A friend of mine died the other day. You might know the name: William Heirens.
If you were a child in Chicago in the 1940s, as I was, you knew about him; he was the bogeyman. His arrest in June 1946 concluded a much-publicized five-month manhunt after six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was abducted from her bed in the middle of the night, killed and dismembered–her body parts were found in sewers. Heirens, a 17-year-old University of Chicago student caught in the act of a burglary, confessed–after several weeks of intense questioning–to murdering her as well as two women, Frances Brown and Josephine Ross. Scrawled on Brown’s wall with lipstick was the plea, “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”
If you have lived in Chicago in the meantime, you probably have heard of Heirens. Year after year, the news media reported that he had applied for parole or clemency. Shortly after being sentenced in 1946 to three life terms, he had recanted his confessions, stating that he pleaded guilty only because his lawyer told him if he didn’t, he’d be tried, convicted and sent to the electric chair. (It’s hard to believe, but the state’s attorney actually conceded in open court after the sentencing that there had been “small likelihood of a successful murder prosecution” without “the cooperative help of defense counsel.”)
I became acquainted with Bill Heirens’ case in 1987 after a law school professor told me about it. Aside from the issue of innocence, the professor believed Heirens’ constitutional rights had been seriously abridged. Among other things, he was forcibly injected with sodium pentothal, the so-called “truth serum,” and interviewed by a psychiatrist; that would never be admissible in court today. The Illinois Supreme Court in 1954 said there were “flagrant violations” of his rights, deserving “the severest condemnation,” but the court nevertheless upheld the conviction. And Judge Luther Swygert of the U.S. Court of Appeals, in a dissenting opinion in a 1968 Heirens appeal, said the case “presents the picture of a public prosecutor and defense counsel, if not indeed the trial judge, buckling under the pressure of a hysterical and sensation-seeking press bent upon obtaining retribution for a horrendous act.”
Dolores Kennedy, a Chicago legal secretary, got interested in Heirens’ case in the 1980s through her father, who was a lawyer and had met him in prison. She wrote an excellent book in 1991, “William Heirens: His Day in Court” (Bonus Books), focusing on the rights issues. Subsequently, she assembled a team whose research uncovered a large amount of evidence suggesting that he simply was not the killer. There is strong reason to believe that his fingerprint, found in the Brown apartment, was planted by the police; a police officer with special expertise who examined it said it clearly was a “rolled” print, the type that one would find on a police fingerprint index card. Five handwriting experts said neither the lipstick message nor a ransom note left at the Degnan home were written by Heirens. One of them said the ransom note appears to have been written by a man who confessed to the Degnan murder but was released because the police didn’t believe him. In addition, the confessions had multiple inconsistencies. But all of this fell on deaf ears. The authorities were unwilling to mess with such a sensational case.
Dolores Kennedy, who now works for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, introduced me to Heirens in 1990, and I wrote several articles about him over a period of years. My wife Ellen and I visited him many times at the minimum-security prison in Vienna and later at Dixon. He was a remarkable man who tried to make the best of his horrible situation. He was a model prisoner; in 1972, he became the first Illinois prison inmate to earn a college degree. He never gave up hope of release, and we talked with him often about what it would be like when he got out.
Ironically, he finally made it back to Chicago. He collapsed in the prison Feb. 26 and was transported to the University of Illinois Medical Center, where he died March 5. He was 83. He had been in prison 66 years.
The last time we saw Bill, in 2008, his health was failing but his mind was alert, and of course he continued emphatically to maintain his innocence. And we believed him.
—Ed McManus is an attorney and a former editor/reporter at the Chicago Tribune.