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 charge 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 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."