At the end of the grueling, harrowing five-week trial of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, career attorney William J. Kunkle Jr. delivered what many considered to be the final blow to Gacy’s defense.

After his assistant Terry Sullivan’s closing argument, Kunkle made a rousing closing argument asking the jurors to ignore Gacy’s claims of insanity.

“Show no sympathy. Show no mercy. Show justice,” Kunkle told them on that March day in 1980. He then threw photos of each identified victim through an uncovered hatch into the infamous Gacy Tunnel, which had been set up before the jury as a trial exhibit. Their reaction was stunned silence as each photo hit the tiled floor of the courtroom.

“It was by far the most moving closing argument I’ve ever seen,” the Sullivan Tribune told the Tribune, remembering Kunkle, after news broke that the former prosecutor died at his home in the western suburbs over the weekend at the age of 81.

“Bill knew how to rap,” he said. “He was just an expert in the field.”

The chief deputy state’s attorney who successfully prosecuted Gacy until the killer’s ex*cution in 1994 is remembered as a tenacious but ethical prosecutor who deftly bring the jury to a verdict of guilt.

After earning a law degree from Northwestern University in 1969, the Ohio native began his legal career as an assistant public defender. He came across the aisle and became an assistant state’s attorney in 1973, quickly establishing himself as a tough attorney in a series of brutal, violent cases for which the decade was famous.

“He was one of the toughest lawyers I could imagine against. He was a street fighter in the courtroom and the gloves fell off,” recalls Gacy’s defense attorney and former judge Sam Amirante.

“He was a straight shooter. What you have seen is what you have. He didn’t mince words (or) feelings. You always knew where you stood with Bill Kunkl. He added Amirante about his former opponent: “He was one of the good guys.”

Sullivan agreed that Kunkle had a soft side that he rarely showed in the courtroom.

“He was one of the nicest people who didn’t plan on it because I think he liked being known as a tough prosecutor,” Sullivan said. “He wasn’t afraid of anything. He took cases after Gacy cases, especially… he was fearless and it rubbed off on us and we just kept digging and digging and taking the test.

After State Attorney Bernard Carey named Kunkle the first prosecution chairman, Kunkle assembled a team of thorough attorneys that included Sullivan and prosecutors Robert Egan and Lawrence Finder.

Many court observers believed that Kunkle had a “slammed” case, or rather an easy prosecution, as most of Gacy’s 33 victims were found under his unincorporated home in Cook County. But Sullivan explained that Kunkle had serious concerns that the loquacious, politically connected part-time performer and clown would escape justice on a charge of insanity.

“Bill was very concerned about proving the case because of the insanity defense, and the fact that they presented the insanity defense scared Bill and the entire prosecution team,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan explained that the public had difficulty understanding the sheer horror of the crimes that offered Gacy a potential lifeline to freedom. “It was hard for anyone to … get their hands on it to understand that it wasn’t really a dead end, and Bill was leading the team majestically,” said Sullivan.

Kunkle himself recalled the trial on the Netflix TV show.

“From the beginning, when the bodies were recovered from his home, it’s obvious that he’s actually guilty, A,” Kunkle said in the documentary Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes. “And B. will be convicted of actual guilt if he tries any defense other than insanity. So it’s a case of madness.

A police photo shows part of a tunnel at John Wayne Gacy's home in Norwood Park Township after investigators discovered the bodies.  Twenty-six bodies were found in the basement of the house.
Chief Deputy State's Attorney William Kunkle Jr.  is about the trial of John Wayne Gacy at the Criminal Courts Building in February 1979 in Chicago.

Despite being on different sides of the harrowing, historic court case, Amirante said he and Kunkle always maintained mutual respect, even engaging in a mock legal battle over the Illinois Judges Foundation.

Kunkle left the state’s attorney’s office in 1985 to enter private practice, but later joined the Illinois Gaming Board in 1990.

Kunkle made an unsuccessful attempt to defend former police lieutenant Jon Burge after the City Council appointed him to represent the disgraced officer in the federal torture case of Andrew Wilson.

In 1995, Kunkle was assigned to serve as special prosecutor investigating misconduct in the prosecution of Rolando Cruz, accused of child m*rder and later acquitted. Seven former police officers and prosecutors were indicted but eventually acquitted.

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Kunkle later served as a judge in the 4th Subcircuit for 10 years.

“Bill Kunkle has had a long and distinguished career as a prosecutor, private practice attorney and judge of Cook County,” Cook County Chief Justice Timothy Evans said in a statement. “He was an intelligent civil servant who taught by example, and my condolences to his family on his d*ath.”

Calling Kunkle “one of, if not the greatest” legal adversary, Amirante said he wanted people to know he was as solid a man as he was a lawyer.

“He wanted to instill fear in the defendants and I’m sure some of the defense lawyers did,” said Amirante, now in private practice. “But at the same time, he was just a good guy. He had a big heart. He was a very compassionate guy. You’d never know that fighting in court.

Arranging a funeral was not immediately available.

wlee@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @midnoircowboy

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