I was 8 years old when this event erupted in the newspapers. Although it happened in Chicago, parents across the nation were scared to death for their children. Mama, my grandmother, was so graphic in warning me about this case that I was TERRIFIED in Tulsa to walk by a sewer grate. I was afraid there'd be child body parts in there. I was traumatized for years, to the extent that even today it gives me the heeby-jeebies to walk by an open sewer grate.
After the heat died down, I never heard another word about it until I ran across this article. Amazing.
The Heirens Case
This report was prepared by Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, and released in connection with a conference entitled "False Confessions and William Heirens" on March 7, 2002, at the law school.
In 1946, William Heirens, a 17-year-old University of Chicago student, confessed and pled guilty to three murders. Under a plea agreement prosecutors negotiated with his lawyers, he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison. Shortly after the sentencing, he disavowed the confessions, saying he had made them under duress only to save his life. Had he not confessed, he has maintained ever since, the consequence almost certainly would have been death in the electric chair.
The crimes to which Heirens confessed were among the most infamous of the Twentieth Century.
One was the murder of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan, who disappeared from her bed in the predawn hours of January 7, 1946, and was strangled to death, dismembered, and dumped into sewers near her home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.
Another was the murder, the previous month, of Frances Brown, a strikingly attractive young woman on whose bedroom wall was scrawled in lipstick, "For Heavens sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself."
Chicagoís five daily newspapers covered the case sensationally and irresponsibly " in the manner immortalized by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in "The Front Page." The result was a lynch-mob atmosphere in which the Chicago Police and the Cook County Stateís Attorneyís Office were under enormous pressure to solve the crime. It was an atmosphere devoid of the slightest semblance of justice or decorum.
The dismemberment of the Degnan childís body appeared to have been performed so skillfully that the authorities assumed the killer must either be a butcher or was a butcher. That assumption, however, did not stop the police from arresting, and torturing, a suspect who fit neither bill. Rather, he was the janitor of an apartment building near the Degnan home where the dismemberment occurred -- 65-year-old Hector Verburgh.
"This is the man," the police told reporters immediately after the arrest. For the next two days, according to Verburgh, the police tortured him relentlessly before grudgingly admitting they had made a mistake. "Oh, they hanged me up, they blindfolded me," Verburgh said after his release. "I canít put up my arms, they are sore. They had handcuffs on me for hours and hours. They threw me in the cell and blindfolded me. They handcuffed my hands behind my back and pulled me up on bars until my toes touched the floor. I no eat, I go to the hospital. Oh, I am so sick. Any more and I would have confessed to anything." For his pain, he settled a claim against the police for $20,000 -- a fortune in those days.
Undaunted by the Verburgh error, the newspapers, abetted by the authorities, continued the barrage of screaming black headlines and often-fabricated stories.
Shortly before Heirensís arrest, which occurred six months after the Degnan crime when a witness spotted him rummaging through a north side apartment, a convicted child molester confessed in Phoenix, Arizona, that he had killed Suzanne Degnan.
That man, Richard Thomas, had been in Chicago at the time of the crime. In fact, he had worked in the Degnan neighborhood. He was a male nurse known to have masqueraded as a surgeon. A Phoenix forensic specialist had noted that Thomasís handwriting closely resembled that on a ransom note found in the Degnan home. Thomas previously had been convicted of an attempted extortion -- with a ransom note that threatened the kidnaping of a little girl. At the time he confessed to the Degnan crime, he was awaiting sentencing for molesting one of his own children.
Chicago police flew to Phoenix to interview Thomas. By the time they finished talking to him, however, their superiors and Stateís Attorney William Tuohy had proclaimed publicly that they had the man who had killed Suzanne Degnan -- William Heirens.
Tuohy did not immediately accuse Heirens of either the "lipstick murder" of Frances Brown or the murder of Josephine Ross, the third woman he ultimately confessed to killing. But Chicago Police Chief Walter Storms accused Heirens of another murder, which it turned out he could not have committed; he had been in school in Terre Haute, Indiana, when it occurred.
Two days after Heirensís arrest, police announced that his fingerprint had been found on the Degmam ransom note. The day after that, June 29, 1946, Heirens was injected with sodium pentothal to -- in Stateís Attorney Tuohyís words -- "get the truth out of him." It apparently did not work because Tuohy never produced a transcript of the interview or disclosed the result. The next day, the media reported that an unidentified fingerprint in the Brown apartment was not Heirensís. Meanwhile, the relentless grilling continued. In all, Heirens was subjected to six days of interrogation without counsel. Yet he would not confess.
So desperate were the police to solve the Degnan crime that they enlisted the assistance of Chicago Daily News artist Frank San Hamel to enhance the writing on the Degnan ransom note. San Hamel soon reported to the police -- and his newspaper reported to the public -- that he had discovered "hidden indentation writing" purporting somehow to link Heirens to the note. Police Chief Storms was so excited by the "discovery" that he then turned the original note over to San Hamel -- breaking the chain of custody and rendering it useless in court.
A purported eyewitness also came forward, claiming to have seen Heirens fleeing the Degnan murder scene, and a so-called "bloody fingerprint" belatedly found on a doorjamb in the Brown apartment was said to be Heirensís. The witness proved to be a publicity-seeking fraud, but the veracity of the fingerprint was not questioned by defense lawyers, although their client continued to profess innocence.
His resolve weakened on July 16, 1946, when the Chicago Tribune published a front-page story by George Wright under a blaring headline, "The Heirens Story! How He Killed Suzanne Degnan and 2 Women." In an amazing breach of journalistic ethics, Wright quoted anonymous "unimpeachable sources" as saying that Heirens had confessed. The story contained many details, all of which had been fabricated by Wright or his sources. The phony story was rewritten, sometimes emblished with additional fabricated details, and published on the front pages of the other dailies.
Given the fingerprints and the poisoned media climate, Heirensís lawyers pressured him to abandon any thought of going to trial. They persuaded him to allow them to try to negotiate a plea agreement to save his life. Stateís Attorney Tuohy soon agreed that, if Heirens would confess and plead guilty, the state would agree to a sentence of three concurrent life terms.
After several days, at the behest of his lawyers and his parents, Heirens agreed. Tuohy arranged for the confession to be taken in his office on July 30. But when Heirens was taken to the office at the appointed time, he was confronted not only by police and prosecutors, but also by a bevy of reporters and photographers.
Tuohy told the assemblage that the truth finally would be told, but it would not happen. Heirens refused to confess. He was led into a room and pressured by his lawyers and parents to fulfil his end of the bargain, but he still refused. It was not until a week later, after continued pressure from his own lawyers and parents, and additional threats by prosecutors that his refusal would only guarantee a death sentence, that he finally relented.
There would be a price for the embarrassment of the previous week, however. Tuohy now insisted that the sentences run consecutively, and Heirens was sentenced accordingly.
One of the life terms -- the one he received for the Degnan murder -- was deemed discharged by the Illinois Pardon and Parole Board in 1966, but Heirens continues to be imprisoned for the Brown and Ross crimes.
Evidence discovered in recent years by a team led by Chicago attorney Jed Stone has cast serious doubt on the veracity of the confessions and, therefore, on Heirensís guilt in each of the murder cases. The evidence developed by the Stone team established that:
The "hidden indentation" writing allegedly uncovered by Chicago Daily News artist Frank San Hamel was a fraud and a hoax.
The handwriting on the Degnan ransom note was not Heirensís. In fact, several independent experts say it was Richard Thomasís.
The much-publicized lipstick message on the Brown wall was not in Heirensís writing and was not written by the same person who wrote the Degnan note.
The purported Heirens fingerprint originally said to have been on the "face" of the Degnan note later was said to have been on the back, and its existence is not confirmable.
The so-called "bloody fingerprint' found on a doorjamb in the Brown apartment appears to have been a "rolled" fingerprint like those seen on fingerprint cards at police stations -- and unlike those most often found at crime scenes.
Analysis of the confessions revealed 29 inconsistencies between the confessions and the known facts of the crimes -- a signature element in false confessions. Heirens was wrong about basic facts about the crimes, including locations, times, and related events.
Based on the questionable evidence of his guilt, and on Heirensís exemplary record in prison for nearly 56 years, the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Children and Family Justice Center -- clinical programs of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University School of Law -- represented Heirens in a 2002 request for clemency and are currently representing him in efforts to win parole.
For the complete study of the Heirens case, see "William Heirens: His Day in Court," by Dolores Kennedy, published in 1991 by Bonus Books.
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William Heirens has been in jail for almost 60 years for a crime he swears he did not commit. Some people want him to get out of jail. My word, he's an old man now. What harm could he do? Let him out is my opinion. Just keep him away from open sewer grates. ;0)
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In the 56 years that have lapsed since police and prosecutors elicited the sensational -- but dubious -- confession of 17-year-old William Heirens to three highly publicized murders on the north side of Chicago, there have been 45 documented wrongful convictions in Illinois murder cases.
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As of Apr 12, 2005, the guy was still alive and still in jail. He's almost 80 years old. What's he gonna do - kill ya with his cane? Let him have a couple days freedom. He'll be dead soon, anyway.
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