Monday, March 05, 2012

William Heirens, is Near Death Today in a Chicago Hospice

Chicago, IL—Most of my readers know that I hate the death penalty and consider the American criminal justice system deeply flawed. Either the innocent are convicted or dangerous criminals are given freedom far too early endangering society. My personal quote is, “If justice happens it’s usually by accident and for all the wrong reasons.

A single mother, who was most of the time only one step ahead of the Sheriff’s eviction team, raised me on Chicago’s North side. Just two years before I was born there were three ugly murders. My mother warned me about strangers and a man named William Heirens. Heirens was the proverbial boogyman.

Two adult women Josephine Ross, Frances Brown and six year-old Suzanne Degnan, were murdered. The Degnan killing was unusually depraved because she was cut up and her body parts dumped in various catch basins in the neighborhood.

William Heirens confessed to these crimes and entered a Guilty Plea in court avoiding Cook County Jail’s busy electric chair. The way that happened is shameful in a civilized nation that claims to be fair and just.

There were also incredible similarities between the Degnan murder and the Lindberg kidnapping murder decades earlier. A ladder was found leading up to her window at her North Kenmore avenue apartment and police found a poorly drafted ransom note.

William Heirens was a juvenile serial burglar. He was also a genius who went from a Catholic reform school to the prestigious University of Chicago. He became one of many suspects.

Three men were hauled in for the Degnan murder in series of dreadful arrests. A janitor, Hector Verburgh, 65 was arrested, beaten until he confessed, smeared in the press as a deranged killer and soon released when it was learned he was unable to write English. He sued the cops and was awarded a money judgment.

Sidney Sherman was a recently discharged WWII marine living in the South side Hyde Park YMCA, who became the next subject of a nationwide dragnet for the Degnan murder. He was hauled in, took and passed a polygraph test and had an alibi. They released Sherman.

William Heirens, was soon bagged by the cops, beaten and forced to confess to the Degnan murder. The incredible film noir photographs of Heirens above speak for themselves. Over the years Chicago cops gained a reputation of being proficient medieval torturers who could get anyone to confess to anything.

Heirens was subjected to the unprecedented forced administration of the drug sodium pentathol and interrogated under its influence. The drug was debunked as a “truth serum” many decades ago. Police also compelled Heirens to recreate the crimes for press photographers.

At the apartment of Frances Brown there was a bloody fingerprint left behind that was the subject of mixed opinions as to being left by Heirens. He was excluded initially and later implicated by latent print examiners. The Brown apartment was also where that infamous message written in Brown’s lipstick, presumably by the killer, “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself.” The media used that passage to call Heirens, The Lipstick Killer.

There was yet another confession however there was no beating or coercion involved. That came from a convicted child molester, Richard Russell Thomas. Thomas was a Chicago musician, nurse and a song-writer who was in custody of the Phoenix, Arizona police for an unrelated crime. Thomas freely confessed to the Degnan murder and it was learned he was a regular at a used car lot very close to Degnan’s home at the time of the murder.

About fifteen years ago ABC World News Tonight asked me to track Thomas down if I could for a story they were doing about Heirens. I soon leaned that Thomas had passed away in Austin, Texas. I located living family members that confirmed the confession and were actually convinced Thomas, not Heirens killed the little girl.

On an interesting side note, Thomas’ family members told me that he wrote the song that became a hit record for Les Paul and Mary Ford called, Vaya Con Dios My Darling. Thomas sold the song to the person now credited for its origin.

At the time of the ABC News request, the renowned death penalty lawyer, Jed Stone, represented Heirens. I called Stone who was very busy working on clemency for Heirens for information for our story. Later I found myself blessed to be working as Stone’s investigator on important cases and today we are good friends.

I learned that Heirens was recently given a medical furlough from the Dixon Correctional Center medium security prison in Dixon, Illinois. I know he was blind, in a wheelchair suffering from diabetes. Today Heirens 83 years-old and has served more time in prison that any other inmate in Illinois to date.

I contacted Stone who sadly told me that Heirens was sent to the hospice, is receiving a morphine drip and is not expected to survive the week. Stone gave me the following statement:

“Bill Heirens has spent over six decades behind bars for crimes he did not commit. And yet it cannot be said that Bill's life was wasted. He earned a college degree and learned to paint. He worked within the prison walls and earned the respect of wardens and guards, chaplains and inmates.

Bill became skilled as a prison lawyer and has written more winning briefs than most lawyers I know. At his 1995 clemency hearing the audience contained many men, once prisoners, now free, there to express gratitude for Bill Heirens.

As a boy growing up on Chicago's North side, I was told that Bill Heirens was the boogieman. Many years later when I became Bill's lawyer, he became my friend. We have exchanged birthday and holiday cards. One of his watercolors hangs prominently in my office library. I am saddened by the thought that I could not win his freedom.”

Update, I woke up to the news that William Heirens died hours after I posted this article. He died at Chicago’s UIC medical center. This morning he is at the Cook County Morgue. I suspect that there will be a memorial service of some type and we will all learn about positive contributions to society by this man. Heirens was 83.

That watercolor Painting:

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Anonymous said...

This guy was a burglar and that made him a target.

Anonymous said...

The Heirens case has always been troubling had he not pled guilty he's have been fried alive in the electric chair.

Anonymous said...

as a young Guard at Stateville in the 70's, I had conversations with Willie Heirens a few times. He was one of the prison Locksmiths at the time, worked on repairing cellhouse doors, etc. My impression was that he was Not Guilty of the murders he was incarcerated for. Shoddy investigative work and political heat from the old time, corrupt Chicago Police Brass, made him the killer, not Evidence beyond a Reasonable Doubt. This case had more holes in it than a block of Swiss Cheese.
RIP Willie, you are finally a free man..

Anonymous said...

That he was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt was true then and it is even more true today. Yes, it is true that there is doubt--perhaps even reasonable doubt--that he was innocent, but then that is not the standard of justice, is it?

Ed Skinner said...

Nice article, Paul. It both increases my unease over our "justice" system and simultaneously raises my interest in the man. I marvel at how he adapted his life to the forced situation. I am both inspired and terrified.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see the outcome of a modern day investigation into the Degnan homicide. The old time Chicago PD investigations may have had a much higher clearance rate than today, but I can only imagine the number of innocent people who lost their freedom just to close a case.

Anonymous said...

I wish that he had written a book.If he was falsely imprisoned God Bless him for the horror he had to endure, this is worse than Communist China!

AuthorLaurence said...

This was a convoluted case from the time he as arrested on a petty burglary attempt. The aspects of the crimes he was supposed to have committed didn't match his persona at all. He had turned his life around as a student at the U of C and just resorted to old habits of petty crimes to have a social life for himself. He was never going to be paroled as the establishment and courts were going to be exposed if he ever got out and was able to tell his story of what really happened. At least he made the best of getting a raw deal by starting a new life in prison where he could fill his time up with things that kept the authorities and other inmates from harassing him or even killing him. Homo J.Edgar Hoover probably helped create evidence needed to frame him. Sure is funny how Richard Thomas confessed to the murders but the authorities chose not to believe him which would have proved embarrassing for them.