Review of The Murders at Starved Rock HBO rating ****
Did he or didn’t he murder three women at Starved Rock Park in 1961? That’s the question that this three-part HBO docuseries tries to answer. Chester Weger was just 22 when he was arrested and eventually convicted of the triple murder. He confessed to the crime. He knew things only the killer could have known, or so it seemed.
Chester Weger recanted his confession. He has maintained his innocence for the past sixty years. David Raccuglia is the son of the prosecutor who prosecuted Chester. David Raccugklia grew up fearful of the man his father put away for life. At some point, however, he wanted to prove one way or the other whether or not Chester was guilty. So, he set out on a multi-year journey to answer that very question.
The people who put Chester behind bars remain adamant that they got the right person. When you look at the scant evidence used against him, however, the conviction starts to falter. You can start with the confession. It’s no secret that police were known to use coercion in order to get people to confess to crimes they did not commit. Uneducated males between the ages of 16 and 24 are the most likely to falsely confess. Add in sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and the threat of a death sentence and it’s even easier to get a false confession. The police used all of those tactics with Chester.
What other evidence was used to convict Chester? There was a suede jacket that had a few spots of blood on it. The three women were bludgeoned to death with a log. Chester maintained that the blood on his jacket was animal blood. They didn’t have DNA testing in 1961, and it can’t be tested now due to cross-contamination. Then there was the red airplane. According to Chester’s confession, after murdering the three women, Chester saw a red airplane fly overhead, so he moved the bodies into a cave to prevent them from being spotted from above. A check at the local airport confirmed that the owner of such a plane had indeed flown over the area around the time when the murders had occurred. How could Chester have known about the plane if he wasn’t actually there? But what if the police knew about the plane and fed Chester the information?
By the end of the second episode, the evidence is higher on the side of innocence. By the third episode, however, the filmmakers seem to conclude that they aren’t sure one way or the other. Some hair found on the gloves of the victims is currently being tested for DNA, but the results won’t be released until sometime later this year.
The filmmakers bemoan the lack of a smoking gun. The problem, though, is that they have their smoking gun in the form of a handwritten letter written by the prosecutor who originally brought the case. This particular prosecutor was up for re-election. Solving the murder could possibly help him get re-elected. When Chester failed a polygraph, this prosecutor and a pair of investigators set out to fit the evidence to their suspect, and according to the prosecutor’s handwritten letter, they also manufactured evidence to make it stick. What more do you need?
Chester Weger was eventually paroled after serving nearly sixty years in prison. Years before his parole, he was interviewed by David Raccuglia. If you ever wanted to know what it would be like to serve decades in prison for something you didn’t do, watch the interview. You can’t fake heartbreak.