If the babbling of the Georgia grand jury forewoman hasn’t depressed you enough about the state of our criminal justice system, by all means watch HBO’s 2021 series “The Murders at Starved Rock.” It is streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Apple.
In 1961, 22-year-old Chester Weger was charged with the murders of three women in Starved Rock State Park near LaSalle, Illinois. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, almost entirely on the basis of his detailed confession, which he later recanted. Decades later, David Raccuglia, the son of the fledgling prosecutor who persuaded a jury to convict Weger and now a documentary-maker, decided to re-examine the case after it was officially re-opened. Raccuglia reveals that he was terrified for years of Weger, convinced that the convicted murderer would somehow escape and seek vengeance against the family of the man who sent him to prison. In the intervening decades, LaSalle had fractured over the case, with many in the town convinced that Weger was innocent, and many others equally adamant that he was a monster and was righteously convicted. David’s efforts at examining the evidence met with a great deal of hostility, some of it from his father, whom Raccuglia interviewed extensively.
In March of 1960, Frances Murphy, Mildred Lindquist and Lillian Oetting went on an outing to Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County, Illinois. They checked into the Starved Rock Lodge, and left to hike. Their bodies were later found by police inside a cave in the park. Their bodies were bound with twine, their legs spread and their undergarments torn away. All three women were beaten to death, one with a wooden club, another with one of the women’s camera, and the third with their binoculars.
Chester Weger, a dishwasher at the lodge, was arrested for the killings. Weger had come to work the day after the women disappeared showing scratches on his face which he unconvincingly explained as occurring while he was shaving. The twine used to bind the victims seemed to matched the twine used in the kitchen where Weger worked. Weger had also been identified as the rapist in a police lineup by a man accompanying a teenage girl who had been bound with twine and raped her at another nearby State Park months earlier. These three bits of circumstantial evidence were sufficient to make him the prime suspect in the case.
In November 1960, Weger was subjected to intense interrogation without a lawyer present (this was before Miranda) and confessed to all three murders. He led police and reporters through a reenactment of the killings at the crime scene, signed a long and detailed confession consistent with the reenactment, then recanted his confession the next day. At trial, the confession was the only convincing evidence against him. There was Buckskin jacket he owned that may have had human blood on it. In his confession, Weger said that that he hidden the bodies in the cave because he saw a red plane flying overhead and didn’t want to be seen. Such a plane was confirmed as flying over the park on the day of the killings. There had also been an unprosecuted accusation made against Weger years earlier that he had raped an 8-year-old girl when he was 12.
When the documentary-maker, still frightened of the man he had nightmares about as a child finally meets him, Raccuglia is so shaken he is momentarily incoherent. Weger, an old, broken man, then shocks him with his emotional account of what happened. He swears that he never raped or killed anyone. He describes his interrogation, during which, he says, he was beaten, threatened, and terrorized by two detectives, at one point being questioned for 24 hours straight. Racculia finds Weger to be both sympathetic and believable.
Then he begins discovering the rotten aspects of the case, which was completed when Racculia was a child. The crucial confession certainly looks coerced. Asked why he confessed, Weger says, as he said at his trial, that he had been convinced by the police that confessing was the only way he could avoid the electric chair. When one of the detectives who interrogated him was asked at trial if he kept telling Weger he was going to “ride the lightning” as Weger claimed, he denied it; then his partner testified that he had repeatedly told Weger that, proving that his partner was a perjurer. Weger claimed that he was instructed what to say were the details of his alleged murders in his confession, including the important red airplane story. It turns out that the same perjuring detective often flew a red plane.
There were no forensics at the crime scene linking Weber to the murders. His alleged rapes were given great weight at trial, but there was no evidence that the women were raped. The motive for the alleged attacks was supposedly robbery, but nothing was stolen from the victims. Weger’s confession, and the prosecution’s theory, made no sense. The fact that each of the women had been killed with a different object suggested multiple attackers. The evidence against him was strikingly weak.
Then Racculia interviewed the forewoman of the jury that convicted Weger, and she said that she and her fellow jurors were not convinced he was guilty. They had doubts about the veracity of the detectives, and essentially voted guilty on the strength of the recanted confession alone.
Racculia saw photos of the line-up in which Weger had been identified as the perpetrator of a supposedly “similar” rape, and it would not have been allowed as evidence even in 1961. The rapist had been described as a man in his twenties, and the four men standing with Weger ranged in ages from 40 to 65. Perhaps most damning of all was a document uncovered after the trial in which the supervising prosecutor had hand-written the blueprint for convicting Weger, including as a key step, “Get him to confess.”
Personally, I was most horrified by the argument made to his son by his father, the lead prosecutor in the trial. What “people like you” don’t understand, he tells his son, “is that this was a different time.” Of course a confession tainted by coercion and threats without a lawyer present would be thrown out today, but then it was legal, he explains. And he says he is 100% convinced that Weger killed the three women.
It is throbbing, neon, confirmation bias. The elder Racculia is like the people (you know many, I’m sure) who are certain that Donald Trump colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 election because he’s a bad guy, and they just know he did it, evidence or not. The old lawyer’s argument is also ethically absurd. Confessions beaten out of suspects weren’t any more reliable before the courts cracked down on them and made them grounds for dismissing a case. They were always unethical, always unfair, always a violation of suspects’ rights. In the same way, interrogating a suspect without giving him the opportunity to have the support of a lawyer was an abuse of the justice system and a civil rights violation before the Supreme Court so ruled.
My old prosecution ethics teacher at Georgetown, Seymour Glanzer, said that if a prosecutor didn’t believe that a defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, or knew he couldn’t prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then it was unethical to prosecute the case. I agree with Sy, but most prosecutors don’t operate that way.
The combination of “The Murders at Starved Rock” and the blithering, giggling jury foreperson in the news has me considering a radical concept for radical justice system reform: professional jurors. It should be an occupation, paid by the city, state or federal government. There should be a pool of trained, qualified jurors from whom individual case juries are selected. Their work would be annually reviewed and closely monitored. Such a system would avoid the ludicrous reasoning of the LaSalle County jury, which not only convicted despite reasonable doubt, but in the face of serious doubts. A professional juror system would be a sanctuary for justice under siege in such cases as the Derek Chauvin trial.
The law has become too complex and trail lawyers too skilled for the idealized jury system to be trusted, at least in criminal trials.
On November 21, 2019, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board granted parole to Weger by a vote of 9–4, and he was released on February 21, 2020, after serving 58 years of his life sentence.
It is impossible to say he was innocent of the three millings. He was, however, definitely never proven guilty.
16 thoughts on ““The Murders At Starved Rock”: An Argument For Professional Jurors”
Neat concept, but isn’t payment by the state defacto bias?
I’d have said philosophy or law students and course credit, but see the modern university system, nevermind it wouldn’t necessarily be a jury of your peers if you weren’t “educated” (which in and of itself isn’t the sum total of life and experience).
Still, our current system seems as though it could use improvement.
It might be that it’s the worst system, except for all the others….
I don’t think it’s bias or a conflict, any more than the state paying the judge. Jurors are also compensated by the state—which at least theoretically is as interested in the welfare of the defendant as the victim. Professional jurors could be volunteers, of course.
This is like the Hurricane Carter case. The system failed miserably either way. Either it sent an innocent man to prison for almost 60 years or it let a triple murderer walk.
Professional jurors are interesting thought, but I think constitutionally you would be possibly running into problems, since it’s really supposed to be a jury of your peers and I don’t think that people paid or recruited by the state expressly for this purpose and this purpose only fit the constitutional bill.
You mentioned the possibility of volunteers, but I don’t think I like that idea at all. You would get a lot of retirees with time on their hands who want to play amateur CSI or amateur detective. You would also get probably more than a few activist types swayed by BLM rhetoric who would see it as their duty or their goal to stop black people from being convicted, not to mention anti-death penalty types who would see it as their duty to be the one hold out that sends whoever prison for life instead of to the hot shot. It’s precisely those kind of folks that spared the Parkland shooter.
I agree that the Jury of Peers could be challenged based on the available pool of people who could regularly serve on juries – the elderly and the unemployed, for example. However, one would hope that a government seriously invested in the concept of fair trials would evaluate, train and review professional jurors regarding their beliefs and eliminate anyone who cannot get past their own biases. Alternate jurors would be brought in if a particular professional causes the same problems each time he or she sits on one.
Wait…the State gets to decide who they have to convince? No thank you, it already has enough advantages over the defendant. I agree with assessment that it is a terrible system, but the others are worse.
Now keep an open mind. The State can delegate the juror training, vetting and selection responsibilities to the bar association, a citizen commission, a legal association, a law school, etc. I really don’t see the ominous conflict here.
Anything run by the state gets overtly politicized in short order. We already have prosecutors who don’t prosecute anyone and judges handing out slaps on the wrist for rape, armed robbery and other serious crimes. The state doesn’t need any more power .
I have read how many articles on here that discuss the failure of ethical and legal behavior in every one of the suggested gatekeeper and many from my own experience. Not suggesting a perfect solution, by any means, but not interested in the State having even more home court advantage in a decision over life and liberty for the rest of the defendants life. Not with the current culture and politics in play, not even if we had the founders still in charge. No one needs more power in our balance of powers system.
Observing the activities of the state in suppressing information about jury nullification is what makes me reluctant to the idea of a professional jury. Restricting the size of the jury pool by default shifts power to the state, even if it’s believed to increase the “quality” of the pool. The state has no incentive to decrease the rate of jury convictions.
Besides that… It’s kind of a non-sequitur to use a case involving investigatory and prosecutorial misconduct that now has more protections against it than it did more than half a century ago to argue changing the part of a system that now would never reach the jury stage.
All good points. I’m still stunned at a jury forewoman who says that she convicted a man of three murders beyond a reasonable doubt while admitting that she and the rest of the jury had serious doubts. A panel of retired lawyers would never do that. Too bad I don’t subscribe to the “if it only saves one life” fallacy…
Oh are later note, any comment on the South Carolina double murder trial of alec murdaugh (sp)? Over the last year being able to watch directly our justice system in operation for about half a dozen cases has been educational.
I’m not sure how, absent a population of Vulcans, completely objective unbiased jurors would be found. I do recall a science fiction book from my youth (Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”) where there was a character who was a “Fair Witness,” a person licensed to provide completely objective legal opinions regarding events that they witnessed. Unbelievable then and now.
I do believe jurors – and grand jurors- should be more closely screened. Maybe have prospective jurors take the LSAT? (Just kidding.)
Boy, this post came out at just the wrong time for me..
I recently got someone acquitted of 2 counts of 2nd Degree Murder. (Don’t worry: he was innocent, presumably).
We got a good jury. They listened; they asked thoughtful questions; they did their job.
My client was black; the jury was mostly white with a few Asians., aged from 22-ish to 70-ish.
I suggested to them that some of them might not have faced any more important decision in their lives than the guilt or innocence of my client.
I think they did a diligent and admirable job.
My biggest issue with professional juries is that they would become like judges and lawyers: they be one use to seeing guilty people.
A benefit of a jury of your peers is that the jury may only ever serve once in their entire lives. They may not want to do it, but they take it seriously and it makes a huge impression on them.
I served jury duty the week after I took the bar. I got on a jury (must have been some crazy people on that panel!), and it really is a unique and enlightening experience.
And, the thing is (leaving aside high-profile cases like OJ, etc.) the jury usually gets it right. I remember being very happy that a client got acquitted of attempted murder. i was a little bit upset that he still got convicted of aggravated assault. Then again, he did shoot someone with a gun. So, the jury made the right decision.
And, did I mention, the jury properly acquitted my client of two counts of 2nd Degree Murder? i am not sure a professional jury would have done a better job.
Thank you, Jack.
I am happy and humbled by my role in the system.
In this case, the jury got it right and an innocent man was acquitted.
Congratulations to you, Jut. I think suggesting that the verdict decision would be the most important decision they ever make in life is very sobering and encourages jurors to be more critical of the prosecution’s burden.
On professional jurors, perhaps another layer of voir dire could be added prior to jury selection: a high school civics test. If a prospective juror scores below 80%, they’re automatically sent home.
After watching what Trump Derangement Syndrome afflict so many professionals in Congress & the mainstream media, I’m not sure if civics is taught in elementary school. I’m confident it’s not taught to high schoolers unless it spun up in a manner that America is and has always been about abusing blacks and social justice replaces social studies.