’t keep his mouth shut at the beginning,” says Amirante, since Gacy confessed to all of his crimes openly to the police when he was first arrested, only to deny knowing anything about the murders after he was found guilty. Though Gacy was executed by lethal injection in 1994, Amirante says regrets about how he handled the case are minimal.
“We didn’t leave a stone unturned, we didn’t leave a witness uninterviewed. We did everything we could,” he says. “I don’t lose any sleep because I know that I did the best that I could for the guy and that’s what lawyers have to do.”