Lab tests from the Starved Rock murders did not yield Chester Weger’s DNA, boosting the number of area residents who think the parolee is innocent, as he has long claimed.
But Weger must persuade a judge in La Salle County Circuit Court he was wrongfully convicted. That is a multi-step process, attorneys say, and Weger will need more than a single negative DNA result to overturn his 61-year-old conviction.
Shaw Media contacted area lawyers familiar with the Starved Rock murders case and versed in post-conviction relief. All agreed Weger, now 83 and in declining health, should brace for drawn-out proceedings and should temper any expectations of being exonerated for the 1960 murders.
La Salle attorney Louis Bertrand worked 20 years for the late Anthony C. Raccuglia, who prosecuted Weger, and is familiar with the Starved Rock murders case. Bertrand said he foresees two big challenges for Weger and his lawyers.
The first challenge, he said, is building a case for why the lone DNA result is exculpatory, that is, why it proves Weger’s innocence.
“The difficulty that Weger and his legal team are going to have is trying to make that into something significant,” Bertrand said. “It was one test, one piece of evidence and the evidence was not pristine. Everybody and their brother has had access to this evidence and a single DNA test does not prove innocence.”
The second challenge will be overcoming the evidence introduced at Weger’s trial. Though disputed now, Weger was convicted on the strength of a confession, corroborating witnesses and physical evidence that withstood the admissibility standards of the day. A judge, Bertrand said, won’t simply disregard the body of evidence.
“I think the overall weight of the evidence overwhelmingly supports a conviction,” Bertrand said. “In order to overturn a conviction, I think the contrary evidence has to be overwhelming, and this DNA evidence doesn’t exclude him from being at the scene and committing this crime.”
Brian Towne is a former La Salle County state’s attorney who repeatedly lobbied against Weger’s parole, granted in 2019 after Towne left office. He agreed the recent DNA finding simply won’t be enough for the state to voluntarily dismiss the case or for Judge Michael C. Jansz to automatically overturn Weger’s conviction.
“One lab report from an item hand-picked by the defense in and of itself tells the court nothing,” Towne said. “There must be motions explaining why this is newly-discovered evidence or why this has any bearing on the original conviction.
“And in the majority of these situations, there is no sudden ‘ah-ha’ moment that creates a situation where the prosecution and the court will simply overturn the conviction.”
Weger supporters might look askance at the 1960 evidence and think it obsolete or irrelevant in light of new forensic techniques. Courts do not hold to that view.
Peru attorney John Fisher explained Weger’s conviction is subject to a legal doctrine known as “res judicata,” meaning a case is presumed closed once the facts are submitted and a judgment is rendered.
“And that means it’s finished,” Fisher said. “I also agree that this DNA evidence does not exclude him from being at the scene or committing the crime.”
Fisher said getting a judge to overturn the conviction could take months or years. Weger faces steep odds of getting satisfaction from the courts, much less reaping damages from a lawsuit alleging wrongful prosecution.
“You watch these cases where people have been overturned?” Fisher said. “That process through the court system takes a long, long time.