William Kunkle, chief prosecutor of John Wayne Gacy, dies at 81


At the end of an exhaustive, harrowing five-week trial for serial killer John Wayne Gacy, career prosecutor William J. Kunkle Jr. gave what many considered a finishing blow to Gacy’s defense.

Following a closing argument by his assistant, Terry Sullivan, Kunkle gave a riveting final argument, asking that jurors ignore Gacy’s claims of insanity.

“Don’t show sympathy. Don’t show pity. Show justice,” Kunkle told them that March day in 1980. He then pitched photos of each identified victim through the unearthed hatch to Gacy’s infamous crawl space, which had been set up in front of the jury box as a trial exhibit. Their reaction was stunned silence as each photo hit the courtroom’s tile floor.

“It was, by far, the most moving closing argument that I have ever seen,” Sullivan told the Tribune as he recalled Kunkle, after news that the former prosecutor died over the weekend at his west suburban home at age 81.

“Bill knew how to rap things up,” he said. “He was just an expert in that.”

Cook County State's Attorney Bernard Carey speaks at a news conference about the indictment of John Wayne Gacy for the murders of seven young men on Jan. 8, 1979, at the Richard J. Daley Center. Behind him are, from left, Assistant State's Attorneys Lawrence Finder, Robert Egan, Terry Sullivan and Chief Deputy State's Attorney William Kunkle Jr.

The chief deputy state’s attorney who successfully prosecuted Gacy through to the killer’s 1994 execution was remembered as a relentless but ethical prosecutor who could adroitly walk a jury through to a guilty verdict.

After earning his law degree from Northwestern University in 1969, the Ohio native started his legal career as an assistant public defender. He crossed the aisle and became an assistant state’s attorney in 1973, quickly distinguishing himself as a tough attorney in a string of violent, gritty cases the decade became known for.

“He was one of the toughest lawyers I could ever imagine going against. He was a street fighter in the courtroom and the gloves would come off,” recalled Gacy defense lawyer and former judge Sam Amirante.

“He was a straight shooter. What you saw is what you got. He didn’t mince words (or) feelings. You always knew where you stood with Bill Kunkle.” Added Amirante of his former adversary: “He was one of the good guys.”

Sullivan agreed that Kunkle had a tender side that he rarely ever showed in the courtroom.

“He was one of the kindest people who didn’t project that because I think he liked to be known as the tough prosecutor,” Sullivan said. “He didn’t fear anything. He took cases after the Gacy case, particularly … he was fearless and that rubbed off on us and we just kept digging and digging and putting together the test.”

After State’s Attorney Bernard Carey named Kunkle the first chair in the prosecution, Kunkle assembled a team of thorough attorneys that included Sullivan and prosecutors Robert Egan and Lawrence Finder.

Many court observers thought Kunkle had a “slam-dunk” case, or rather an easy prosecution, because most of Gacy’s 33 victims were found underneath his unincorporated Cook County home. But Sullivan explained that Kunkle had strong concerns that the chatty, politically connected contractor and part-time clown would escape justice through an insanity plea.

“Bill was very concerned about proving the case because of the insanity defense and the fact that they put forward an insanity defense scared the heck out of Bill and the entire prosecution team,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan explained that the general public had a hard time comprehending the sheer horror of the crimes, which offered Gacy a potential lifeline to freedom. “It was hard for anybody … to put their hands around it to understand that it, in fact, wasn’t a dead-bang case and Bill led the team majestically,” Sullivan said.

Kunkle recalled the trial himself in a Netflix TV show.

“Right from the beginning, once the bodies were recovered from his house, it’s patently obvious that he’s factually guilty, A,” Kunkle said in the documentary, “Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes.” “And B, he’s going to be convicted of factual guilt if he tries any defense known other than insanity. So it’s an insanity case.”

A police photo shows part of the crawl space in the Norwood Park Township home of John Wayne Gacy after bodies had been unearthed by investigators. Twenty-six bodies were found in the crawl space of the home.
Chief Deputy State's Attorney William Kunkle Jr. talks about the John Wayne Gacy trial at the Criminal Courts Building in February 1979 in Chicago.

Despite being on other sides of a gut-wrenching, historic court case, Amirante said he and Kunkle always maintained a mutual respect for one another, even engaging in a mock legal battle for the Illinois Judges Foundation.

Kunkle left the state’s attorney’s office in 1985 for private practice, but later joined the Illinois Gaming Board in 1990.

Kunkle did mount an unsuccessful attempt to defend former police Lt. Jon Burge after the City Council appointed him to represent the disgraced officer in Andrew Wilson’s federal torture case.

In 1995, Kunkle was appointed to serve as a special prosecutor investigating wrongdoing in the prosecution of Rolando Cruz, accused in a child murder and later exonerated. Seven former police officers and prosecutors were indicted, but eventually acquitted.

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Kunkle would later serve as a judge in the 4th Subcircuit for 10 years.

“Bill Kunkle had a long and distinguished career as a prosecutor, an attorney in private practice and a Cook County judge,” Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans said in a statement. “He was an intelligent public servant who taught by example, and I offer his family condolences on his passing.”

While calling Kunkle “one of, if not his greatest” legal opponent, Amirante said he wanted people to know that he was as solid a human being as he was a lawyer.

“He wanted to instill fear in defendants and I’m sure some defense attorneys,” said Amirante, now in private practice. “But at the same time he was just a good guy. He had a great heart. He was a very compassionate guy. You would never know it fighting in the court.”

Funeral arrangements weren’t immediately available.

wlee@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @Midnoircowboy





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