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20 Years After Execution, John Wayne Gacy's Attorney Remembers His Final Days

By Staff in News on May 10, 2014 6:00PM

Chicago’s most notorious serial killer was put to death at Stateville Correctional Center twenty years ago today. One of his Death Row attorneys still feels the way in which her life and career were altered by him and recalls just what a sick, twisted, and funny son of a bitch John Wayne Gacy was.

Like the time Gacy noted he didn’t enjoy movies like most people—he rooted for the bad guys.

“To this day, people ask me: ‘How could you represent Gacy?’” said attorney Karen Conti, 52, who served as Gacy’s final Death Row attorney along with her late husband, Greg Adamski. “Then in the next breath they say: ‘Tell me all about it.’”

The couple approached the Sisyphean task of representing Gacy on little more than a whim and a principle in 1993. They heard on the radio Gacy’s final appeal was exhausted and he was set for execution. Illinois had experienced only one execution since the U.S. Supreme Court ban was lifted in 1977, and the idea seemed barbaric to two moral opponents of capital punishment.

They approached Gacy about representing him in last-ditch efforts to overturn his death sentence. A master manipulator, Gacy agreed to have the couple work on saving his life, but only if they handled his civil matters, too.

What kind of civil matters can a man known for dressing up as a clown and killing boys and young men have, you ask? Gacy had many, chief among them his interest in capitalizing financially on his art to leave money for his family. When state officials suggested any money earned from his art should be used to pay for his incarceration, Gacy said if he was too expensive they could evict him.

His only crime, he argued, was “running a cemetery without a license.’’

Karen Conti. (Photo via Facebook)
Gacy probably never realized what a legal dream team he had. Adamski won prestigious legal awards, had a record of important pro bono work, and helped teach an intensive Chicago litigation course at the U. of I. College of Law, and for two years taught the school's first death penalty class. Conti has won a variety of high profile civil and criminal cases, is an adjunct professor at University of Illinois College of law, the DePaul University College of Law, and Columbia College, and has guest lectured at Stanford University and American University.

Conti and Adamski hosted WGN Radio’s “Legally Speaking’’ program for two decades, and Conti—as telegenic as she is accomplished—serves as a legal analyst for WGN Radio, WFLD TV and frequently appears on national news.

Conti had a particular constitution for humor, even of the darkest varieties. Her father was Joe Conti, a comedian, actor and entertainer who was one of the original Dead End Kids; had roles in several movies, including “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,’’ won an award on the Major Bowes amateur hour; entertained troops around the globe during World War II; and later opened Playboy Clubs for Hugh Hefner.

Once when Gacy called their home, Joe Conti answered. “You should request strawberries for your last meal, John, you know why?’’

“No, Joe, why?’’ replied Gacy, happy to play along.

“Because they’re out of season.’’

Yet even a father whose profession is humor can’t prepare you for the comedic stylings of John Wayne Gacy.

Like the joke in which Adamski’s sister died and Gacy sent a card with a sensitive and tender message on the front. Inside was a picture of a naked woman in a casket with her legs spread wide. The caption: “We wanted to remember her in death as she was in life.’’

By the time Gacy lay lifeless from lethal injection, Conti and Adamski had invested more than $400,000 in billable hours (adjusted for inflation) and a good portion of their mental health. They were subjected to death threats (none of which were investigated, Conti notes). For years, an unknown man would send Conti disgusting pictures of mutilated bodies, and they were ostracized by people on both sides of the death penalty debate.

Conti was avoided by long-time friend and mentor Judy Baar-Topinka, now the Illinois State Comptroller, who was in 1994 a Republican state senator running for State Treasurer. And the couple were even personae non gratae to death penalty opponents. They were snubbed for an invite to a Chicago speech by anti-capital punishment rock star Sr. Helen Prejean, who was just about to be portrayed by Susan Sarandon in “Dead Man Walking.’’

“He was the poster child for the death penalty,’’ Conti recalls. “Everyone said: ‘I don’t believe in the death penalty, but for Gacy, yes.’”

Conti is a fan of true crime books and was prepared for Gacy to be pure evil disguised as charm, but she hadn’t anticipated how well she’d get to know him during the 12- and 15-hour days of tedious paperwork over an intense seven months. Familiarity is an unexpected result. Small talk and jokes are inevitable.

Like the one where Gacy became pen pals with a woman who wanted to marry him. She even went on the Phil Donahue show and said so. During a pause in paperwork with Gacy at Stateville, Conti jokingly asked if he was going to take her up on the offer.

“Are you kidding me? She’s got multiple kids by different fathers, and they’ve all been in trouble with the law,’’ Gacy replied. “You think I want to marry into a family like that?’’

The dark side is contagious, and Conti found herself consumed with death and killers. While on a trip to California the couple went into a store dedicated to serial killers, a stop they wouldn’t have made before Gacy. The owner immediately identified them as Gacy’s attorneys, and they knew they were in deep.

The darkest moments, though, came after the execution. Conti and Adamski thought they raised legitimate issues that should have stopped the execution, but no judge was going to be the one who kept Gacy alive. Even efforts to have Gacy’s execution stayed for reasons of mental health were rejected, just as his insanity plea at trial had been.

“If John Wayne Gacy isn’t insane,’’ Conti asks, “then who is?’’

They left Stateville the night of the execution. (Gacy had those strawberries after all, along with Kentucky Fried Chicken, fried shrimp, French fries and Diet Coke.) In the dark the couple saw people beating drums, celebrating, thirsting for blood. The mood was dangerous.

Gacy was dead, but never fully gone from the memory of anyone who encountered him. He quipped to Conti that his name would appear in her obituary. It did in her late husband’s, and she knows Gacy’s prediction will come true in hers as well.

But Gacy would make one more appearance in their lives, even if posthumously.

As Gacy’s execution approached he joked he would be at Adamski’s next birthday, a chronological impossibility. Conti got Gacy to record a birthday greeting and then put it on Adamski’s overnight messages the night before his 44th birthday.

“Hi ho, I told you I’d be at your birthday,’’ Gacy’s voice chirped brightly in Adamski’s ear, only moments after he awoke, but months after the execution.

It was Gacy’s final joke … as far as we know.

Tony Boylan is a born-and-raised Chicagoan who has worked in and around medie for two decades. He's held reporting positions with USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, Crain's Chicago Business and worked in Africa and Eastern Europe in democracy development work. His sense of humor was forever warped by Steve Dahl's Gacy-themed parody song, "Another Kid in the Crawl."