Attorney believes DNA evidence will clear Chester Weger in 1960 'Starved Rock Murders' case
An Illinois attorney believes DNA evidence may prove key to exonerating Chester Weger, the man convicted in the notorious 1960 murders of three women at Starved Rock State Park.
Weger, 83, was paroled in 2020 after spending nearly six decades in prison for the murders of Frances Murphy, Mildred Lindquist, and Lillian Oetting. But the convictions remain on his record.
Andy Hale is Weger's lawyer. He became interested in the case after representing Cleve Heidelberg, a Peoria man convicted in the 1970 murder of Peoria County Sheriff's Sgt. Raymond Espinoza.
Heidelberg's conviction was vacated in 2017, after he served more than 47 years in prison. He died before his case could be brought back for a new trial.
"All throughout his parole hearings, he had always maintained his innocence. You know, in in a parole hearing, if you can express remorse for your crime, it can really help you get parole after you've served some period of time," Hale said. "Cleve Heidelberg refused to ever express remorse because he always maintained his innocence. And I ultimately got him out of prison."
Hale said he stumbled upon a story about Weger in the Chicago Tribune a day after Heidelberg's release.
"In the article, it said that he had always maintained his innocence, refused to express remorse. And I thought, 'My gosh, this sounds like Cleve Heidelberg's twin brother,'" Hale said.
Hale said he began to research the case, and wrote Weger a letter asking to come talk to him. He soon became wrapped up in Weger's effort to have his conviction vacated.
Hale moved to examine the surviving evidence from the 1960 murder case. After overcoming an objection raised by the Will County state's attorney's office, Hale said a judge gave him permission to obtain the evidence and have it forensically examined and catalogued by a third-party firm, Microtrace.
After another scrap with prosecutors, Hale said he also won approval to send evidence to Bode Technology in Virginia for DNA testing.
"I took eight pieces of evidence, hair evidence, twine, cigarette butts. And my position is, if there's no Chester Weger DNA on any of that, this conviction needs to be vacated," Hale said.
Hale said he believes he can make a case to vacate the conviction with the right DNA evidence, combined with Weger's claim that his recanted confession was coerced out of him, and that he was threatened by investigators. That's a claim witnesses and investigators at the time denied.
"When you look at the circumstances of the confession, the threats of the electric chair, the constant surveillance, you know, everything that happened to this guy over a period of months, when you combine that with forensics, then I think it is time for people to basically say, 'he didn't do it. We're gonna vacate that conviction," Hale said. "And that's what I will argue needs to be done. And I will make that argument directly to the Will County State's Attorney's Office at the appropriate time if the DNA comes out that way. And we'll go from there."
Hale expects the DNA test results to come back in late April or early May. In the meantime, he's launching a podcast to reexamine old documents and talk in-depth about the case's details. The first episodes come out Thursday.