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Donald LANG






A.K.A.: "Dummy"
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Illiterate deaf mute
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: November 1965 / July 1972
Date of birth: 1945
Victims profile: Ernestine Williams, 37 / Earline Brown, 39 (prostitutes)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife - Strangulation
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Status: Ruled incompetent for trial, 1965. Released from asylum, 1971. Sentenced to life in prison, 1972. Overturned on appeal. Remanded into custody of the state mental health department

An illiterate deaf mute, Lang was charged with his first murder - of a Chicago woman - in 1965. Ruled unfit for trial on grounds that he could not participate in his defense, he was confined in a mental institution until 1971, when the state supreme court decreed that he must either be tried or released. 

Back on the street, Lang was charged with killing another Chicago woman in 1972, this time convicted and sentenced to prison for life. The conviction was overturned on appeal, since Lang could not communicate with his attorneys, and he was remanded into custody of the state mental health department. Despite his highly-publicized escape, in March of 1982, a Chicago judge granted Lang permission to leave the hospital grounds a month later, for purposes of learning sign language and meeting with other deaf patients. 

The court acknowledged that Lang was "potentially dangerous," but ruled that "a reasonable risk" should be taken to help him develop emotionally.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers


Donald Lang

Written by Aimee Massey

Donald Lang's case has got to be one of the strangest in the annals of crime. Lang's alleged crimes were not particularly unusual. They would have gone largely unremarked-upon if not for the fact that Lang was totally deaf and mute.

Lang was born around 1945 in Chicago. It is believed he lost his hearing at the age of about six months after a high fever and a fall from his baby crib. His family was too poor to afford proper social and educational intervention, so the little boy grew up without any schooling of any kind. He did not even learn American Sign Language or lip reading, so his only means of communication was simple gestures and crude line drawings. Despite this, he appears to have been a happy, reasonably bright child who was fortunate enough not to fall victim to the bullying and psychological warfare so many "different" children must endure. He went to work on the loading docks when he was grown and there proved himself dependable and hardworking and was well-liked by his fellow laborers.

The trouble started one evening in late November of 1965 when a 37-year-old prostitute, Ernestine Williams, was plying her trade in a bar on the South Side. Witnesses saw a young black man who appeared to be deaf approach her, put his hand to her crotch and then hold up ten fingers, as if offering ten dollars. (Donald Lang's work friends had taught him the concept of money and had also introduced him to the practice of hiring hookers.) Ernestine agreed and they left the bar together. She was not seen again till the next morning when she was found stabbed to death in an outdoor stairwell. Donald Lang was quickly identified as the deaf man seen with her at the bar, and he was arrested.

Taken to the scene where the body was found, Donald demonstrated to the officers how he had attacked the woman and thrown her body down the stairs. This seemed to detectives to as good as a confession, and they charged him with murder.

The officers realized that his communication difficulties were beyond their scope of experience, so a lawyer named Lowell Myers was appointed to represent Lang. Myers was deaf himself and specialized in deaf clients and issues. He attempted to communicate with Lang, but soon realized his client was mute and illiterate, unable to use sign language or read lips. He only repeated the same gestures as before, adding a stabbing motion, which the officers believed was a confession and Myers felt might be an attempt by Lang to explain that he, Lang, had witnessed someone else commit the crime. After much legal wrangling, the carge was reduced and Lang was confined in several institutions for the deaf and for the mentally impaired. He was relased after a few years and went back to his job on the loading docks.

In July of 1972, again on the South Side, Lang was observed checking into a by-the-hour motel with a prostitute named Earline Brown, 39. He went downstairs later and left, but Earline never appeared. The next couple to use the room found her in the closet, badly beaten and strangled to death. Lang was again identified as the man seen with the woman just before her death and was arrested. 

This time, the evidence was overwhelming. There was blood on Lang's sock, and when he saw that the detectives had noticed it, he rolled the sock top down to cover the stain. His face was badly scratched and his right hand appeared injured, as might be expected when a small but strong man fights to the death with a much woman with wicked fingernails. And the most damning piece of evidence of all was that Lang drew a figure of a woman with Earline's big Afro hairstyle, then, making sure the detective was paying attention, deliberately crossed her out.

There was little Lowell Myers could do for his client this time around, and Lang was found guilty and sentenced to something like 25-to-life. At Myers's insistance, Lang was sent to a minimum-security prison and largely given the run of the place, acting as the caretaker's assistant, since he loved to work and seemed happiest and most manageable when he was kept busy.

Though he was only ever charged with two killings, Lang is suspected of involvement with several others. As one cop said, "I don't know about him, but everywhere he's been, we find a dead broad."


Blind Justice and a Deaf-Mute

Monday, Jan. 11, 1971

"The facts in this case are unique in American jurisprudence," said the Illinois Supreme Court. Donald Lang, 25, was charged with the fatal stabbing and beating of a woman friend. Lang cannot hear, speak, read or write. Nor does he understand sign language. For those reasons, Lang seemed clearly incompetent to stand trial. The question: should the state nonetheless try him?

Deaf-mutes have commonly been found fit for trial, but the fact of Lang's further disabilities posed enormous problems. Not only would he be unable to understand what was happening at the trial, but he could not communicate with his attorney to help prepare a defense. The attorney, Lowell Myers, is himself deaf and specializes in representing deaf-mutes. Myers contends that Lang and the woman, who was neither deaf nor mute, were attacked while walking to her house from a nearby tavern. After the murder, the lawyer notes, Lang "went into a bar and tried to get some help. Nobody paid any attention." That does not seem to be the act of a guilty man, says Myers, but "Lang can't tell me what happened."

In 1966, Lang was found mentally and physically incompetent to stand trial, and he wound up in Illinois' Dixon State School. Dixon authorities say that Lang resists all efforts to teach him to communicate, but is in all other respects of average intelligence. The State Supreme Court had two competing interests to resolve. On the one hand, the capacity of the accused to understand and cooperate is fundamental to a fair trial; if Lang were found guilty, could it be said that he had been convicted with due process? Yet, before the killing, Lang lived with his relatives and in no way represented a threat to others or to himself. Was it legally right to confine him to a state institution indefinitely, though he had neither been convicted of a crime nor judged insane in the medical sense?

Since the state was unwilling to free him outright, his attorney preferred the risks of trial to the near certainty of confinement for life. The court agreed and ruled that Lang should be tried. Said Bernard Deeny, a perplexed assistant state's attorney: "The court has ordered us to give him a trial, but I don't see how we can." Nonetheless, the trial is scheduled to begin next week.


SEX: M RACE: B TYPE: T MOTIVE: PC-nonspecific

DATE(S): 1965/72

VENUE: Chicago, Ill.

MO: Illiterate deaf-mute slayer of women

DISPOSITION: Ruled incompetent for trial, 1965; released from asylum, 1971; life sentence, 1972 (overturned on appeal; remanded to asylum).



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