Illinois Bar Journal

November 2016Volume 104Number 11Page 46

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Legal History

Remembering the Richard Speck Trial

Drifter Richard Speck's brutal murder of eight student nurses in Chicago 50 years ago riveted America at a time when mass killings were rare. The dramatic trial also posed rare challenges to an Illinois criminal justice system unaccustomed to saturation media coverage.

Fifty years ago, Richard Speck killed eight student nurses in Chicago in what the authors of a new book describe as America's "first mass motiveless murder." The book is Trials of the Century: a Decade-by-Decade Look at Ten of America's Most Sensational Crimes (Prometheus Books, 2016), written by the daughter and lawyer-father team Aryn Z. Phillips and Mark J. Phillips. Speck's trial was a national sensation and came just after the U.S. Supreme Court's harsh condemnation of the trial court's handling of intense media coverage in the Sam Sheppard murder trial in Ohio. (The Sheppard case was the inspiration for The Fugitive TV series and movie.) In the shadow of that ruling, the trial was moved to Peoria - the first in Illinois to be transferred for pretrial publicity, according to the authors. Press coverage was also rigidly controlled, and voir dire was closed to the public. This excerpt from the book, reprinted with permission from the publisher and authors, describes the groundbreaking trial and its aftermath.

The prosecutor charged with the task of convicting Speck was William J. Martin, a graduate of Loyola Law School, now a Cook County assistant state's attorney assigned to the Criminal Division. Of medium height, with large, dark-rimmed glasses, he looked older than his 28 years. Defending Speck was 53-year-old Gerald F. Getty, one of Chicago's most experienced public defenders. Canny and effective, he had tried hundreds of capital cases and never lost a defendant to Illinois's electric chair. Both Martin and Getty were assisted by teams of lawyers and investigators. Appointed to preside over the case was well-respected judge Herbert Paschen.

And for perhaps the first time in a high-profile national case, the judge and both lawyers sought to proactively protect themselves and their case from the potential damage from the intrusive media coverage. Two recent cases caused them to worry. First, just 30 days before the murder of the eight student nurses, the United States Supreme Court had issued its decision in Miranda v. Arizona. In a narrow 5-4 ruling, the Court overturned the conviction of Ernesto Miranda for the rape of a 17-year-old Phoenix girl, a conviction that was largely based on Miranda's jailhouse confession following his arrest. In its ruling, the Court held that a citizen's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination is violated unless the suspect is advised of a right to remain silent and to be represented by an attorney. Now familiar as the Miranda warning, the new rule was still being adjusted to by police departments and prosecutors across the country in July 1966; to protect their case against Speck in the summer of 1966, he was not questioned by prosecutors for three weeks following his arrest.

Speck did not confess, but neither did he assert an alibi. Instead, he professed to having had too much to drink, to having injected himself with drugs, and as a result claimed to have no memory of the events of July 13, of the townhouse, the nurses, or their murder. But even without his confession, based on the eyewitness testimony of Cora and his fingerprints in the townhouse, he was indicted on eight counts of murder on July 25. After a thorough examination by a panel of psychiatric experts selected by both sides, on October 22 he was declared mentally competent to stand trial.

The second case that worried the prosecutors was that of Sam Sheppard. His conviction for Marilyn's murder had been overturned just the month before the murders, and Sheppard's retrial was actually taking place in Cleveland, Ohio, in October 1966 as Speck awaited his own trial. The prosecutors understood well the lesson of the Sheppard case that pretrial press coverage could be so pervasive that it would be impossible to find and retain an impartial jury in the community where the crime took place. They were particularly worried about the impact of the press conference held by the police on Saturday morning, July 16, in which Police Superintendent Wilson had held up the photo of Speck and identified him as the killer. Wilson had told the reporters, "As far as I'm concerned, there is no question that he is the murderer."

The morning after the Wilson press conference, every Chicago paper, yet unaware of Speck's capture in the early hours, had carried banner headlines with Speck's name and photograph. Beneath the front-page headline "Slaying Suspect-Man on Run," the Chicago Tribune opened with, "Richard Franklin Speck, the ex-convict being hunted for Chicago's mass murder, has been on the run from police in two states for four and one-half months."

The article gave an in-depth description of his life of crime, including the recent murder and rape in Monmouth of which Speck was now credibly suspected. A companion article on page two interviewed relatives of the victims and asked each what he or she thought of Speck, with predictable responses.

National papers also picked up the sensational story. A front page article in the Washington Post datelined Saturday, July 16, identified Speck as the killer of the eight nurses, fully reporting Wilson's press conference and giving a detailed description of Speck, including his photograph and tattoos. Even the New York Times that Sunday covered the press conference in its "Major Events of the Day," ranked in national importance after the Chicago race riots but before a labor strike against the nation's airlines.

The issue for the judge and lawyers tasked with prosecuting Speck was not what Superintendent Wilson described, but that his belief in Speck's guilt was reported by the papers as settled fact: "I think the information I gave to the Chicago public was information they should have, and I saw no reason for withholding this information. He is the killer."

This reporting left no doubt in the minds of readers, who were to soon be jurors, that Speck had in fact killed the eight nurses. As early as Monday, July 18, the Boston Globe was reporting that the Wilson press conference hindered Speck's chances at a fair trial.

Prosecutors were also desperately worried about Cora [Amurao, the one student who managed to hide from Speck]. National magazines were pursuing her for her story, offering compensation that would make the poor Filipina and her family fabulously rich by the standards of her country. If she told her story in the media before the trial, there might be no community in America where 12 impartial jurors could be found. It was not beyond imagination that the US Supreme Court of the 1960s, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, champion of the rights of the accused, could rule that a criminal suspect's right to a fair trial could be so infringed that no trial was possible. To protect their primary witness from the media, prosecutors whisked Cora into hiding. First in hotels and finally in an apartment in downtown Chicago, Cora and her visiting family lived for the next seven months under assumed names and 24-hour police protection.

Setting a foundation for grounds of eventual appeal, Getty filed a motion on November 16 to move the trial from Cook County, citing the overwhelmingly negative pretrial publicity. Collecting boxes of articles and press clippings, which he presented to the court, Getty argued that Speck could not receive a fair trial in Chicago. No criminal trial in Illinois had ever been moved based on pretrial publicity, and Getty did not expect his motion to be granted, making it only to preserve the potential argument for appeal. To everyone's surprise, Martin made no objection to moving the trial, thus depriving Speck of a significant appellate argument. After a review of the capabilities of all remaining Illinois counties, the case was transferred 150 miles southwest to a reluctant Peoria, and trial tentatively set for February 6. The Illinois Supreme Court ordered Judge Paschen to continue presiding over the trial.

But the ruling in the US Supreme Court's decision in Sheppard dealt not only with the pretrial publicity, which Marilyn Sheppard's murder had generated, but also with the intrusive presence of the press in the courtroom during the trial. In the environment condemned by the courts as a "Roman holiday," the local and national reporters occupied nearly every seat in the gallery of the Sheppard trial, and an additional long table was set up in the well of the courtroom immediately behind counsel table and within an arm's reach of the jury; the reporters handled the trial exhibits as offered, identified and harassed the unsequestered jurors as they traveled to and from the courtroom, and set up a web of telephone, telex, and television lines in the courthouse itself.

To make sure that this behavior did not occur in the Speck trial, on February 14, six days before the commencement of the trial, Judge Paschen issued a draconian set of orders that drastically restricted media access. No cameras, recording devices, or other electronic equipment were allowed on courthouse premises, and the sheriff was ordered to search every person entering the building for forbidden recording devices. No artist's sketches were permitted. No teletype or telephone lines were to be installed in the courthouse. No photographs of any kind of the jurors were permitted, nor were their names or addresses to be released or published until after the verdict. Witnesses, jurors, lawyers, staff, court personnel, and police officers were forbidden from making any statements of any kind concerning the case until after a verdict was returned in open court. The respective attorneys were forbidden to make their case in the media, either publicly or by leaked leads, information, or other statements. Only 25 press credentials were issued, Judge Paschen rejecting requests from more than 200 others who sought attendance in the courtroom. No one would be permitted to enter or leave the courtroom while the court was in session. Finally, in an obvious response to how Judge Edward Blythin had handled Sam Sheppard's original trial, no one other than lawyers and parties were permitted to cross the bar into the well of the courtroom, and no one except attorneys were permitted to handle exhibits.

Within the week, the Chicago Tribune filed suit challenging the validity of Judge Paschen's restrictive press order, and its own headline on February 21 read "Tribune Fights Court Gag." Paschen's order was nonetheless upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court on March 1.

Even the process of jury selection concerned the judge and attorneys, eager to seat an unbiased jury. Normally the interview of respective jurors, called voir dire, takes place in a courtroom before groups of prospective jurors, often as many as 50. The nature of the crime is described and description of the juror's duties given. But the circumstances of this crime were so horrific that description of the events before jurors were seated might upset and inflame entire groups of prospective jurors. To prevent this from happening, the groups of prospective jurors were kept out of the courtroom, with individual jurors brought in one at a time and subject to voir dire. In Speck's case the process of selecting jurors, eventually seven men, five women, and two alternates, which ordinarily might only take a few days, instead took six full weeks and the examination of 609 prospective jurors.

'This is the man'

The trial began in earnest on Monday, April 3. Martin's theory was to present witnesses in phases: those who could place Speck in the neighborhood of the nurses' townhouse, those who would present evidence of the crime itself, and finally witnesses who would testify to Speck's movements after the murders, evidencing his consciousness of guilt.

Over the course of eight days of testimony, the prosecution called 41 witnesses. Martin began with those who had encountered Speck in the South Side Chicago neighborhood in the days preceding the murders, including the owner of the Shipyard Inn, a sailor who had dealt with Speck at the Maritime Union Hall, the Walshes, and Army Sergeant Richard Oliva [, all of whom encountered Speck near in time and place to the murder scene].

After a series of family witnesses testified to the life and death of the eight victims, Martin called his star witness, Cora Amurao, on April 5. She slipped into the courthouse through a rear entrance while a hired look-alike in dark glasses decoyed members of the media outside the front entrance.

The diminutive young woman was a sensation. After she provided dramatic testimony of the rape and slaughter in the townhouse, Martin asked, "Now, Miss Amurao, if you see that same man in the courtroom today, the man who came to your bedroom door on Wednesday night, July 13, 1966, would you please step down and point him out?" Time magazine reported that the words "cast a galvanic spell over the room." Cora slowly descended from the witness box, walked to within a foot of Speck sitting at counsel table, pointed a finger into his pockmarked face, and said, "This is the man."

Martin later described the result of Cora's identification of Speck as "pandemonium."

Despite the judge's pretrial order, reporters bolted from the courtroom to fight for the use of the only public phones in the building. When calm again settled over the trial, Getty was unable to shake her on cross-examination, and Martin needed no redirect. The need for secrecy over, Cora exited the courthouse through the front door and into the phalanx of waiting photographers.

Over the remaining four days, Martin presented the testimony of fellow nurses, investigating detectives, and fingerprint experts. The sweat and blood-soaked T-shirts discarded at the townhouse and the matching one cut from Speck's body at the hospital were placed into evidence. The coroner described each victim's injuries. Then Speck's flight from the South Side was recounted. Martin called as witnesses the cab company dispatcher, the cab driver who picked Speck up at the Shipyard Inn and dropped him in Old Town the night after the murders, Raleigh Hotel desk clerk Otha Hullinger, and transient Claude Lunsford who sat drinking with Speck on Friday night discussing with him how to hop an outbound freight. On April 11, the prosecution rested its case in chief.

The capable Getty could now no longer avoid his choice of strategy: either to fight for Speck's innocence using the testimony of South Side witnesses who claimed to have seen Speck elsewhere while the nurses were being systematically slaughtered, or to present an insanity defense. The latter would require Speck to admit to having committed the crimes. Getty chose the former. Challenged afterward for electing this desperate course, he said, "I make it a practice never to judge my clients. You have to represent all comers, and if you judge them, you cannot defend them. Speck told me that he didn't do it, or that if he did, he didn't remember it. I tried to prove that he wasn't at the scene on the night of the crime."

He began with the testimony of Speck's family, solid, God-fearing folk, offered to humanize the defendant. Then Getty called his key witnesses, Murrill Farmer and his wife, Gerdena, proprietors of Kay's Pilot House Bar & Restaurant, who testified with confidence that Speck had been in their establishment eating a hamburger at midnight on July 13, and thus not at East 100th Street. Having done what little he could, and gambling that the sowed doubt would be enough to avoid the death penalty, Getty rested his case.

In the closing argument to the jury, the prosecution recounted the deaths of the eight nurses in detail, describing, ordering, summarizing, and occasionally lapsing into rhetoric.

Pointing at Speck, the prosecution told the empaneled citizens that "death stalked the hallways that night." Hammering on Speck's attempted suicide as a confession of guilt, Martin urged the jury to give the defendant the penalty that he himself evidently believed that he deserved. "He who had that strength to plunge that pocket knife into the heart of Pamela Wilkening," Martin told the jury, "didn't have it when it came to taking his own life. But he knew his own life should be taken." Martin eulogized each nurse in turn, describing how Speck had the strength to stab, strangle, or defile, ending each with the condemnation "but he didn't have the strength to take his own life." Martin exhorted the jury that they now had to show that they had that strength in their verdict. "Ladies and gentlemen, it is your responsibility to the county and to this sovereign state to say that a man cannot murder eight innocent girls in their beds and expect to spend the rest of his life in a prison cell....Courage is what is required of you...."

Getty, with his enviable record on the line of never yet having lost a defendant to the death penalty, could in closing only attempt to elevate the 30-minute alibi offered by Murrill and Gerdena Farmer, distracted as they bustled around the busy café, over the four-hour focused nightmare that was Cora's experience. Exhausted, both Martin and Getty sat back in their chairs as Judge Paschen read the jury their instructions.

It was now noon on April 15, and the jury retired to a sequestered meal and the beginning of their deliberations. Martin and his team walked back to their hotel for lunch and prepared for a long wait after. But before their meals even came, the court clerk called the restaurant. After only 49 minutes, the jury had reached a verdict: guilty on all eight counts.

The expected posttrial procedures followed. On May 15, Getty moved for a new trial and was denied. On May 25, Getty was back in court requesting additional medical tests on Speck to determine if he suffered from an alcohol-induced epileptic "furor" on the night of the murders. This motion was similarly denied. On June 2, Getty made a final appeal for mercy, pleading for eight consecutive life sentences. On Monday, June 5, at 11:00 a.m., the lawyers and Speck assembled before Judge Paschen. He asked Speck to rise. "Step up," Getty told his client. Firmly, formally, without excuse, explanation, or doubt, Judge Paschen sentenced Speck to death.

The execution was never carried out. His conviction was affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court on November 22, 1968, but in June 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the penalty, citing the systematic exclusion of potential jurors who had expressed reservations against imposition of the death penalty. A year later, the Supreme Court held capital punishment in all states unconstitutional, and in compliance the Illinois Supreme Court voided all death penalties in the state, including that of Speck.

After 25 years in jail, Speck died of a heart attack on December 5, 1991, aged 49, one day shy of his fiftieth birthday.

His years of incarceration were not without controversy. The Illinois penal system was then inconsistent and corrupt, and Speck lived a life behind bars rife with intoxication and sex. He paraded in women's clothing, his former trim figure bloated by prison weight and with enlarged breasts resulting from illicitly obtained hormones. A video surreptitiously shot at Stateville Prison in 1988 shows the prisoners cavorting with drugs and money, and in the middle of it Richard Speck performing oral sex on another prisoner. From behind the camera a prisoner asks Speck why he killed the nurses. Speck shrugs and says, "It just wasn't their night." Asked how he felt, he replies, "If you are asking if I felt sorry, no."

After his death his remains were cremated and his ashes scattered by authorities in an undisclosed location near Joliet.

A legacy of Speck's horrific night of crime was a newly found acceptance of mass, motiveless murder. Americans were familiar with killings for passion, for profit, or from madness. Husbands killed wives, and vice versa, and business partners killed each other. Criminals killed unlucky victims, and disgruntled citizens assassinated politicians. But those not insane all had a motive for their actions, stemming from some dark root, tinging each death with shocked acceptance, if not meaning. But never before had Americans experienced the soulless mass slaughter of strangers without reason.

Until Speck. Prosecutor Martin recounts how, a few weeks after that night in the townhouse, while Americans were still coming to grips with this new phenomenon, 25-year-old Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin and with a high-powered rifle killed 14 people, after killing both his mother and his wife. Thirty-two others were wounded. Martin wonders if the heavily publicized Speck murders and trial factored into Whitman's lashing out against society.

That day was followed by others in the decades to follow, some less shocking, but others much more so. Americans react with sorrow to such slaughters, but are no longer surprised. For prosecutor Martin, as for many, this painful loss of national innocence began with Speck and the murder of eight nurses in Chicago that hot July night in 1966.


For more on Trials of the Century: A Decade-by-Decade Look at Ten of America's Most Sensational Crimes, visit the website for the book at

The trial is the subject of another new book co-written by Speck prosecutor William J. Martin and journalist Dennis L. Breo: The Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation. More information is at

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