Ruling to dismiss Chester Weger’s bid for exoneration in Starved Rock murders case set July 1

Weger to learn whether he can pursue innocence claim

Chester Weger (center) listens to his hearing on Wednesday April 10, 2024 at the La Salle County Government Complex in Ottawa.

Chester Weger could learn July 1 whether he can continue trying to overturn his conviction in the Starved Rock murders case.

Weger, 85, appeared Wednesday in La Salle County Circuit Court in hopes of continuing his exoneration bid – a successive post-conviction petition, in legal parlance.

The special prosecutor argued that Weger’s bid should be dismissed. Weger, who served six decades in prison for one of the 1960 murders, wants another day in court.

La Salle County Judge Michael C. Jansz will take several weeks to think it over – and couldn’t guarantee that he’d be done by the status hearing he scheduled.

“I don’t want to leave any false impressions of how fast I can do this,” Jansz said.

Colleen Griffin, one of the special prosecutors from Will County, said Wednesday that Weger’s lawyers have presented evidence that “is so implausible” that it does not comprise a well-pleaded allegation.

“There are so many different theories about what may or may not have happened,” Griffin said. “[They] are so inconsistent with one another that they cannot be well-plead.”

Griffin said that at this stage of a successive post-conviction petition, Weger has to make a “substantial showing” of proof that he’s innocent, yet the evidence “doesn’t fit together,” and there are admissibility problems.

Weger’s attorney Andy Hale disputed that characterization. He said the evidence presented “is incredibly consistent” in supporting their case that Weger is innocent.

“We don’t have to solve the murder,” Hale said. “We don’t have to figure out who did it. We’re pretty darn close. It’s amazing what we’ve come up with. We just have to show Chester Weger is most likely innocent.”

One of the more hotly disputed pieces of evidence is a hair found on the glove of victim Frances Murphy, which Hale said was linked through genealogy to one of three dead brothers in the Utica area.

The hair alone points to a participant other than Weger, Hale said, and the fact that a follicle was attached to the hair suggests it was yanked out during a defensive struggle.

Griffin countered that Weger’s legal team has not presented any forensic evidence or expert to support that notion.

Jansz had a few questions about the hair, as well. He asked how the hair is exculpatory (that is, proves Weger is innocent) when it came from Murphy, yet Weger was convicted of Lillian Oetting’s murder.

“[The prosecution’s] theory is one person did all three,” Hale said. “[Prosecutors] never contended there were more people there. Their theory was, ‘Chester Weger. Chester Weger. Chester Weger.’”

And in that context, he said, “It’s either Chester Weger or it’s not.’”

Jansz will have to ponder that argument – but the judge said he had misgivings about how Hale characterized the hair and its owner.

“We’re making a big leap that this individual committed a murder,” the judge said. “I’m a little uncomfortable with the fact you’ve identified the killer without a trial.”

Jansz did rule on two evidentiary issues. He won’t let Weger’s lawyers depose two elderly men with possible knowledge of the case. Jansz also ruled that a wood chip recovered at the crime scene can go to the crime lab, but additional pieces of evidence won’t be analyzed.

Jansz has voluminous pleadings and exhibits to wade through. Earlier this year, the special prosecutor filed a 78-page pleading saying that Weger was, in fact, guilty of murder at Starved Rock State Park and that Weger’s claims of innocence have been heard and rejected before.

Weger’s lawyers hit back last month with a lengthy pleading of their own, arguing that there’s plenty of new evidence to prove Weger innocent.

They said prosecutors had over-relied on Weger’s “illogical” confession, which “was procured using methods that frequently lead to false confessions and that the state knew or should have known was false and the product of coercion.”

Chester Weger is pushed in a wheel chair as he exits the La Salle County Government Complex on Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Ottawa.
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