At the age of 17, in 1946, William Heirens, a sophomore at the University of Chicago was arrested on burglary charges after he walked into an open door of an apartment and pilfered a one dollar bill from a dresser. A chase ensued and according to police, Heirens pulled out a gun, pointed it at a police officer, and pulled the trigger. The gun, also a stolen item from a previous burglary, misfired. During a struggle with the police officer over the gun, the officer smashed two flower pots over Heirens' head, causing him to become unconscious.
Taken into police custody in June of 1946, Heirens has never again tasted freedom. He has been incarcerated now for over 61 years. At the time Heirens was arrested, the Chicago police department was under tremendous pressure to solve two of the most notorious murders in Chicago history. In December 1945, Frances Brown was found shot to death in her apartment. The words "For heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself" were scribbled in lipstick on her apartment wall. The press had a field day with this evidence, pumping up the public's fear that a crazed serial killer (dubbed "The Lipstick Killer") was on the loose. These fears were further fanned in January 2006 when the newspapers published accounts of the abduction of 6 year old Suzanne Degnan from her home on Chicago's Northside and told how her body parts were scattered in sewer basins around the city. Readers of Chicago's many dailes were riveted by the newspaper coverage of the case and repulsed at the fact that the Chicago police had made no headway in the investigation after nearly six months.
With the almost unbearable pressure on police to solve these cases, enter Bill Heirens. Heirens was a serial burglar who had already been sent away from home to a boarding school as a result of a teenage crime spree. When he returned to Chicago, he went back to his old ways and amassed a treasure trove of items from his burglaries, including furs, cash, weapons, war bonds, and jewelry. Almost immediately, the Chicago detectives focused on Heirens as a potential suspect in the unsolved murders. There was no evidence to support this hunch but they pursued Heirens with desperation, violating almost every rule in the book to get him to confess. The 17 year old was subjected to a polygraph test (which he passed), a sodium pentothal test without his consent, and given a spinal tap (in a case of voodoo science, doctors believed that they could tell whether Heirens was malingering by analyzing his spinal fluid). They claimed Heirens made damaging admissions under the "truth serum," maintaining that the Degnan crime had been committed by an alter ego named "George Murman." These results were leaked to the press and the case was pronounced solved long before any of the other evidence was in.
PHOTOS OF BILL HEIRENS AT THE COOK COUNTY JAIL AFTER HIS ORDEAL AT THE HANDS OF CHICAGO POLICE OFFICERS
A ransom note left at the Degnan scene was tested for fingerprints and the Chicago police crime lab was unable to lift any prints from the note. They sent the note to the FBI lab and low and behold his prints appeared. Original handwriting analysis of the note and the message on the wall of the Brown killing excluded Heirens. Another famed expert was brought in (the same man who linked Bruno Hauptmann to the ransom note in the murder of the Lindbergh baby) and low and behold there was a match. And so it went throughout the summer as the police claimed that evidence had been linked to Heirens.
As the case against Heirens appeared to get stronger, his attorneys and then his parents pressured him to confess and plead guilty to avoid the death penalty. As he was debating what to do, a Chicago Tribune reporter named George Wright, published the Heirens' confession. The only problem was that there was no confession -- he made it up out of whole cloth.
The fake confession was the last straw and Heirens agreed to confess to the crimes. At the appointed time, he entered a room that was filled to capacity with police officers and members of the press. Then State's Attorney Tuohy had turned the event into a media circus. When Heirens was asked what happened -- he asked Tuohy if Tuohy wanted the truth and then astonished everyone by claiming that the truth was that he did not kill anybody. An embarassed Tuohy took the deal off the table (one life sentence for the three murders) and insisted that if Heirens still wanted to plead guilty, he would have to serve three consecutive life sentences (the third murder was of a woman named Josephine Ross). And so he did -- he confessed -- a confession filled with details of the crime that did not fit the evidence and lacking details that should have been known by the killer. He confessed in order to save his life.
For the past 61 years, Heirens has been fighting in the courts to establish his innocence. Although he has come close on several occasions, relief has been denied in the courts, by a succession of Governors, and by the Parole Boards. Meanwhile, he has amassed a prison record that few can match. He has been a model prisoner, a jailhouse lawyer who has freed many others, an accomplished painter, and was the first inmate to earn a four year college degree. Today, at age 78, Heirens is an obese diabetic who is losing his eyesight and is confined to a wheelchair. He poses no threat to anyone and is a good parole risk. If ever there was a case for parole based on rehabilitation, Bill Heirens, is deserving of parole. But is 61 years in prison enough retribution (assuming that Heirens is guilty)?
The story in Sunday's Tribune on the case of Bill Heirens tackles some of these tough questions. Included in the story is eight and one half minutes of video of Bill as he makes his case to the readers and the public.
Bill Heirens is my client. I fully understand that the Degnan family wants him to die in prison. I recognize that many people would like to chop him up in pieces and scatter his parts in sewer basins and believe that if my daughter had been one of Heirens' victims that I would fight to see that he was never released. But if a parole system is to have any credibility, at some point, the cries of personal and public vengeance must give way to other goals of our criminal justice system, namely goals of fundamental fairness in sentencing and the goal of rehabilitation.
Where do we draw the line? What is enough punishment for his crimes? Has he served enough time? All I know is that he is the longest serving inmate in the Department of Corrections and one of the longest serving in the United States. Thousands of men with much worse prison records and who were much worse parole risks have been paroled for murders since his incarceration, including such notorious Illinois killers as Nathan Leopold, none of whom had credible claims of actual innocence. Heirens has been rehabilitated for decades -- prison psychiatrists have given him a clean bill of health and supported his release and even members of the Parole Board, as far back as the 1960's and 1970's, have recognized that he is rehabilitated. If rehabilitation is to have any meaning in our criminal justice system, then Heirens must be released.
The fight to win parole for Heirens is not just a fight for the body of William Heirens -- it is part of a much bigger fight, a fight for the soul of the criminal justice system.
HEIRENS TODAY IN 1946
For more information on the case of Heirens' innocence, see http://www.law.northwestern.edu/depts/clinic/wrongful/documents/Heirenspetition.pdf