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Kill-Crazed Animal? 

Why is William Heirens still in prison? How did he get there to begin with?

Mental status today reveals a neatly and casually dressed . . . man who has never married. His hair is graying, he is alert and in good contact. He is normally oriented in all spheres. Memory for recent and remote events is intact. . . . Calculating ability is accurate. Knowledge of current events is appropriate. Abstracting ability with familiar proverbs is appropriate. Stream of thought and association are normal. No psychotic ideation or hallucinatory activity is elicited. When asked why he is seeing a psychiatrist today, he says, "They want to be able to come up to the public [with the assurance that] three different psychiatrists have seen me. . . . Due to the nature of the case . . . the public will have some qualms about it."

Parole and Pardon Board Referral
Illinois Department of Corrections
Re: William Heirens

William Heirens. Say the name to practically any midwesterner born before World War II and you may well trigger repugnance and disgust, even terror. For a whole generation William Heirens is the embodiment of evil, the monster who spoiled their childhood, the most brutal killer who ever stalked Chicago, the precursor of Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy. In those long-ago days in the summer of 1946--before television and space travel and the cold war, just after America had humbled its enemies over there and brought the boys back home again, and when the future looked like good jobs and green lawns and kids happily at play--William Heirens cast an awful shadow across the land. The enemy was no longer over there and had not been put away. He was in our midst.

It all began on January 8, 1946. The Chicago Sun announced in a three-inch-high headline: "FIND CHILD SLAIN!" Beneath it was a grisly detail: "Police Discover Head in Sewer." The child was Suzanne Degnan, a six-year-old, golden-haired girl who had been kidnapped from her home on North Kenmore Avenue the day before; a scrawled ransom note had been left behind. Soon other parts of her dismembered body were found in nearby sewers, and a cry for the apprehension of the killer sounded throughout the city.

A janitor was arrested as a suspect, grilled mercilessly, then released. A top-to-bottom shake-up of the Police Department was ordered to improve neighborhood surveillance and criminal investigation. Unlike some vicious crimes that arouse attention and quickly fade, the Degnan atrocity would not go away. Almost every week some new lead surfaced or some human-interest angle intrigued the press.

Then on June 26 William Heirens was caught red-handed in a burglary attempt near the Degnan home. The spotlight remained on him for two months until September 4, when he was handed three consecutive life sentences for the murder of Suzanne Degnan and two women, and a one-to-life term for burglary, assault, and robbery.

The formal letter that accompanied the convicted youth to prison concluded, "It is the intent and the desire of the prosecutors and the trial judge in this case that the defendant, William George Heirens, never be admitted to parole and that he spend the balance of his life in the Illinois State Penitentiary."

And so he has. Heirens, now 60, is a resident of the minimum-security prison in Vienna, some 350 miles south of Chicago near where the tip of the state abuts Missouri and Kentucky. Vienna has been his home for the last 13 years. Before that he put in 25 years at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, and before that, five years in the state facility at Menard.

Yet every so often a rustle of activity is heard on William Heirens's behalf: a petition for clemency, a new legal suit, or an appeal from his supporters. There is something perennially intriguing about this man. Though it seemed settled decades ago, the Heirens case will not go away. Currently, a 26-member Parole for Heirens Committee is working diligently for his release. Such advocacy has long met stiff resistance. Every Cook County state's attorney since 1946 has pledged to do all in his power to keep Heirens locked up for life. Here is how Richard M. Daley put it when he occupied that law-enforcement post: "These murders . . . reveal [Heirens] to be a bloodthirsty killer whose crimes would have continued but for his capture and incarceration. . . . Justice demands that Heirens spend the rest of his life behind bars. He deserves as little mercy as he showed his innocent and helpless victims." In 1983 the Illinois legislature even passed a resolution urging the parole board never to succumb to any pro-Heirens argument. Courts of review have responded with the narrowest possible interpretation of the law.

When I told several friends of my curiosity about the Heirens case, they said, "Don't write about him! What he did is too awful, and he is too awful! They found his fingerprints. The evidence was overwhelming. He even admitted his crimes. There is nothing more to be said."

There are few certainties in this life. For most people who grew up in the post-World War II years, one of them seems to be that Heirens is guilty beyond any shadow of doubt. Another seems to be that rehabilitation is unthinkable in the case of such a fiend--no matter how much time has elapsed. But sometimes our certainties are not based on fact.

Did William Heirens really kill Suzanne Degnan and two women? The only answer provided by the existing record is that we do not know. No one knows--possibly not even William Heirens at this point. What we do know is that he was put away under such pressure from a hysterical press and by such blatantly illegal maneuvering that his so-called confession ought to be regarded as a farce.

Could William Heirens be safely paroled in his old age? Again, no one can say for sure. What is certain is that if the concept of rehabilitation has any validity in the criminal-justice system, then Heirens, in custody longer than any inmate now in the Illinois prisons, seems marvelously reformed and fully entitled to freedom.

As the teenage son of a middle-class couple living in Lincolnwood, Heirens was obviously a mixed-up young man. In 1943, at 14, he apparently used his job as a drugstore delivery boy to burglarize north-side apartments. On the plea of his father, a steel-mill security guard, juvenile-court officials authorized his transfer to a Catholic boarding school in Peru, Illinois. He stayed out of trouble until another arrest in April 1946--for carrying a rifle on the south side. Charges were dropped because the weapon had not been concealed and because he was by then beginning his sophomore year at the prestigious University of Chicago.

His critical brush with the law came on June 26, 1946, when he was spotted looting an apartment on North Wayne Street. He was chased by policemen, wrestled to the ground, and finally subdued when one of the cops hit him on the head with three flower pots. During questioning by the police, Heirens could not account for his whereabouts on the night almost six months before when Suzanne Degnan was killed. Three days later police announced that the fingerprints on the ransom note left in the Degnan apartment matched those of Heirens.

In their eagerness to satisfy an aroused public and a ravenous press, the Chicago Police and the Cook County state's attorney's office went well beyond the approved norms of criminal investigation during the following weeks. In the process they seriously jeopardized the likelihood of gaining Heirens's conviction if the case ever came to trial. But as it turned out, they didn't have to worry about that.

First, Heirens was held for six days without access to the defense attorneys hired by his parents. No charges were filed as he was quizzed continually--five times in one night, according to a news report--about the Degnan killing and other murders. When he refused to cooperate, he was accused of "malingering." John Coghlan, his chief defense attorney, complained: "Detention for six days implies coercion under the law. For six days this lad of 17 has had to pit his intelligence against the state. He is either innocent or extremely intelligent." Only on July 2 were his attorneys allowed to confer with him.

During his six-day detention, Heirens was given a sodium pentothal "truth serum" injection without his permission or the knowledge and permission of his lawyers. He was then quizzed while under its influence. Edgar Jonas, chairman of the Chicago Bar Association, later declared, "Use of any serum or artificial stimulant is just as much unlawful for obtaining information as beating information out of a prisoner." He was also given a lie-detector test, which police labeled "inconclusive," although it was revealed years later that he had passed.

Meanwhile, his apartment in Hyde Park was searched by police without benefit of a warrant. Evidence, including loot from some of Heirens's burglary sprees, was illegally confiscated.

Whatever incriminating evidence was amassed from these efforts would not have been admissible in a trial. A skillful defense attorney would have had little difficulty demonstrating extreme bias and reckless disregard from the start on the part of investigators.

The solid and presumably admissible evidence of Heirens's guilt in the Degnan case included his prints on the kidnap note and an alleged similarity between his handwriting and that on the note. Also weighing against him as the case progressed was another fingerprint, identified as his, found in the apartment of Frances Brown, an ex-Wave who had been found shot and stabbed to death in her apartment on North Pine Grove on December 10, 1945, less than a month before the Degnan killing. Written in lipstick on Brown's bathroom mirror was the eerie message: "For heaven's sake catch me before I kill more; I cannot control myself." Police said it looked like Heirens's work.

The fingerprint and writing evidence proved questionable. The ransom note contained a "partial" print of one finger and a "latent" palm print. Although the police and the FBI said the prints belonged to Heirens, doubts remained. At first, police said the print had 6 points of similarity with Heirens's print. When it was noted that 11 points of similarity are usually required for a positive identification, a police captain declared. "There are a thousand points! But on a latent print, one that has to be dusted and lifted--there are not always that many possibilities because it may not be clear or complete." What he was conceding has never been made clear either. Besides, the note had been handed around to numberless persons and agencies after the murder; for a time it was even in the custody of the press.

The fingerprint found in the Brown apartment was compared with Heirens's soon after his arrest, and police announced that it did not match, that he was therefore not a suspect in that killing. Later, another fingerprint expert declared that it did match and that there could be no question about it.

Similar discrepancies surrounded the handwriting on the Degnan note. Heirens was asked to write the message of the note in his own handwriting for comparison purposes. He wrote "safty" for safety and "waite" for wait, just as the kidnapper had misspelled them on the original. Police saw the error as a "major development." Heirens insisted he had been shown the original note and instructed to copy it exactly, mistakes and all. Police said he hadn't seen it, that the message had been dictated to him. In any event, he could have seen the original misspellings beforehand because the note had been printed in the papers several times.

Handwriting experts disagreed as to whether the lipstick message in the Brown apartment and the Degnan ransom note had been written by the same person, and there was no consensus that either was the work of William Heirens. Several experts, including George Schwartz, asserted that the handwriting on the notes "did not compare in any respect," that some letters were similar "but only those that follow the usual writing pattern." Police investigators preferred the judgment of another expert, Herbert Walter, who claimed definite similarities.

It would be a mistake to suppose that Heirens, his parents, and his few supporters were aware of all this contradiction and confusion as the investigation proceeded through June and July. On the contrary, they were assured on a daily basis that the murderer's identity was known to all, that an ironclad case was being constructed, that at any moment the confession would be forthcoming. The assurances came from Chicago's daily newspapers, whose dishonorable role in the case greatly affected the outcome.

The press had indulged in a feeding frenzy. After Heirens's confession was on the record, the Chicago Tribune editors wrote, in a statement remarkable for its unintentional candor, "For the first time in newspaper history, the detailed story of how three murders were committed, naming the man who did them, was told before the murderer had confessed or was indicted. . . . So great was the public confidence in the Tribune that other Chicago papers reprinted the story solely because the Tribune said it was so. Never have a newspapers' contemporaries and competitors paid a higher tribute to its reputation for veracity. For a while Heirens maintained his innocence, but the world believed his guilt. The Tribune had said he was guilty."

To be sure, the Tribune's bravado was a bit extreme, for Chicago's other dailies, notably the Hearst Herald-American and Marshall Field's Chicago Sun, were far more than hangers-on in the rush to condemn the accused.

To understand how a trial and conviction by newspaper could occur, it is helpful to consider that moment in history. In 1946 Chicago had five daily newspapers struggling in an ongoing circulation war. Television was still young and radio was at best a secondary news source. The press represented the medium of public information. The end of World War II left major dailies with a vacuum; they needed hard-hitting, circulation-building, front-page stories. Postwar life proved plodding and predictably upbeat. When the Degnan case hit the newsroom, the adrenaline flowed and the pack went on the hunt. Besides the morbid fascination inherent in the circumstances of the Degnan and Brown murders, there was William Heirens himself, a middle-class, white, precocious University of Chicago student, with no apparent motive to commit burglaries, much less murders.

In their search reporters were greatly aided by an incredibly cooperative Police Department, which shared every lead and suspicion--even the most fantastic--with the press. Stories were skewed to cast Heirens in the worst possible light, and everything had a sinister significance. When he appeared to lapse into a comalike state of shock for several days, thus delaying questioning, the public was assured he was "faking it" or "malingering." Much significance was given to the fact that he missed his 9 AM class at the university the day after the Degnan murder, though it was later reported that he had attended the class. Among his school books was a copy of one of Friedrich Nietzsche's books, which the Herald-American noted was "sometimes called the 'Bible' of Nazi Germany." He may have envisioned himself a "Teutonic knight," said another paper, since he once signed his name in a school book as "William Heirens von Lincolnwald." His doodles in a textbook, which were reproduced in several papers, looked like devils.

Dozens of unsolved killings were "linked" by the police and press to Heirens. "You check back through your crime records," said Detective Chief Walter Storms, "and you'll never find a 17-year-old who committed as many crimes as this man." Witnesses and relatives of victims were sought out by reporters, resulting in a string of tentative or positive identifications, most of which quickly fizzled. One of these was provided by George Subgrunski, a former soldier who identified Heirens as the person he saw carrying a shopping bag within a block of the Degnan home on the night of the murder. He was certain, he told police, because Heirens walked in front of his car "in the full glare of his headlights." The press took no notice of the fact that just after the murder Subgrunski had described the man he saw to the police as about 35 years old, and said he had not seen the man's features because there was no light.

Reporters acted as investigators, often beating police to a lead, examining and analyzing evidence for quick presentation in the next edition. Psychological experts, whose only knowledge of Heirens came from the press, were contacted for telephone diagnosis. One explained, "He began to steal at a very early age--at an age perhaps when he was unable to determine the value of articles stolen. Hence, he was . . . a moral imbecile. This condition grew on him."

What he ate and wore and said in police custody, even how often he moved, became matters not just to report but to interpret. "If he was troubled by the prospect of his day in court," said a front-page Tribune story, reporting on one night in jail, "neither the depth nor the length of his slumber showed it. He fell asleep early last night and turned over exactly twice. . . . 'He didn't even bother to take off his shoes,' one guard said."

Much grist for the journalism mill was provided by the illegally administered sodium pentothal injection. Under the drug's influence Heirens reportedly blamed the Degnan murder on a "George Murman." According to an exclusive account in the Herald-American, the interrogation went like this:

"Did you kill Suzanne Degnan?"

"No, George did it."

"How did George do it?"

"George was robbing a man's home the day before and saw a ladder across the way leaning against the building. He climbed in the window. . . . Then George carried her out and she was still sleeping. Then George strangled her."

"Then what did George do?"

"George cut her up and carried her to several sewers."

After the injection wore off, Heirens persisted for a time in laying the blame for the mass of things he was being accused of on the mythical Murman. He later admitted that Murman was a fictional character he had created for a writing class and that under continuous grilling by police, he saw the creation as a way to shift the focus off him. But the appearance of George Murman only intensified press interest in Heirens. He was now seen as a Jekyll and Hyde creature. One cartoon showed him standing inside a monster with steely eyes and a sadistic glare. "It was as George Murman that he committed the bad things," explained the Daily News some days before Heirens's confession. "Heirens used George Murman to soothe his troubled conscience."

But considerable fogginess surrounds the truth-serum episode--even four decades later. No transcript of the questions and answers has ever been made available, and the Herald-American's exclusive account was later contradicted by the sworn testimony of Dr. William Haines, one of the psychiatrists present during the questioning. He said no questions were asked about the Degnan killing on that occasion.

When police reported the results of two lie-detector tests administered to Heirens at his own request as inconclusive--largely because the youth was "uncooperative"--reporters took their word for it. Some six years later the results of one of the tests were reproduced in a scholarly book on lie detection. The authors marveled at how a man like Heirens, whom they assumed to be guilty by reason of his confession, could register on the test as unquestionably telling the truth when he denied killing Suzanne Degnan. Perhaps, they speculated, the kind of test he was given was not as accurate as they had thought.

Meanwhile, the rush to conviction proceeded with a momentum of its own in each Chicago daily. An original embellishment could make a substantial difference in newsstand sales. One particularly juicy exclusive in the Chicago Sun jumped that paper's circulation by 30,000 in a single day. The Herald-American summoned a popular mystery writer of the day, Craig Rice, from her Santa Monica, California, home and had her speculate on Heirens's deviant mind. The paper also imported crime artist Burris Jenkins Jr. from New York to illustrate Rice's articles.

One newsman described Heirens as he saw him during a visit to the jail. The two men spoke casually for a few minutes, then Heirens was asked what subjects he had studied at school. "The change is abrupt, instantaneous, shocking," the reporter wrote. "His smile vanishes, the eyes narrow, the face freezes in stony immobility. . . . Even the skin color seems to thicken and turn gray. A haunted, criminal look familiar in the faces of other famous criminals--of Bruno Richard Hauptmann--drops like a mask over the lean features of William Heirens."

When read 43 years later, this account of a werewolflike transformation strains credibility. But in the context of July 1946 it was not especially shocking. At that point Heirens had been charged only with burglary and assault, for resisting the arresting policemen. But in the papers the 148-pound, six-foot young man had been described as "powerfully built," "hulking," and "beetle-browed" with "hostile, cunning eyes," a "sneering mouth," and "strikingly thick and strong hands."

On July 16, under the three-inch-high headline "THE HEIRENS STORY," the Tribune presented his complete "confession." It narrated, without attribution, how he "kidnapped, strangled and then dismembered Suzanne Degnan," how he "shot and stabbed Frances Brown before imploring the police to catch him," and how he stabbed Josephine Ross to death on June 3, 1945, when she awoke and found him burglarizing her North Kenmore apartment. The article explained Heirens's actions in exquisite detail: "Heirens walked from the L station to the yard where he had seen the ladder, carried it to the Degnan home and placed it against the window of Suzanne's room; climbed in the window; gagged the sleeping child with a handkerchief and carried her still sleeping down the ladder. Suzanne awakened. He laid her on the ground and strangled her with his hands."

Here at last, it seemed, was the definitive word--it could have come from none other than the accused. The other dailies rushed to catch up with their own versions. Yet everyone involved in the case instantly and vehemently denied that any confession had been made. Heirens heard a radio report on it in his jail cell and, according to the Herald-American, "jumped to his feet and hysterically demanded a guard." When Warden Frank Sain arrived, Heirens protested, "Honestly, warden, I didn't kill any of those three people and I didn't confess to anyone!"

State's Attorney William Tuohy also absolutely denied the existence of a confession, and Heirens's attorneys, John Coghlan and his brother Malachy, expressed similar shock at the report. "Someone is doing a lot of very dangerous presuming," said Malachy. "Heirens has not said a word admitting anything of the kind."

Though understandably puzzled, the public retained its confidence in the Tribune, especially when, three weeks later, William Heirens did confess to the Degnan, Brown, and Ross killings. His account was strikingly close to that released by the newspapers. The Tribune had said he was guilty, and it seemed even Heirens believed the Tribune.

Why would a man have confessed if he was not guilty? The question might be better phrased: why would a psychologically disturbed, highly impressionable 17-year-old kid who was scared out of his wits have confessed if he was not guilty? One very possible answer is that with unremitting pressure to confess from every conceivable authority figure, including his parents, and with a lynch-mob atmosphere building in the world outside, he might very well do it to save his life.

Almost from the time of his arrest, Heirens's defense attorneys, John Coghlan in particular, entered into a strange, unprecedented cooperative relationship with State's Attorney Tuohy. Heirens's lawyers were uncertain whether he had committed any murders; long after Heirens's confession Coghlan said, "There exists in my mind many doubts as to this defendant's mental capacity for crime." But Coghlan and his associates apparently felt Heirens was guilty and feared he would be sentenced to the electric chair if his case ever came to trial. Their major task, as they saw it, was to save the young man's life.

Tuohy was not nearly so certain he could get a conviction, much less a death sentence, given the quality of the evidence. As Tuohy explained after Heirens's confession, "The small likelihood of a successful murder prosecution of William Heirens early prompted the state's attorney's office to seek out and obtain the cooperative help of defense counsel, and through them, that of their client. All the prosecution had in the Degnan case was a partial fingerprint on the ransom note. . . . And it was at this stage of the investigation that defense counsel moved forward in cooperation with my office."

Coghlan did not view this symbiotic relationship as unethical or in any way prejudicial to his client's interests. On the contrary, when he later explained to the sentencing judge, Harold Ward, how he had shared every scrap of information and all his plans with Tuohy, he suggested his actions might be "a precedent to defense attorneys in the future to follow a like course."

Heirens's lawyers told him that there were enough provable burglary indictments against him that "his time was all used up as far as punishment was concerned," that he would have little chance to beat the death penalty with all the clamor, and that if he could get an agreement to save his life, it would be advisable to do so.

Coghlan and Tuohy conferred, and a mutually acceptable plea-bargain arrangement was worked out. If Heirens would confess to the murders of Degnan, Brown, and Ross (though there was no evidence linking him to the Ross murder), Tuohy would seek concurrent life sentences--and Heirens could be eligible for parole in 20 years if he behaved himself. Heirens's parents begged their son to accept the deal. He said he would think about it, still insisting on his innocence.

The precise details of what Heirens would say in the plea bargain were gradually worked out with Tuohy and Coghlan, and a detailed scenario for each crime was developed. Still, Heirens balked at making any such confession official. He kept saying he did not commit the crimes.

But the dam broke on July 16 when the Tribune and its competitors printed the "HEIRENS STORY" as absolute fact. Who leaked the proposed confession to the press has never been disclosed, but the revelation had an immediate effect. When Coghlan approached Heirens the next day, Heirens said that he would accept the plea bargain, that he saw no other choice.

On July 30 Heirens was taken to the state's attorney's office for a formal in-person admission of guilt, as required by the plea-bargain agreement. And in a rash moment, he made a mistake of judgment for which he has had to pay dearly. Sitting around the table were Judge Ward, Tuohy and his top staff, and Coghlan and his associates. Tuohy made a little speech expressing relief at this satisfactory resolution. Tuohy and his first assistant, Wilbert Crowley, then turned to Heirens and urged him to speak the truth. As Heirens later remembered it, their words stung him: if they sincerely wanted the truth in this official setting, he had no choice but to speak it. Did he kill Suzanne Degnan and the women? he was asked. With a firm voice he answered that he had no recollection of killing anyone at any time.

A hush came over the assembly. Red-faced attorneys conferred, and Heirens was hustled into an adjoining room. His parents appeared, pleading with him to go through with the agreed-on statement, saying that he was ruining everything. "I don't remember killing anyone," he said.

He was quickly returned to his isolation cell at the county jail. A grim Coghlan visited him the next day and told him the penalty for his recantation would be severe. Instead of serving the three life sentences concurrently, Tuohy was now demanding that they be served consecutively. Hence, Heirens could abandon any hope of parole in a mere 20 years. As Coghlan later recalled the meeting, "I told him that I was provoked, and he had no right to embarrass me, that he could follow whatever course he wished but I insisted that I know what was going on." In no uncertain terms Coghlan expressed his view that the electric chair stood as the consequence to further balking at the plea-bargain offer.

Said Heirens, "If there isn't anything else to do, let's do it."

And at last he did. On August 6 he formally acknowledged his part in the killings, then appeared in court before Judge Ward on September 4 for sentencing. Tuohy gratefully acknowledged the "cooperation and assistance of defense counsel who found it possible to aid in a final just determination of this entire matter." He also noted that the evidence amassed against Heirens might have proved meaningless in a trial because so much of it was shaky or illegally obtained. Without the defense's aid, he noted, "we would have no answer for the death of Josephine Ross," and "sincere doubt would remain as to Heirens's guilt in the other murders."

Coghlan then told the court he felt at the outset "a duty to the accused and him alone," but when he was convinced that the state had a prima facie case, he felt a "public duty" to cooperate with Tuohy for "just punishment."

Coghlan told the judge he had "nothing in mitigation to offer" as cause for lessening or altering the proposed sentence, since the accused had confessed freely, and three court-appointed psychiatrists had found him sane. The psychiatrists' report conceded that Heirens was "unstable and hysterically unpredictable, and most of his actions can be swayed from time to time by the suggestions coming from his environment." Nevertheless, they concluded, "He is not suffering from any psychosis. . . . He rightly comprehends his own position in regard to these procedures and has sufficient mind to conduct his defense in a rational and reasonable manner."

What Coghlan did not know at that time was that Dr. Roy Grinker, the psychiatrist who had administered the truth serum to Heirens, had filed a contradictory report two months before. He concluded that Heirens was "a mentally sick boy," that he was "a disassociated psychotic schizophrenic, a mental disease characterized by a splitting of personality in which very frequently one aspect of the personality may not be in communication with the other." Had that report been available, Coghlan would have had every reason to plead insanity for his client. But Tuohy had chosen not to share that piece of information, and its existence was not even made known until a hearing in 1952. The much heralded "cooperation" between defense and prosecution had clearly been something of a one-way street.

Heirens declined an offer to take the stand and testify under oath. Then Judge Ward imposed the three consecutive life terms. That night William Heirens tried to hang himself in his cell. He was revived by the jail physician.

For 43 years Heirens has proclaimed his innocence. He has challenged the legality of his prosecution in a series of lawsuits and appeals. Several appeals have been submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court, but have not been heard. Lower courts have readily admitted that his constitutional rights were trampled on in numerous instances, that there was a peculiar "breach" of the attorney-client relationship, that the Grinker report should not have been withheld. The list of concessions is lengthy. But the bottom line, the courts have insisted, is that William Heirens was sane, knew what he was doing, and confessed freely.

This was the conclusion of the postconviction proceedings in 1952: "The court finds in particular that petitioner's counsel did not coerce him into confessing, re-enacting crimes of which he was not guilty, or into entering pleas of guilty. Furthermore, the record shows that he was warned by the court as to the consequences of his pleas and persisted in them. There is no question but that he was represented by counsel who were competent and experienced and did the very best they possibly could for him under the circumstances."

Such conclusions have not always been unanimous. When a three-judge federal panel denied an appeal in 1968, Judge Luther Swygert, who has since died, took vigorous exception in a dissent far longer and more detailed than the majority view of his two associates. Why, Swygert asked, wasn't Heirens's mental state more closely examined? Surely his chronic burglary escapades and the brutal murders charged against him should have raised substantial doubt about his criminal responsibility. And why, he wondered, was the Grinker report mysteriously withheld from the defense attorneys and the judge?

Declared Swygert, "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. The state's attorney and defense counsel usurped the judicial function, complying with a community scheme inspired by the press to convict the defendant without his day in court. The proceedings on Sept. 4, at which the defendant entered his pleas of guilty and was sentenced, was in reality a post-mortem of a prior public trial conducted by and in the press. Such a spectacle does little to inspire confidence in our judicial process."

The prison record of William Heirens is as mind-boggling as the circumstances of his prosecution and conviction--though in a very different way. It is a saga of achievement unmatched by anyone who has served a prison term in Illinois.

He became the first Illinois inmate to earn a four-year college degree while in prison (in 1972 from Lewis College), with an accumulation of more than 250 credits. He earned a certificate in electronics, mainly by educating himself using old, broken television sets at Stateville. He also taught dozens of other inmates the rudiments of TV repair. He managed the garment factory at Stateville for five years, overseeing the work of 350 inmates. He served as secretary to the superintendent of education at Stateville, organizing correspondence courses for convicts. He set up an entire educational program at Vienna and advised inmates on their educational and legal problems. He became a capable watercolor artist and calligrapher, directing art seminars for inmates. He founded a self-help group called Seven Steps at Vienna and organized a retreat program.

Many of those who have come into regular contact with him over the years report the same thing: he is sane, law abiding, considerate, and caring beyond the call of duty. Heirens's dossier with the Department of Corrections is filled with letters of recommendation. This is how one ex-con, Gene Lovitz, recalled him in a letter to Governor Thompson seeking clemency for Heirens: "It was he who introduced himself to me, said he was my neighbor. He helped me settle into the new environment, got me a fan and brought me to church. I have never met a more reasonable person. When I would get excited about my own case, it was Bill who would say, 'Why shout about it?' acting . . . as a calming influence on me."

On his retirement in 1974, Lewis Lence, an assistant superintendent who had spent 36 years with the Department of Corrections, also urged Heirens's release in a letter to Governor Dan Walker: "My recommendation is based on a unique characteristic of this man--his determination to improve himself. Long before a college education was made available to prison inmates, Bill Heirens took college level courses by correspondence from a dozen different universities, paying the costs out of his personal savings. . . . Bill Heirens has worked for his rehabilitation and he has achieved it."

Members of the parole board who have reviewed his case regularly conclude that if anyone in the state system is a reformed person, it is the aging man in Vienna. One member said Heirens had probably been fully rehabilitated in his first 10 or 15 years in prison. Many have praised his self-improvement effort and his work to make prison life more bearable. A psychological evaluation in 1982 said Heirens has been free of "mental defects for many years . . . and has clearly maximized any benefits that could be derived from an incarceration experience. . . . He is on the verge of becoming an old man, and if the state is not unofficially determined to keep him in prison until he dies a natural death, then he should be released while he has his health and some investment in productive living. He will soon get to the point where every year of additional incarceration may well lessen the chances of a successful reintegration."

For almost 19 years in the 1950s and 1960s it looked like Heirens was gradually working his way toward freedom--simply by serving out his sentence, acquiring credit for good behavior, and maintaining his mental and physical health. A predominant corrections goal in those days was rehabilitation: altering the criminal mind or at least neutralizing antisocial tendencies. In keeping with that spirit, Heirens was given an institutional parole for the Degnan murder in 1965, and in 1966 he was discharged on that case. He had served the requisite 20 years, kept his nose clean, and thus, according to the operative parole policies of the day, his first life sentence had been served. This did not free him, of course. It meant he could begin doing time on the second sentence. But the discharge also meant that he was considered rehabilitated by prison authorities, and the Degnan killing could no longer be cause for his continued confinement.

However, by the late 1960s, the public had begun to grow disillusioned with rehabilitation and "soft" judges and court decisions, such as the Escobedo and Miranda rulings, that seemed to favor the rights of criminals over those of victims. The champions of the get-tough-on-crime view--including Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and John Mitchell--helped swing the pendulum in the direction of punishment, retribution, and deterrence. That shift eventually produced innovations such as mandatory minimum sentences and class X felonies, which take discretion for sentencing largely out of the hands of judges.

Each time Heirens has come before the parole board--28 times so far--the answer is the same: request denied. The reason offered, when one is offered, is the seriousness of the offense or the general need to deter crime by being tough about paroles.

Based on the operative parole regulations of 1946, Heirens should have been discharged from the Brown murder in 1975, from the Ross murder in 1983, and from the other charges six months later. At least one parole-board member has confided that it's really the publicity surrounding the case that explains the board's resistance.

Heirens has continued his lawsuits. In 1983 he came extremely close to winning his freedom with a legal maneuver. He had engineered a lawsuit on behalf of another inmate, Gary Welsh, claiming that deterrence of crime could not be used as a reason for denying parole to someone convicted before 1973--the year Illinois procedures were stiffened and deterrence became a cause for denying parole. Welsh was convicted before 1973, yet he, like Heirens, had been refused parole on deterrence grounds. The Seventh District U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that it was unconstitutional to apply the deterrence norm retroactively and said Welsh could not be held for that reason. Heirens then quietly appealed for his own parole on the basis of the Welsh precedent. When state parole authorities ignored the request, Heirens approached the federal court in East Saint Louis, Illinois. Magistrate Gerald Cohn said, "The uncontradicted record indicates that Heirens has long been considered by the [parole] board to be completely rehabilitated." The board, he added, had not produced "even a shred of evidence to suggest concern on their part concerning Heirens' suitability as a parole risk." In view of the Welsh decision, Cohn ordered Illinois to release William Heirens immediately.

The response to the order was outrage. Betty Finn, the sister of Suzanne Degnan, and James Degnan, the slain girl's brother, came forth publicly and begged authorities to fight the ruling. "You have to take into consideration the absolute horror of the crime," Finn told the Chicago Tribune. "To allow somebody to come out would degrade it. . . . You cannot forget that somebody went in and murdered a sleeping 6-year-old child. I don't think somebody like that should have the privilege of living in society." The cry was taken up by political leaders such as Attorney General Neil Hartigan, who said, "Only God and Heirens know how many other women he murdered. Now a bleeding-heart do-gooder decides that Heirens is rehabilitated and should go free. . . . I'm going to make sure that kill-crazed animal stays where he is!"

The Illinois senate got into the act with a resolution: "Whereas, William Heirens . . . is the confessed murderer of Suzanne Degnan, a 6-year-old girl whom he strangled in 1946. . . . Resolved by the Senate of the 83rd General Assembly . . . that it is the opinion of the chamber that the release of William Heirens at this time would be detrimental to the best interests of the people of the state." The legislators, like Betty Finn, chose to ignore the fact that Heirens had been legally discharged from the term of that murder some 17 years before.

The prospect of his release in 1983 also got national publicity. The sensationalistic tabloid Globe screamed, "A bleeding-heart federal judge has ordered the release of a perverted sex fiend who once went on a rampage in Chicago--butchering innocent women."

Illinois authorities soon remedied the problem. With Hartigan, Daley, and other prominent politicians in support, the Department of Corrections approached the federal court and asked it to review the Welsh decision, which until then had gone uncontested. The court did--and promptly reversed itself, deciding that although deterrence might not have been in the old parole regulations explicitly, it was there implicitly. The court almost seemed to be saying that when it originally ruled on the matter, it had no idea the decision could be applied to Heirens.

Since 1983 Heirens has continued to seek his freedom on several fronts. But while he used to be able to apply for parole almost every year, new parole regulations allow him to apply only every three years. A move is afoot to limit applications to once every ten years. Whenever anything on his case hits the news Betty Finn, who was 16 years old at the time of her sister's murder, and James Degnan, who had not been born, appear and recall for newsmen the horrors of 1946. After the Tribune's Paul Galloway wrote about the case last March, the paper received a large volume of mail, some supportive of Heirens but much of it shrill in its condemnation. "I was 16 when the murder of Suzanne Degnan took place and I remember the gruesome details even to this day," wrote one woman. "There can never be any forgiveness for the brutal murder and mutilation of Suzanne Degnan."

Why such fierce animosity given Heirens's undeniable achievements? For some, it may be that formal letter from the prosecutors and trial judge saying he should spend the balance of his life in prison. But that letter has no binding power on the parole board, and many for whom similar letters have been written at sentencing are now walking the streets. Or perhaps it's the fact that even now he denies killing Degnan, Brown, Ross, or anyone else. And isn't confession of sin a basic requirement for forgiveness, a first step on any road to rehabilitation? Even his supporters admit his insistence on his innocence is a barrier to changing public perception. However, parole regulations do not consider an admission of guilt a prerequisite for granting freedom. Board members are not supposed to even consider that in rendering their decisions. What is required is that the terms of the sentence have been reasonably fulfilled and that the convict has established that he can live as a law-abiding citizen.

Seated in a small conference room at the Vienna prison, William Heirens resembles nothing so much as a modest businessman nearing retirement age--a hardware-store owner perhaps--who is used to dealing with the public and trying to make complicated ideas intelligible to the nonexpert. His hair is very gray and he has a moderate paunch.

The Vienna prison, which houses some 750 inmates, is a minimum-security facility and has no fences and no bars on the windows. The complex of yellow-brick buildings amid sprawling green lawns looks like a suburban housing development. Each man has his own room, wears civilian clothes, and performs his own duties. Heirens is an assistant to the prison's Catholic chaplain. He works in the office every day, filing, typing, and designing posters, but he is forbidden by prison regulations to answer the phone. There is little tension at Vienna. Most convicts are sent there for minor violations or because they are nearing release time. In his 15 years there Heirens has seen thousands come and go.

He expresses neither anger nor disappointment about the circumstances of his life. He laughs once in a while about the irony of it all, but there's scarcely a hint of bitterness. He's more like a lawyer describing a client who's gotten himself into a peck of trouble, or a storekeeper chuckling about the ridiculous rise in prices. But beneath that there is granite determination.

Should he have resisted that plea-bargain offer in 1946 and opted to take his chances with a trial? "I've sure thought about that a lot," he says. "I guess I should have acted differently, shouldn't have buckled under. But you know, things happen that you think shouldn't. You can't change them, so you accept the challenge. You learn to work with what you've got."

When the Tribune prematurely published the confession scenario, he says, "I figured that was the last straw--the script had been written. I didn't see much of a choice."

His subsequent refusal to confess in the presence of the judge, he agrees, is one of those things that shouldn't have happened. "But when they told me to tell the truth, it got me mad. I thought if someone finally wants to hear the truth, I'll tell the truth. Of course, I should have known better."

After the sentence was pronounced, Heirens says he lapsed into a kind of depression of despair--"a nervous breakdown, I guess." He emerged from it slowly over many months. "For the first couple of years at Menard all I did was read novels--westerns like Zane Grey mostly--and play cards with the other prisoners." The stakes were not high--a few pennies or a book of matches--but it made the time pass. Then, says Heirens, he just decided to resist dead-end passivity. He began to think about continuing his education. He wrote to universities, inquiring about correspondence courses. The authorities didn't know what to make of it; no one had ever done that at Menard. He took his first course in 1952, earning an A in algebra from the University of Missouri. For most of the next 30 years, his record shows, Heirens plunged into education, studying subjects ranging from basic tailoring to Shakespeare and from data processing to abnormal psychology. The credits were earned from more than 20 universities, and his lowest grades were a handful of Cs (in German and insurance financing). His toughest course, he says, was analytical geometry.

A few of his written assignments were censored by the authorities without explanation, and he was forbidden to take courses in physics or chemistry, for fear he might use his new knowledge to construct explosives, or in celestial navigation, for fear he might map his way out of prison.

In the early days, says Heirens, correspondence courses cost only about $6 a semester hour. His mother, now 81, provided some of the money, a few friends sent donations, and he earned the rest with prison work. "I figured there's only so many hours in life, and if I didn't use them, then I've killed the time."

By trial and error he became a competent radio and television repairman and the sole instructor in the repair shop. Later he moved to the tailor shop at Stateville, where he handled the books, oversaw the workers, and sometimes earned the allowed maximum of $20 a week. "I was a pretty tough taskmaster," he laughs.

Meanwhile, he read all the law books he could find and even subscribed for a time to the U.S. Supreme Court Reporter. He still reads law books, and he insists he is not especially discouraged by the brick walls he keeps hitting. "I'm a religious man," he says. "When something comes--good or bad--I look very closely to see what it means. Things don't come by accident." And, he adds, he never puts all his hopes in one suit or one appeal. "That way when one thing doesn't pan out, you can switch to another."

He is greatly encouraged, he says, by the efforts of the Parole for Heirens Committee. "It's a help I haven't had before. Dolores Kennedy [the organizer] is as determined as I am."

Patiently, Heirens goes over the details of his legal actions, several of which are pending in the courts. But he says he is not incensed about what he regards as blatant injustice. "I'm a bad case. When my name comes up for consideration, the rules change, everything changes," he says. "I guess I blame the press the most. They're the ones that always provided the heat--from the beginning. But I don't hold grudges."

Asked whether, so many years after that terrible summer, he knows he did not kill anyone, or that as far as he can recall he did not kill anyone, he nods, acknowledging the significance of the distinction. He knows that if he just doesn't remember, the public might be inclined to regard him more benignly--as someone who was perhaps deeply mentally disturbed as a youth, whose illness wore off, and who has blanked the awful past from his mind. "All I can say," he says, "is that I've gone over all the events and traced everything. I've searched my mind. And it's just impossible that I did it. It's not possible."

Heirens is a man of indomitable willpower. That surely is one thing that has sustained him through the years. The judge and most of the lawyers and newsmen who tried to wear him down are dead now. He survives, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that nothing in this world will ever wear him down. "I'd like to be out of prison," he says. "I'd like to be free. I can't give up. If I gave up, then everything I've done would be meaningless."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kenneth C. Seeber.

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