Skyhorse Publishing, 2011, 352 pages
For the first time Gacy’s lawyer and confidant tells his chilling tale of how he defended an American serial killer.
“Sam, could you do me a favor?”
Thus begins a story that has now become part of America's true-crime hall of fame. It is a gory, grotesque tale befitting a Stephen King novel. It is also a David and Goliath saga - the story of a young lawyer fresh from the public defender's office whose first client in private practice turns out to be the worst serial killer in our nation's history. This is a gripping true crime narrative that reenacts the gruesome killings and the famous trial that shocked a nation.
Sam Amirante had been a practicing lawyer for several years, but he had just started his own private practice when a guy he knew from his political precinct called him asking for a favor. John Wayne Gacy, a Democratic Party precinct captain and small business owner, was being followed around and harassed by the police in their little Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, and wanted Sam to look into it. Something about a missing teenager.
So began Sam Amirante's first "real" case. At first he was convinced Gacy was innocent. A 15-year-old boy named Robert Piest had disappeared after never coming home from his job at a pharmacy, and evidence pointed to Gacy being the last person to see him alive. As the police dug up Gacy's record, including a previous conviction for sodomy and sexual assault, they became convinced Gacy had done something to the kid.
Sam Amirante is an old school defense attorney, and he spends much of the book talking about his true blue belief in the American justice system, the presumption of innocence, and the right of everyone, even the most heinous criminal, to a fair trial. He comes off as very sincere and rather self-righteous, registering anger at the many people who didn't understand why a serial killer should even get a trial, and who sent him and his wife death threats and keyed his father's car, among other things.
He didn't have much to work with, because his client was an idiot. As the police were closing in with a warrant, Gacy demanded Amirante and his business lawyer both show up one late evening to tell them something. Gacy was apparently a very needy and demanding client, so Amirante was about fed up with him.
"I ain't no fruit-picker," said Gacy. "I ain't no fag. No one hates fags more than I do."
He would say things like this repeatedly, as he revealed to his shocked lawyers that he had killed over thirty young men over the past ten years, burying them under his house or dumping them in the river. Most of them had been young hustlers and prostitutes, according to Gacy (he would claim in almost every case that they'd lied to him, tried to extort or assault him, etc.) But Robert Piest? He was just a kid who wanted a job at Gacy's construction company. Gacy lured him home, tried to proposition him in the most awkward and cringy way imaginable, and when Piest refused, Gacy slipped a noose over his neck and strangled him to death. Gacy actually seemed to feel a little bad about this, to the degree that a serial killer can feel bad about anything.
The cops started digging up the bodies, and Amirante realized his life was about to blow up.
For much of the book, Amirante writes in a "you are there" narrative, even describing the thoughts and feelings of Gacy and his victims. Supposedly this is based on copious notes from interviews with Gacy, but some of it (like when Amirante writes parts of the opening chapter from the POV of Robert Piest) seemed a bit embellished.
Having read several books about serial killers, I was struck again by just how banal and pathetic most of them are. There are very few Hannibal Lecters or Norman Bates. Instead, most of these guys are dimwitted losers with sad lives. Amirante repeatedly describes Gacy as a "sad little creampuff of a man." He would talk big to his employees and neighbors about having his photograph taken with the First Lady, with improbable stories of political influence and mob connections. He fancied himself a big man in his tiny pond as a Democratic precinct captain. but he was just a small time contractor with a conviction and a divorce in his past and nothing to speak of in his future, a delusional sociopath who, as his lawyer repeatedly reminds us, never seemed to grasp that he was not the hero of his story and he was not in control of it. He was a deeply closeted homosexual still trying to please his late father, and when it all came out, he proceeded to talk to anyone who'd listen to him, including the cops. His lawyer, of course, tried to get him to shut up, but Gacy was not exactly a cooperative or sharp client.
Besides Amirante waxing on about Constitutional rights and his belief in the American legal system, he goes into a lot of detail about the trial itself, and some of this was dry stuff as he transcribes pages of testimony and attorney arguments. There was never any question of Gacy's guilt (they found over thirty bodies and the dumbass confessed!), so his lawyers went with an insanity defense. Amirante talks a lot about his arguments, the expert testimony, and even seems genuinely annoyed by the some of the prosecution's counter-arguments. He also frequently talks about how pissed off he was at some tactic or another used by the prosecution, and then admits that if he were the DA, he'd have done the same thing.
Some of his arguments haven't aged well. He comes off as rather cavalierly sexist in places. He takes a somewhat sympathetic attitude towards Gacy's homosexuality and the pressures that forced him to suppress and deny his urges, but you can tell that, at least at the time that Gacy was tried, in 1980, his attitude was a sort of benign contempt. (A final chapter in which he praises the advances that have been made in society's acceptance of homosexuality seemed a little bit of a post-insert.) One of the witnesses at Gacy's trial was a transwoman, and Amirante's comments about that person were, well, typical of attitudes towards trans people in 1980.
Gacy was finally executed in 1994, by which time Amirante had long since been fired as his lawyer, and was now a judge.
This book was not a biography of John Wayne Gacy, and only briefly talked about his earlier life and his many murders. Mostly it's about his trial, and his lawyer's legal arguments. Sam Amirante makes himself the star of his book about the famous serial killer, but given what a pathetic and uninteresting little man Gacy actually was, it probably wouldn't have been improved by centering Gacy more. You can learn more about Gacy himself and his victims on his Wikipedia page than in this book. Defending a Monster isn't a thrilling memoir or a compelling biography. It's mostly interesting if you've ever wondered what it's like to defend a monster.
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